Lunch is important to Azzedine Alaïa. The designer often gathers friends, clients and his intensely loyal family of staff around the glass-topped table in his Paris atelier, for long, languorous banquets. Everyone is looked after generously, with equal love and respect. Indeed, Alaïa’s fondness for people – women in particular – and his ability to bring them together, learn from them, understand their needs and deepest desires, is woven into the very fabric of his designs. We joined him at the table.
It’s the 24th of May and so quiet in the dimly lit Galerie Azzedine Alaïa, in the heart of the Marais district of Paris, that the dropping of pins might be heard. The space, presided over by the designer himself, and curated with the help of collaborators and friends, is currently home to an exhibition of the work of the great French author and artist Pierre Guyotat. For those unfamiliar with Guyotat, who is a veritable institution in France, his writing throughout the latter part of the 20th century tirelessly challenged that country’s status quo: enforced militarism, and literary censorship in particular. Such is his status that his most famous novel, Éden, Éden, Éden, published in 1970, boasts forewords by the philosophers Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.
Guyotat’s manuscripts, predominantly lent to the gallery by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, form the backbone of the narrative. His early work is on paper: words typed, crossed through then over-written by hand. Later come iPads plugged into walls – Guyotat’s preferred manner of expressing himself today. Alongside these and Guyotat’s own drawings and photographs are pieces by other artists reacting to his oeuvre. Among them are Christoph von Weyhe; Daniel Buren; Klaus Rinke; Juliette Blightman; Cerith Wyn Evans; Elijah Burgher; Paul McCarthy; Michael Dean… The latter found an English copy of Éden, Éden, Éden sodden with rain outside a bookshop in the North of England when he was just 14 years old. So much did it inspire him to forge his own path that this very object, its pages fragile and curled, desiccated like a pressed flower, takes pride of place in the exhibition.
“Pierre Guyotat: La matière de nos oeuvres” is among the most important shows to have been staged here to date. In the accompanying catalogue, M Alaïa’s preface, written in French, translates thus: “I have great admiration for Pierre Guyotat. Through his language, he has elevated the French language. He is capable of speaking about things that aren’t spoken of and of giving those things great beauty. His language is both powerful and subtle. It is unlike anything else.”
Although Azzedine Alaïa is too modest a character to say it, he has also, in his own way, elevated language – that language in his case being the language of fashion. And his immediately identifiable clothes, though much copied, remain unlike anything else. He has been refining his chosen métier for more than half a century and is now universally respected – even revered – both by the women who love to wear his designs and by others of his profession, which, it goes without saying, is extremely rare.
Alaïa’s vocabulary, like Guyotat’s, is at once powerful and subtle. His clothes are very beautiful. He has refused, since the very start of his career, to play by anyone else’s rules other than his own, flying in the face of the Establishment and the fashion system as if his existence depended upon it and, as it turns out, indeed it does.
On the 3rd of April this year, the space currently occupied by the Guyotat show formed the backdrop to a very different kind of presentation. The Paris Ready-to-Wear ended almost a month before it took place but, as is his wont, Alaïa chose to delay his show. The designer retired from the official schedule as far back as 1992. “It’s ready when it’s ready,” was the simple explanation behind any apparent tardiness this time, as always, according to his press office and as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It’s worth noting, however, that he is the only fashion designer who appears, long-term, to be in control of his own timing, often showing only days after the main event closes but certainly never in the throes of it. “I live with the climate. I am like fruit. When I’m ready, I’m ready,” he will say later. “There are no rules, it’s a way of life.”
In 2011, Azzedine Alaïa was rumoured to have turned down the position of Creative Director at Dior following John Galliano’s departure. Not long after, the designer told Women’s Wear Daily that the output now expected from many of the industry’s designers was “inhumane”. Anyone who has had any connection at all with the workings of Azzedine Alaïa – the company, the clothes and the man – will know that a respect for humanity is an integral part of the story. And that applies to everything, from the extreme loyalty displayed towards staff and reciprocated to the point of devotion, to the deep and lasting friendships he has formed over the years and on to the clothes themselves which, contrary to popular mythology, are by no means only designed for model bodies but for any woman who chooses to wear them. No two women look the same in Alaïa and that is important: Azzedine Alaïa suspends his ego and the client is always put first.
It seems only apposite, then, that the title of the Azzedine Alaïa Autumn/Winter 2016 show was “Le Défilé des amis”. It took place on a warm Sunday afternoon with only a handful of journalists and buyers in attendance. Instead, the emphasis, just as the words suggest, was on Azzedine Alaïa’s clients, family and friends. And that is different, unprecedented even. It’s all very personal.
