azzedine alaïa

azzedine alaïa ph. karim sadli

‘They could put me in prison, but I’d still feel as free as if I were outside.’
Azzedine Alaïa is the only man in fashion who continues to do it his way.


In the current era of fashion and commerce, Azzedine Alaïa’s status outside the system has never seemed so attractive. He owns his own name, he doesn’t advertise, he debuts his collections privately at his Paris quarters whenever he wants and yet still maintains the discreet support of the luxury holding group Richemont. The designer who has determined his own creative existence is fashion’s only homme révolté: a slave to nothing except his own artistic impulses. All that’s not to say he isn’t hardworking, but that in spite of possessing a level of freedom unheard of for designers of this era, he decides to confine himself in his combined atelier/apartment, where he works tirelessly day and night. In resistance to an industry characterized by it’s ephemeral nature, Alaïa approaches his craft with the ‘all or nothing’ austerity of a true artist, driven to inhabit a constant state of pure creation, to continually immortalise his own vision as well as preserve the legacy of the old-world couturiers who came before him.
Wherever his clothes are stocked, they practically walk out of stores, price tags of up to $15,000 notwithstanding. His customers are loyal – it is said that an Alaïa woman knows that she needs him at every stage in her life, and indeed one steady customer is legendary 1950s haute couture model Bettina Graziani, now 87. According to long-time client Mathilde de Rothschild, Alaïa has the most intimate relationship of any designer with the three-dimensional reality of being a woman: ‘Thanks to his dresses a lady already has 50 per cent of her work done for her, whether her aim is to do business or to seduce a man.’
The to-go choice for the world’s supermodels, who are happy to walk for Alaïa in exchange for an outfit, he has had the death knell sounded on his career more than once. But the man responsible for getting women into leggings, tight black dresses, studded leather and bodycon maternity clothes is still standing, and is stronger than ever.

I don’t think there could be a better way to start this interview than by asking about your childhood. Could you tell us some of your most vivid memories from your early years in Tunisia?

I was brought up by my grandparents [in Tunis]. My grandfather was a police officer and worked in the passport and ID card department. From the age of 10, on the days I didn’t have to go to school, he would take me to work with him, and I’d spend the day sitting next to Mademoiselle Angèle, the girl who made the ID cards. She’d always ask for three photographs: the first would be stapled to the file, the second went onto the card itself, and the last would be thrown away if everything worked out okay with the other two. In order for the photo, which was quite thick, to fit nicely into the identity card, you had to delicately cut the film off the back using a Stanley knife. She taught me how to do this, and I was very careful not to make any holes. I’d have a box between my legs, and I’d slip the spare photos in it. At the end of the day, Mademoiselle Angèle would give me an envelope, so I could take them away. At home I’d lay them all out in front me, and then I’d start classifying them.

Brilliant! It’s almost Oulipian.

I’d spend hours classifying, un-classifying, re-classifying… so much so that I thought I knew everyone in the neighbourhood. When I’d see them in the street, I’d rush over to say hello, but at the last minute say to myself, ‘Hold on, you only know them because of the photo.’ I was particularly mad about the photos of the Italian women. They had hairstyles like Sophia Loren. They were so beautiful.

Does this archive still exist?

There might be some photos somewhere, but not many because I left them behind in Tunisia 40 years ago.

This fascinating story links to another memory from your childhood, one that I believe relates to cinema.

Yes, exactly. Sometimes my grandfather would take me to the ID card department; other times he’d drop me off at the Ciné-soir cinema where I’d spend the whole day. I’d even stay for the late-night showing because when my grandfather came out of work, he’d play cards at the café next door with the cinema owner. I remember the women who particularly fascinated me: Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, Rita Hayworth… I knew the films off by heart, including the songs and dance routines.

So you were already fascinated by movement.

At the cinema and in daily life too. My sister was at the Sisters of Sion College. When I’d go there with her, one of the nuns would give me a little pat on the shoulder, and I felt as if I’d been touched by grace. The nuns still wore cornettes back then, and I thought they were so beautiful because they had such white skin when everyone else was tanned. I’d walk behind them in the street to watch their brown ankles and feet, which contrasted so much with their faces. And I thought the movement of their robes with their swinging crosses was lovely…

Do you think that’s where your desire to create dresses came from?

