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The coronation of Alaïa

18 September 2013

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Azzedine Alaïa is everywhere: ballet and opera costumes, exhibitions at the Musée Galliera and the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, opening of a boutique, creation of a perfume. The so-called Master remembers. - Isabelle Cerboneschi

Years ago like that ... Even though no, there have not been so many years where one attends the coronation of a couturier. Year 2013 is the vintage Azzedine Alaïa. The most discreet man in the world of fashion - he gives few interviews, runs in private off schedule, never advertises, reluctant to be photographed, distributes his words sparingly - modestly imposes its omnipresence.

Make a list of his facts to avoid forgetting: first, there were the costumes, those of ballet Nights by Angelin Preljocaj, then those of the opera The Marriage of Figaro for the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a set design by Jean Nouvel. In autumn, a new three-storey store will open at 5, rue Marignan, a perfume is being developed ... But what we will remember above all - because we must choose to put something in the fore - this is the exhibition that Olivier Saillard, the director of the Galliera Museum dedicates to Paris as early as 28 September to mark the reopening of the place after five years of work. The nearby Museum of Modern Art will mirror some of his works in the Matisse Room. There will only be crossing the streetsaid the Master, smiling, as if it were natural to occupy two museums at once.

We can speak of work for the dresses of Azzedine Alaïa becausehe is a sculptorsays Olivier Saillard. That's what her clients think, and all those who dream of becoming one.

The fate of Azzedine Alaïa began to develop in Tunisia. It must have been written in the secret litanies chanted by the magicians who watched over him. He says he owes them everything to women. Writing the list of his creditors would be tedious. She would start with Madame Pineau, the midwife who gave birth to her, a French woman from Trouville where he discovered fashion by leafing it in magazines. She would continue with her grandmother, who raised her, then there was the Countess de Blégiers, the one who welcomed him when he arrived in Paris: he babysit his children and sewed his robes. We should not forget Simone Zehrfuss, who gave her the necessary help so that he could move into his first 1965 sewing workshop. In reality, an apartment in rue de Bellechasse populated with 18 workers and furnished with sewing machines where everyone (the big world, the models and all the other worlds) will parade: Cécile de Rothschild, the dancers of the Crazy Horse, Arletty, Stephanie Seymour , Iman, Naomi Campbell ... He received a private clientele that was created by relationships. In the beautiful inventory of women in the life of Azzedine Alaia, we also read the delicious name of Louise de Vilmorin, the mysterious, Greta Garbo ... In reality, this list has no end.

He is nicknamed The Master, because everyone recognizes that he is the greatest of dressmakers. He does not pretend, he does not play the inspector of almost finished works: he does. With his hands, and not those of others, he draws a pattern, makes the canvas, cuts, sews, adjusts his prototypes. His dresses are like a stroke of a pencil that would emphasize all the curves of the body, exalt them, redraw them here and there. His dresses are hands that take the size, which touch the buttocks, which enclose the breasts. Her dresses fall in love with those who dress them.

There is a form of recurrence in its mode. Not because Azzedine Alaïa likes to rest on what he has achieved. But precisely because he does not believe it. He is Monsieur Plus and Monsieur Mieux, says the designer Véronique Leroywho worked at home. "It's never perfect. It's never finished a garment, "he says. Then he puts it back on the work, reworking it, indefinitely. He purifies, reduces, reconstructs, tries new techniques, seeks fluidity, the perfect proportion, a quest for the impossible since in his eyes perfection does not exist.

Unlike all those who run after the weather, season after season, spring-summer after autumn-winter, cruise collection after pre-collection, it makes sense to measure time. He works constantly but knows how to wait for the idea. "It's not easy to find, an idea for that matter," he says. So when he succeeds THE sublime skirt of the season, THE good coat that all women want to wear, it makes him happy. A good idea, it is catching "lasso", at Alaïa, and that does not let go.

Before you can ask the impatient questions that would like to jump from the notebook without preamble or way, we must sit down to table. Literally. It's a sweet ritual that we could taste, this lunch in the kitchen with a huge table. The kitchen is the antechamber of confidences, if we can hope for it. And lunch is the preamble. It is in any case here, around the plate, that begins the conversation to come. Conversation and no interview. Because that's what it's about.

IC: 2013 is your year: opera and ballet costumes, the opening exhibition of the Galliera Museum, a new shop in rue de Marignan, a perfume in progress ...
Azzedine Alaïa: Yes, and the Museum of Modern Art also lends me the Matisse room at the same time as Galliera's exhibition. I think this is the first time they show fashion. To pass from one to the other, one will only have to cross the street.