In fact, Alaïa the business has recently been expanding. He launched his first fragrance with perfume-maker Beauté Prestige International last year. A warm floral made warmer still by the inclusion of orientals and musk, it is inspired, he has said, by water being poured over the heated brick walls of his place of birth: Tunis. Another is soon to follow. Alaïa also plans to open flagship stores in London and New York next year. He has taken his time in doing so. Also well known: Alaïa delivers to stores across the world only when he’s ready to deliver, and anyone lucky enough to receive his designs is happy to wait, safe in the knowledge that demand inevitably outweighs supply.
His new collection will be no exception. Alongside the requisite, impeccably engineered fit-and-flare knitwear for which he is most famous – it’s not for nothing that since the 1980s he has been referred to as the King of Cling – came black trapeze-line dresses in spongy techno fabrics inset with geometric shapes in the colours of the Tricolore (both French and Italian); tailoring that is, quite simply, unsurpassed – an immaculate black wool-crepe trouser suit, the perfect cashmere coat; and the most exquisite Swiss lace imaginable, in forest green, lavender, and damson, all lined in Alaïa’s signature pink and among the most gorgeous examples of the peek-a-boo aesthetic that lies at the heart of his vocabulary to date.
“There are certain parts of the body that it is nice to show,” is how he explains it. “I think that even when you make a zip, when I did the zip dress, for example, it was very important for me that the zip opened on a beautiful part of the body. It wouldn’t open on the fat side but always on the nice part. The zip exposes the stomach, which is lovely, and then the bottom, the bottom is beautiful too.”
At the end of this latest show, guests queued to congratulate the diminutive designer, dressed as he always has been in unassuming black, Chinese pyjamas and slippers (workwear, basically). M Alaïa is surrounded – mobbed – by women of all ages, shapes and sizes, all of whom know only too well the allure of his designs. The warmth, generosity and even happiness in evidence is a far cry from the studied nonchalance that might be expected of such occasions.
It should come as no great surprise that the interview process where Azzedine Alaïa is concerned is – similarly – unlike any other. Instead, and before any questions are asked, lunch is served at a huge glass-topped garden table in the basement of the same building. His boutique is at ground level, and Alaïa’s home and tiny, chic bed and breakfast hotel furnished with pieces from his own collection, 3 Rooms, are situated in the upper storeys on the same small street. The photographer Sarah Moon and Carla Sozzani, the designer’s creative consultant since 2000 and one of his closest friends, are in attendance.
M Alaïa is showing a book that features his work alongside sculpture by Bernini and painting by Caravaggio for an exhibition that took place in the Galleria Borghese in Rome last summer. Azzedine Alaïa is the first fashion designer ever to have had his work displayed there and if anyone is man enough to live up to the High Renaissance giants in question then it is he. Alaïa explains to the photographer how the blocks for his designs had to be elongated and the clothes remade to suit the scale of the work they were relating to and the proportions of the gallery. Also present is Alaïa’s right-hand woman and studio director, Caroline Fabre-Bazin – the pair are inseparable; the gallerist Yvon Lambert; the photographer Gilles Bensimon; the curator Donatien Grau; and what appears to be the designer’s entire staff.
“Où est Pudding?” asks the man himself, at the head of the table. Pudding is his archivist, another Sarah, who was offered the names “Yorkshire” and “Pudding” by her employer, he tells me, because she’s English. She chose the latter. The designer’s magnificent Saint Bernard, Didine – also renamed, this time after his owner – lollops about in search of titbits and he’s not disappointed. A piece of corn tempura finds its way into his intimidatingly enormous mouth, then a slice of veal… M Alaïa sleeps with Didine, although he points out that because he’s “a snow dog” he gets too hot, so rarely stays all night. Still, that evokes quite an image: the beast is significantly larger than the man. Satiated, he flops down at Alaïa’s feet.
It is impossible to imagine an atelier that is any more amicable or more family-oriented than this one. The scene is one of bustling activity, unparalleled bonhomie and excitable creative interchange. And that is just how Alaïa likes it. While taking care of his aforementioned four-legged friend, he drops in and out of conversation with all at the table ensuring everyone has enough to eat and drink – a full three courses – and that a good time is had by all. There’s a sense of the finest taste but also a balance between the light and the heavyweight, the understated and the generous, the polite and the warm. And that is all quintessential Azzedine Alaïa.