Undoubtedly. I even made a wedding dress inspired by the nuns.

Who were the first female figures to really make an impression on you?

There was a woman married to a cousin on my grandmother’s side. She was a dancer. Her mother was American and her father Tunisian. I was so proud whenever I walked around town with her! People would clap. She was a real star. She had a draped red frock coat with a black astrakhan collar and sleeves. Another woman who meant a huge amount to me was Madame Pinot, the midwife who delivered me. I’d go to her house at the weekend. There was a huge bronze Christ above the bed in the room where I’d sleep. At night I’d pray, ‘Jesus, please don’t fall on me!’ On Sundays I would go to mass with Madame Pinot, and I’d pray with her, exactly as you were meant to. It was her who got me into the local Fine Arts School, even though I wasn’t yet 16. She went to see the professor and said, ‘Listen, it was me who brought him into this world. I can assure you that he is 16 years old.’ And that’s how I got in.

You studied sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tunis. And when I saw your exhibition at the Groninger Museum last year, I couldn’t help but think to myself, ‘This really is sculpture!’

That must be because of my studies.

Who were your heroes at that time?

My first heroes were painters. During the births, Madame Pinot would ask me to heat up the water, and then I’d draw while helping out with delivering the babies. She gave me books about the major painters, and I would copy the pictures. The one I most admired was Velasquez. At the same time we were being taught the history of France, and I was fascinated by Versailles and the history of the kings. Madame de Pompadour was my favourite. One day at art school, the professor took us to the sculpture room to teach us how to sculpt. He asked us to choose an element or a sculpture to copy. I instantly spotted a bust of Madame de Pompadour with her curls and cleavage. I settled down in front of it, and when the professor came over he said, ‘You’re going to attempt that?!’ He was very curious to see the result. I’ve been devoted to Madame de Pompadour ever since. When I bought my place in Paris, I did some research on the building’s origins, and guess what: in the 18th century this hôtel particulier belonged to the Bishop of Beauvais who rented it to Madame de Pompadour’s father. She even lived here as a child. And that’s how I ended up in the house of this woman I loved! When people say that I’m the owner, I answer that I’m only passing through. I’m not particularly fond of the word ‘owner’.

It’s interesting to hear about these different women and their importance in your life. Were there others when you first arrived in Paris?

I owe a great deal to Madame Zehrfuss, the wife of the architect Bernard Zehrfuss. They socialised a lot, and I met many people at their house: Prouvé, Calder, Tamayo, César… all the artists and architects of that era. So many people would frequent that salon. Meeting Louise de Vilmorin was also very significant to me.
And she too held court in her own salon, I believe.
Yes, I was always invited to lunch on Sundays, the day she kept exclusively for family and close friends. There I’d meet up with her brother André, her sister-in-law Andrée, René Clair…

And even Cocteau.

I saw Cocteau towards the end of his life, at a dinner party. In the evening, the dinners were more open. Malraux would often come, as well as Orson Welles, who I met several times, and Anthony Perkins. Actresses, poets – everyone who was anyone at that time passed through her salon. And sometimes there’d be a waiter or someone else she’d thought was fun and had invited over.

It’s funny because we’re doing this interview in the kitchen of your home and studio which I’ve heard so much about, and it’s sort of like a salon.

That’s the spirit of this room because lots of people pass through, but they don’t stay. I like that idea. Every morning I open my eyes, and I’m happy. I wonder what I am going to learn today and who I am going to meet. And today it’s you!

That’s wonderful.

I’m lucky because my work allows me to meet so many different people. I’ve spent evenings where queens and princesses have been rubbing shoulders with the atelier seamstresses. Everyone mixing together.

That’s certainly the spirit of the French salon. What else did you learn from Louise de Vilmorin?

French chic, elegance, allure and savoir-vivre… there were many things to learn, and intellectually it was marvellous. She would pick up a book and read it to me when we’d go off travelling together.

Meeting Garbo was also an important moment in your career.

