Azzedine Alaïa’s showroom / shop / workshop / office feels timeless. The floor is covered in parquet; the rooms are filled with natural daylight from the large windows. The walls and brick towers supporting the ceiling are a dazzling red. Neither too retro nor too futuristic, the creations of the Tunisian-born designer are set out in harmony with the design of the room.
Holder of two fashion Oscars, Alaïa doesn’t have to worry about his place as one of the greatest in the history of fashion. But skills come with hardships, patience, and enduring passion. Since a young age, he was fascinated by the creations he discovered in the copies of Vogue. At Guy Laroche, Alaïa launched his first collection of ready-to-wear for Charles Jourdan in the ’70s. It was in the ’80s that Alaïa impressed the fashionworld by focusing on perfectly fitted fabrics that embraced the shape of bodies and exposed the chic and sensuality of his subjects. The creator is seen as both a designer and an architect.
He created innovative and amazing outfits and developed a strong clientele: Grace Jones (with whom he still works closely), Madonna, Naomi Campbell (who became his muse), and more recently, Michelle Obama.
What struck me first and most about him was his radiant personality and energetic character; he invited me to join him at the table along with his team. Azzedine Alaïa loves to laugh. He challenged one of his team members to eat a dangerously spicy sauce and proved that he could eat large amounts of it himself. I was having breakfast with a legend of fashion, yet I witnessed his respectful humanity.
What triggered you to get into fashion?
I was helping Madame Pinot, a midwife that helped in giving birth to my whole family. I told her that I liked to draw. She gave me books, pamphlets to art exhibitions, and my first book of Picasso. She registered me at the School of Fine Arts against my father’s will. I passed the exam and got accepted. My father was a wheat farmer and lived far from Tunis, where I lived.
[My father] didn’t give us children money to live, so very soon I found a job in a very small shop, 5 square meters. The owner was looking for someone to finish up the dresses. My sister had learned sewing with the nuns, and she had a notebook with all the basics. That was my first real experience with fashion, and while I was in the shop, I improved dramatically.
Close to the boutique, there was a beautiful palace where two wealthy girls spent their days looking out the balcony. They saw me going in and out of the shop with cartons and fabrics, and, finally, one day after school, they came up to question me about my work and invited me to their house that same night. When I got there, I met their cousin, who wore Dior and Balmain dresses. She sent me to work for Leila, a dressmaker who made copies of Balmain clothing. A friend of hers helped me go work for Dior in Paris, in the ladies-suits’ atelier. Because of the war in Algeria I ended up working there for only five days.
How did you feel about Dior back then?
In these times there was Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel; everybody fantasized about them and every woman dreamed of wearing one of their dresses. It wasn’t like today with the ready-to-wear.
Talking about Dior, what do you think of the Galliano case?
I don’t know enough about it really, but it’s sad. As I said many times, the fashion world, its system, can be disturbing. The system imposed Galliano, and others, to make four collections for him, four collections for the house, four for men, and four for women. When you have one idea per year, it’s already a miracle! Now, it has become crafty fiddling at a breakneck pace. That’s not the essence of fashion. How can you really be creative under these circumstances? For the young designers it’s very hard, and for the more mature, they drink more, take more drugs… what I am saying is that the system is not right. We have to see the work from another angle. The system is too stressful: too many collections, too much pressure. As in other fields, if you want to do a good creative job, it takes time. What’s the point? I’m working 24 hours a day. I have had a house in Tunisia for 20 years, and I never have time to go because there are collections, fittings….
How did your first collection come about?
In 1979, it was all about eyelets, gloves, berets, and rubber trench coats. The house actually made clothes for the British army. It was a ready-to-wear collection for Charles Jourdan, but the buyers thought it was too sadomasochistic. Elle magazine photographed it anyway, and Barney started buying gloves, then coats, then everything! [New York Times photographer] Bill Cunningham also got interested, and he knows fashion better than anybody. Always with his bicycle in the streets of New York, he is crazy and I love him!