Fashion could reasonably be described as weak – and certainly disrupted – just now. It’s no secret that more than a few of the industry’s most celebrated names are financially compromised. But Azzedine Alaïa is strong. Not for him talk of consumer-facing fashion shows or merchandise available to buy straight off the runway. He has seemingly somewhat reluctantly agreed to produce a Pre-collection. In 2007 he entered an agreement with Richemont. The bottom line is important.2 Alaïa never has anything but good to say about the partnership. And Richemont is lucky to have Alaïa by return. In Alaïa-speak, Pre- is known as “la collection intemporelle” (the timeless collection). With the table cleared and coffee served, he says: “Fashion is arrogant, a reflection of our time – politically, economically. We have to try to understand why it is like that. We have to respect it even if it seems distorted. Today time is so accelerated and that’s not good for creation. We keep producing more and more. We expand. Sometimes I’m even against the timeless collection. I think it’s almost stupid. And when you see that you sell more of that… I find that not very good. Of course I would like to have more time for more fulfilling work. But I understand it. I accept it because it is the way it is.”
Alaïa can say that. He has worked longer and harder than most to achieve his goals. He is passionately committed to his craft. It is the stuff of fashion folklore that he cuts, pins and sews into the wee small hours before passing his designs onto the studio when their day begins.3 His studio is cluttered, to say the very least, so full of treasures that anyone even remotely interested in fashion could spend hours rifling through rail upon rail. Here is a tiny gold crocodile jacket moulded to fit an equally fine torso. Crocodile skin is tough and notoriously difficult to work with. To manipulate it to the point where it appears so malleable – almost seamless – is nothing short of genius. There is a ruby red silk velvet shift, so light, liquid and apparently simple that it is a thing of wonder to behold. There are knits. Of course there are knits: their surfaces peppered with tiny holes, sprouting raffia or feathered skirts or corrugated into three-dimensional textures that defy explanation. How does Azzedine Alaïa do that?
On his desk sit hundreds, even thousands of pins – the designer works on the body and row upon row of these, put into place by his own fair hand and at lightning speed, ensure garments fit just so. They are among the most important tools of his trade. Less predictably, a black rubber rat and a plastic figurine of Queen Elizabeth II can also be seen. Above it, on raw brickwork, hangs a board. Not for Azzedine Alaïa the mood board of fashion mythology. Rather, there are pictures of Carla Sozzani, Charlotte and Marc Newson, Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell: the people the designer loves and who constantly inspire and motivate him are more important than any reference. Those all come from within. There’s a huge flatscreen TV too. While he works M Alaïa likes to watch the National Geographic, History and Voyage channels. The silence that was the preserve of Cristóbal Balenciaga in particular has no place here. Instead, the magic happens in an atmosphere of chaos, and not the most obviously organised chaos either.
Alaïa explains: “I grew up with my grandmother. She worked all the time. I was never alone. Every day there were 15 people in the house. My aunt, my cousins. Everyone came to my grandmother’s house because she lived in the centre of town. They all came from the lycée for lunch. With my grandmother, the door was never closed. Maybe it comes from that.” “His ability to focus in a mess is incredible,” Caroline Fabre-Bazin confirms.
To the people he cares for – and there are many of them – Azzedine Alaïa’s door is always open too. During the 1980s, when he went from being the best-kept secret of Parisian women of style to the brightest star on the fashion calendar, he looked after models in particular. They worked for him for clothes and he treated them as if they were his daughters – often somewhat errant daughters as it turns out. Naomi Campbell – who calls Alaïa “Papa” – met him during that period. “I met him and that was it,” she remembers. “He called my mother and told her I had to live with him. He said I shouldn’t be in Paris aged 16 by myself. He said I needed protecting and he was going to take me in.”
Not only was the model privy to what she describes now as “the best closet in the world – my closet was the shop” but she also says “he’s such a caring father figure”.
It wasn’t always plain sailing. “I used to sneak out at night to go to Les Bains Douche with Grace Jones and Iman,” Campbell continues. “I’d have to put my stuff downstairs by the door but the dogs would always start barking when I left so he would wake up and know I wasn’t at home. Then Papa would arrive. He’d get a call and they’d tell him, “Your daughter is here.” So he’d come down and look at me and if I’d put the outfit on wrong he’d fix it and then say, ‘Now you’re going home!’ I’d say, ‘No! Please Papa, can I stay?’ I remember one time Prince was going to come and play live, but he was like, ‘No. Home.’”
On another occasion, Campbell recalls, she fell down the stairs. “We had no ice in the house. We’d run out. But we had a frozen leg of lamb. I remember he put that on my head. Papa, if it was his last egg, his last piece of bread, he’d give it to you. To me he is family in every sense of the word.”
Just like any self-respecting father figure, at times Alaïa is honest to the point of harsh and, let’s not forget, that is not the way most people treat models, especially models as spectacularly successful as this one. “For years he told me, ‘Don’t wear too much make-up, you don’t need more make-up. Now finally I don’t wear so much but back then it was a security blanket.” Above all, and for all the intimacy of their relationship, “As well as having the most amazing heart, he is one of the most amazing designers, if not the most amazing designer in the world,” Naomi Campbell says.