Garbo came to my place for the first time in the 1970s with Cécile de Rothschild. Our first ever encounter was certainly a film-worthy coincidence. I’d just been to La Pagode cinema on the rue de Babylone where I’d seen that film which ends with a close-up of her made-up face beneath the brim of a hat. She wore flat shoes and radiated something very modern. It was a different woman altogether. I was captivated by that image. I went back to rue de Bellechasse where I had an appointment with Cécile de Rothschild for a coat fitting. The shop assistant came up to me and said, ‘Monsieur Alaïa, Madame Garbo is here.’ And as I’d only just seen the film I answered, ‘Come on, are you kidding me?’ I went into the salon, and there was Garbo, sitting there in a big roll-neck with the sleeves pulled right down so you couldn’t see her hands. I looked at her eyes, her nose, her eyelids… Amazing. She really was absolutely stunning. Cécile de Rothschild said to her, ‘I don’t need to introduce Monsieur Alaïa’. And I answered, ‘Mademoiselle, it’s not necessary’. We didn’t need introductions. Garbo was charming: sitting there, looking around and not saying a word. She asked me to make her a large overcoat, even though it was the Courrèges period and coats were worn small then. I’ve kept the model. She wanted it to be really big, like a military coat, and in blue. It wasn’t at all fashionable, but when I saw it on her, I knew she’d been right. She had her own style. I made her jersey sweaters, fitted straight trousers, flat shoes and three big overcoats.

She knew what she wanted.

A fashion designer should be surrounded by women. They are the ones who guide his eye. In the street I look at women from behind. That’s why the photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino claims I only look at women’s asses!

So you’ve been influenced by a lot of women. But could you say exactly when your career started? With artists, it comes down to knowing where to start a catalogue raisonné. Given that you worked throughout your adolescence, I’m very curious to find out when you consider your catalogue raisonné began. Which was the first dress that wasn’t a study, but an invention, an actual work?

That’s a very difficult question. I’ve never seen my dresses as works as such. Up until the 1980s, I only ever made dresses for my clients. Then came the inventions such as the studded dress. There was also a studded coat.

Where did the idea of studs come from?

We have a machine to make the eyelets in belts, and I was using it on a piece of fabric to test its resistance. I found it gave the fabric a nice drop and made it move well. I made that dress for a client, Madame Moreira Salles, the mother of the film producer Walter. Then she found the dress too hard to wear with the studding. So we made her a sheath dress instead. But the dress stayed, and I ended up keeping it.

Using studs was one of your inventions.

Yes, like the darted costumes that I created for the Crazy Horse in the 1970s. It has to be put into the context of being suitable for a show like that; it’s very different to the theatre or cinema. It was stage clothing in which the girls moved and which had to be taken off quickly. I remember making a skirt like that for an Asian girl who wasn’t particularly beautiful or tall. Alain Bernardin [the original owner of the Crazy Horse] took me along to the fitting. I thought she was a secretary and not a dancer at all, when in fact she was a brilliant dancer. I’ve rarely seen such a body. You had to imagine her without a head or legs. Bernardin put her in a sort of frame on the stage with the lights focusing on her body. You couldn’t see her head or her legs, only her hands. Bernardin kept telling me that the derrière was always more important than the bust in the show. And so I made the skirt accordingly. When she did her act, she’d whip it off.

Perhaps that’s one of the keys to the question I asked you about your first work, which actually comes from the world of art. You seem to have moments of invention like that.

In the same vein, there were also the bandage dresses from 1985 onwards. They were seen at the French fashion ‘Oscars’. I wound and wound and wound the bandages… Then there was Elle Macpherson’s wedding dress.

Where did the idea come from?

Mummies! I had lots of books on Egypt, Egyptian art…

You can clearly see from many of your sketches that it comes from mummies. I’ve never made this connection with the mummies before, but now I know it, that’s all I can see! And where did your famous zip dress come from?

It comes from an image that’s always stuck in my mind of Arletty in Hôtel du Nord. I was totally struck by that image. Charles James had also made a zip dress. I was thinking about it again recently. It all depends on how you do the zip. Schiaparelli also tried. It was very modern for the time, very strong.

Could you tell me more about Arletty?

One day I went to see Hôtel du Nord at the Théâtre Le Ranelagh, which was showing it as part of a Marcel Carné season. I came out totally blown away by Arletty’s voice and style. In the film she’s so modern, and she has this tone of voice you don’t hear in any other country, it sounds really French. Like Bardot… For me France is the voices of these women.