What about the scenography of your first show?
We didn’t use any music that time. The girls were parading in the lounge: Iman, Jerry Hall, all the important ones were parading during five days. One day, we did a show in the Belles-Chasses street in Paris. Japanese people were willing to film, but these fashion shows were only for our clients. That’s why we did this show outside. We taped it while children were running out of school to see the girls from the show. It’s a beautiful movie. I had the models parade with crocodile skin jackets. I had seen crocodile skin drying in a warehouse, and they were as big as this table! And I thought that it was just impossible! I was told that they were made to cover furniture or carpets. I really wanted to use them for clothes, so we softened them by scratching them. It was like velvet. I did some unlined jackets with that skin. I still have them. So the girls marched in the streets of Belles-Chasses with it.
Where do you get the inspiration for each of your collections?
I take the crystal ball, I put my hands on it, and I do like the fortune tellers. The images come quickly and I take notes. The next day I ask Olivier to read it but it is tricky to understand.
No, when I work, I can’t say that I have “inspiration,” really I construct visions. At times, I have flashes that come from movies or images. For example, the zipped Arrietty dress. I made a dress where the zip would be like a snake. I draw the zip so that you can’t see the breasts, then it runs around the waist and the hip and finally encircles the most beautiful part of the bottom. So when you want to show your bottom, you open it and your bottom looks beautiful! Ines de la Fressange wore it. Voila! That’s the idea! Now, Hervé Léger says that he is the one to have created the concept of the zipped dress. He better keep it low, because I could sue him! [Laughs.]
Are you demanding with yourself?
When I don’t like something, I cancel. One time the manufacturer delivered jackets that didn’t fit at all because they were too tight. I cancelled them because women should not pay a fortune to be uncomfortable. Happily, women love me and buy my clothes, unlike Karl who’s never been loved like me! [Laughs.] Actually I have more strength than before. I have more energy now to do things, because my head works differently. If you want to do a good creative job, it takes time. I don’t want to end up senile, old, and destroyed by fashion. I am privileged because I really do what I want to, at my own pace.
How do you feel about Karl Lagerfeld?
I don’t like his fashion, his spirit, his attitude. It’s too much caricature. Karl Lagerfeld never touched a pair of scissors in his life. That doesn’t mean that he’s not great, but he’s part of another system. He has capacity. One day he does photography, the next he does advertisements for Coca-Cola. I would rather die than see my face in a car advertisement. We don’t do the same work. And I think that he is not doing a favor to young stylists who might think it works that way. They’re going to fall before they retire.
You have some problems with Anna Wintour?
I said it before. She runs the business (Vogue) very well, but not the fashion part. When I see how she is dressed, I don’t believe in her tastes one second. I can say it loudly! She hasn’t photographed my work in years even if I am a best seller in the U.S. and I have 140 square meters at Barneys. American women love me; I don’t need her support at all. Anna Wintour doesn’t deal with pictures; she is just doing PR and business, and she scares everybody. But when she sees me, she is the scared one. [Laughs.] Other people think like me, but don’t say it because they are afraid that Vogue won’t photograph them. Anyway, who will remember Anna Wintour in the history of fashion? No one. Take Diana Vreeland, she is remembered because she was so chic. What she did with the magazine was great, with Avedon and all the great photographers. Vogue remains while its fashion editors come and go.
I love Grace Jones; I know you often work together. How is your collaboration?
She has a lot of dynamism. She has something inside that sucks you in. I also traveled with her. She has so much energy; it’s fantastic to be with her. Lady Gaga is different. I don’t think they have anything in common. I like her too and she has her own thing, but I never met her.
With whom do you have regular contacts?
We don’t have that many, but we have great ones, like Ghesquière, Alber Elbaz, Comme des Garçons, Watanabe and Sophie Théallet.
Translated and edited by Carlotta Morteo