Like that of Jeanne Moreau, whose voice I know well because of this funny episode I experienced with her. For the past two and a half years, I have been trying to set up an interview with her. A friend gave me Jeanne Moreau’s mobile number, and ever since we have a chat every four or five weeks. Every time we make an appointment, she always has a contretemps. Literally every time. Each time she tells me the story behind the contretemps. We’ve probably spoken 150 times already! I know her voice very well, even though the actual meeting has never taken place.

Her voice really has something very French about it. I get the impression we don’t hear such voices anymore today. Everyone has the same tone and the same language. Funnily enough the last time I went to New York, I noticed that the American ladies had a certain freedom and sophistication in their voices.

When I interview Miuccia Prada and other designers today, they all admit that you’re their hero. You spoke of Velázquez earlier, but I was wondering if you had any particular heroes in the fashion world?

Yes, there are lots of them. Vionnet first of all, Balenciaga for sure, Dior, Schiaparelli, Madame Grès… and Gabrielle Chanel’s character has always fascinated me. There was also Adrian of course, who made the link between fashion and cinema, and then Andrée Putman in the world of design.

Collaborating with other artists was very important to Schiaparelli. Is it as important to you?

Thinking back to Schiaparelli’s work with Dalí, who worked with her for a long time, and also Cocteau, it’s true that surrealism did influence her. In my opinion when you work with an artist you no longer think about the dress as something to wear. It’s an altogether different way of creating. For example, I always make dresses longer when they are going to be exhibited. In fact I’m currently re-doing lots of clothes especially for exhibitions. They become longer and leaner.

Can you explain a bit more?

It’s all about the dream. Everyone wants to be tall and thin. It’s like sculptures, which are always bigger than reality.

Like the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre, which is huge. This is the perfect time to talk about your exhibitions. The first time I saw one of your dresses was in Florence, at your exhibition with Julian Schnabel during Florence’s Biennale della Moda in 1996. Is Julian Schnabel the artist with whom you’ve most collaborated?

Yes, and he did the furniture for the boutique: rails, tables… And then there was also the exhibition of works on Tati canvases, canvases I used again for a special Tati collection – the first collaboration of its kind – with a large bag, a T-shirt, espadrilles and also the printed jeans for my collection.

The exhibition at the Groninger Museum in 2012 was in three parts. Was the idea of a trilogy there from the start?

No, it was an idea that came later. [Flicking through the exhibition catalogue] There, you see, I did an African themed collection for summer 1982.

You told me earlier about your trip with Peter Beard to Africa, is there any link here?

No. I can you show what was made especially for Africa. There were only two or three things. A coat that was like the Masai coats in fabric. Then the magazine Elle sent us to do photos in Kenya and we stayed for 10 days in a Masai village. It was an unforgettable experience.

At the first exhibition in 1991, there were several rooms, always with a painter and you.

Yes, that was done twice. The idea came from a fashion show which took place at the CAPC [the Centre d’arts plastiques contemporains] in Bordeaux in 1985, thanks to Jean-Louis Froment who was the director of the museum. There was a Dan Flavin exhibition on there. The girls walked around the neon lights of the exhibition. There were several clothes from different collections. It was a real fashion show event with girls brought in especially from New York, London…

It’s interesting to think about the idea of exhibitions because we’re here in your house which in some ways constitutes your archive because it contains everything, but it is also a workplace where you prepare your exhibitions.

It’s true that everything for the exhibitions is prepared here in advance. The mannequins are very special; they are made from cut-out plastic. I put the dress on the mannequin then I draw the lines in such a way that only the dress remains visible after the cutting. Now others are starting to do this too.

Let’s talk a bit more about this extraordinary venue where we are… We’re in the kitchen, but this morning I also visited the workshops, and I saw an archive which I’d never seen before. It’s an archive made up of boxes full of clothes you’ve created, but also pieces by other designers that you collect…

I would actually like to organise exhibitions here. I did hold one once during a sale. In fact a friend of mine, Françoise Auguet organised the sale of clothes from the Poiret collection. The family wanted to sell everything, everything that Madame had worn and that had enchanted all of Paris. It broke my heart. I admired her husband a lot and I think he ended up incredibly sad, having lost absolutely everything.

Why did it end so sadly?

Poiret was broke. At the end he had no more money, not even a bank account. Arletty told me how she’d organised a soirée with Louis Jouvet to raise some money to help him out. As soon as he got the money he went to a couture house and ordered 150 shirts, then on to a shoemaker to order a huge number of shoes. He said, ‘It’s because one needs two shirts a day and likewise for shoes. So now I am clothed for several years.’ Several designers were told about it, and so was the museum. But the latter didn’t want the collection, only two or three dresses, when in fact as a whole it had great historical importance. It’s a real shame they didn’t invest. So I offered my place to this friend as a base to choose the clothes, clean them and exhibit them. It represented a lot of money. I suggested inviting photographers to make sure there’d be some trace of it, more in fact than if the pieces had been shown in a room at [Parisian auction house] Drouot for a day and a half. In the end, the exhibition did take place. We discovered pieces of unimaginable quality, and there was even a catalogue. It was fantastic.

It was like a protest against forgetting.

Yes, just like with Balenciaga. The family sold everything to pay the house debts or something like that, and everything went for nothing. The history of fashion does sometimes disappear like that. A short while after the Poiret sale, my friend Françoise Steinbach came across the trousseau of a woman who’d been dressed by Schiaparelli. And it contained one of Cocteau’s jackets… We absolutely had to do another exhibition.

It’s a space that works as much as an archive office as an exhibition space.

Along with Didier [Krzentowski, Kreo gallery director], we invited Pierre Paulin for an exhibition here. On the evening of the installation Paulin came down for dinner and almost fainted: he was so shocked to see how many of his works we possessed. It was just before his death. All the museums, including the Mobilier National, began to get interested in him at that point.

I interviewed Paulin with Rem Koolhaas in Milan at the Salone del Mobile around that time. I thought it was marvellous that he’d been recognised again thanks to your exhibition. Didier told me this story about your exhibition with Paulin. On the night of the private view, Didier reportedly said that how happy Paulin must be, and Paulin replied, ‘It’s for my wife that I’m happy.’

It’s true, he lived in the countryside, and he didn’t want any contact with anyone. He was upset that people had forgotten him. He started to design furniture again for a project with me. We didn’t think he was going to die like that.

So the drawings he did for you correspond with unrealised projects?

Yes, and those drawings are at his wife’s house. He said something else to me about a big sofa he was re-doing: ‘It’s better now than it was originally, more manageable, more solid.’ We always think the original is best and that it has to be kept no matter what, but if the creator is still alive, it’s possible to do it differently. It’s the same with my dresses.

It’s the same with exhibitions… There’s something that we haven’t talked about yet but which I find fascinating, because I love insomnia, and it’s this 24-hours-a-day story, because I’m told you don’t sleep… very much.

I’ll have time to sleep later! It’s true that I don’t sleep much. In the evenings, I slow down from 7pm to 8pm. I drink a little vodka. When I’m on my own, I watch the news on the television, I snooze for a few minutes and when I open my eyes again, I feel as though I’ve had a really good sleep. After dinner I watch National Geographic programmes or documentaries about history or animals. And then I go back to work. By midnight I’m wide awake, and until 6am I don’t feel tired because I’m alone and calm. I prepare what needs to be done in the workshop; I leave parcels on everyone’s tables… It’s impossible to work during the day.

And in the morning, do you go back to sleep?

Not at all. But if I have to go somewhere by car, the moment I’m seated, even if the car hasn’t yet driven out of the gate, I’m already asleep.

How many hours a day do you sleep?

Five hours maximum a day. But I could sleep more. For example, this summer I was in Tunisia with no work obligations. I pushed the bed next to the window, and I could see the sea in the distance, the garden… and I said to myself, ‘What would I give to work like this!’ But I can’t do that here. Every morning between six and seven, I’m awake. Even on Saturdays and Sundays, I’m not alone.

The house is in a constant state of flux. That’s brilliant. Among all your creations, are there projects that have yet to be realised? Any dreams or utopias?

There are so many! There’s the foundation that will see the light of day. There are collaborations with certain artist friends that I’d like to devote more time to. Take care of them too, and boost their morale above all. There are so many things to do in life. Journeys too. I travel on my stool thanks to the Voyage TV channel. One day my friend Jean-Marcel Camard, who works in an auction house, came to see me before he left for Turkey and asked if he could bring anything back for me. I answered, ‘Oh yes, there’s an oil soap made in an old factory, it’s cut just like this… And go to the Palace of Dance on the Bosphorus, its architecture is beautiful.’ And I remembered another TV programme which was about the life of a taxi driver at the wheel of his impeccable chrome-and-blue Cadillac that people could hire. He was singing and showing the countryside to travellers. In the evenings, he took better care of his car than his wife and children. So I said to my friend, ‘See if you can find him.’ Just then someone else who was in the room and knows me well, looked at me amazed and said, ‘But you’ve never been to Turkey!’ I did go to Turkey later, and everything was exactly as I’d seen it on screen, except I didn’t get the close-ups.

That’s like Robert Wasler, the great Swiss writer from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, who wrote Parisian gazettes without ever having stepped foot in Paris. Or Joseph Cornell who wrote a wonderful story about his Grand Tour of Europe, which never actually took place. What an imagination…

I have an unrealised exhibition project on Adrian which is closely linked to the beginning of my collection. One day a New York journalist asked me which designers I was fond of, and at the time, in the 1980s, I didn’t really know any American designers. So I answered Charles James, Claire McCardell and Gilbert Adrian. Some time later a gentleman sent me a very long letter which said, ‘Sir, I have the biggest collection of Adrian’s work. I read what you said about Adrian in the newspaper. I am tired, and I would like to sell this collection. I think you are the only one who could understand it. I don’t want to sell it to just anyone, and I am prepared to give you a good price. If you come to New York, call me.’ I went to New York. I got to our boutique and asked the sales assistant Mark to call this gentleman who lived in Philadelphia. He invited me to his house. We arrived at a very ordinary building and found a gentleman who was unwell and living with his cats. You could sense it was the end of someone’s life – that was one of the things that shook me up most. There were piles of photographs, paintings, drawings, costumes and a cellar packed with clothes, maybe 700 pieces. He said to me, ‘I will give you a good price, and you can pay me when you want.’ I looked and saw outfits made for Garbo, Marlene, with their names sewn in, and I said to myself there was no way that all this could be dispersed. I don’t remember what the total price was, but I told him I would buy everything in several stages. He preferred knowing that it was all with me more than out on location. He’d even wanted to do a book and had been to see Adrian’s son in California. The son was a petrol pump attendant and didn’t want to know about either his mother or his father. So I bought the lot and stocked it in the cellar of the New York boutique, and every time someone came to Paris, I’d say, for example, ‘Naomi, bring me back a suitcase!’ So now I want to take care of that and do the book and the exhibition.

What a wonderful idea. One of my last questions is about something I’ve noticed comes up in all your interviews, and that’s your freedom.

That’s all I have.

So what is your secret to maintaining this freedom?

I have a lot of respect. I respect everything. I always say that I am free. The truth is that they could put me in prison, but I would still feel as free as if I were outside. Sometimes I can spend a month or two without ever leaving my place. I don’t have to, but I do it happily and in good conditions. I do what I want. I refuse to do things that I don’t want to.

So the secret is knowing how to say no.

I often say yes to projects, but if I can’t follow through, then that’s how it goes!

In art, architecture and fashion, there are also economic constraints which could hinder freedom. But you’ve understood how to keep your autonomy and you’ve never been dependent on another brand.

Even if people could ‘own’ me, they’d never be able to hold on to me. I let people believe they’ve got everything, but really it’s me who decides. It’s not complicated: that’s how it is or I go. And they know that.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a pretty little book, Letters to a Young Poet. What would be your advice to a young person today?

I don’t really like advising young people because they should be busy living their era as it is, and they should keep their curiosity, freedom without older people telling them anything. Children should be allowed to go out and enjoy. When you are young, you should take advantage of everything to the maximum: show off your body, reveal your cleavage, live everything to the full, because it doesn’t last for long. I had a friend who told me, ‘When I was young, I’d eat an entire Camembert, wear my bikini, and my tummy would be flat at the beach. I had no money, but I could eat what I wanted. Now I’ve got money, and I can’t eat anything.’ You have to enjoy it while it lasts!

What a fantastic conclusion! Thank you so much.