Olivier Saillard, the director of the Paris Fashion Museum, speaks of you as a sculptor. He told me that only you could mark the reopening of the Galliera Museum.
Really? It's very kind of him to give me this opportunity. A dress is a sculpture because the base is the body of a woman.

What moves you most in a woman's body?
Everything is moving in the body of a woman. Women gave me a lot. The first was Madame Pineau, a midwife. She gave me birth, to begin with. I went to her house on weekends. At that time, in Tunisia, there was such freedom! I'm surprised how much ...

I imagine that your view of Tunisia today is more of an expectation.
I think that in these countries, it is women who will play a big role. That they are the ones who will save the situation. I'm expecting a lot of them (Laughter).

Véronique Leroy, who worked at your place, told me: Mr. Alaïa is Mr. Plus and Mr. Better, he is never satisfied.
That is true. I'm never happy when I work. I have the impression that I always start in the business. I have problems with certain things. More than before! When we start, when we are young, we have a naivety, we go for it. Often strong things come out, but they are done without any restraint. Today, if I wear a straight skirt - I have made so many straight skirts! - it takes several fitting. I'm trying to simplify it. I think differently.

Is your quest for perfection not a goal in itself? Because when you reach perfection, what do you do next?
I have not reached it yet, wait! (Laughs). I'm waiting, that's why I continue. I become more demanding. I do not stop working to say: That's it! But for now, this is not the case. The only problem is the weather ... It's never perfect, it's never finished a garment. When it has to be finished, we finish it, yes. But we can take it back, do it better each time. As we can miss it too.

It has never happened to you to miss a garment.
Yes, but those are left out. (to laugh). I wait. I'm like cowboys, with a lasso: when I find an idea I run behind to catch it. It's hard to get an idea, by the way. And to find people who can realize it.

Is it the past, what have you achieved, what is behind you holding you back?
No. I want to purify. That it is easy, in appearance. And what is complicated must not seem to be. I like that the woman feels herself in her dress. Give him insurance. That she is not embarrassed, that there is not the zip that stuck. Before, we put zips everywhere. Today, you can tighten the waist simply with the materials, the body remains at ease, it does not need to be sheathed. The approach remains free.

You find that they had more restraint before, women? Yet when you started, end of the 70 years, they were free ...
It all depends on what freedom we speak. One can be locked up and be free in one's head. Today, girls are free with their bodies. We see them with bra straps that go beyond when it was unthinkable.

It's because they burned them, their bras!
Yes, they burned them, but they put them all the same (Laughter). In the 50 years, they were so sharp that they could get through the sweaters. The body is nicer today. At 70 years, women are young, they are beautiful.

You have become one of the biggest fashion collectors. How did it start?
I think it started when Balenciaga closed (in May 1968, ed). I already had my studio rue de Bellechasse. My clients also dressed at Dior, at Balenciaga, they were running, there was bottling of Rolls-Royce, Jaguars down from us. Some brought me dresses from big houses to transform them. It made my heart ache. One day, I suggested to a client to exchange her dress with one of mine so as not to have to touch that of Balenciaga. I realized that little by little all his creations would disappear. And I did the exchange. I had a saleswoman at the time whose aunt was Madame Renée, the director of Balenciaga. She took me to see her so that I bought the models of the clients we had in common. The dresses dragged on the ground, they sold for nothing. I bought some clothes. I kept them. This is where the idea of ​​the collection came from: the disappearance of things. We could not enter a Balenciaga fashion show! But all of a sudden, everything was scattered, like that, stupidly. Afterwards, every time a woman brought me a piece of clothing from a big house to transform, I tried to make an exchange. Then there were the auction rooms. One day in Orsay, I saw a trunk filled with Dior's most famous dresses. They were selling them for nothing. I did not have money at the time. I could not buy them.

Which houses did you collect?
I collected everything. When there was the sale Paul Poiret (the 14 February 2008, ed), I proposed to the expert Françoise Auguet who prepared it to make a tribute exhibition. Clothes were selected, cleaned, arranged and displayed. I phoned the press, the museums. And after that, it was sold to Drouot. Prices have climbed!

Are you going to redo exhibitions?
We made one of Pierre Paulin, but we have no place. I am creating a foundation here. Later, I will do exhibitions. But, for now, I do not have time.

In Galliera, are you only going to exhibit your creations?
Yes, since the first pieces of the Bellechasse years.

I read that when you were rue de Bellechasse, you were making parades in the street?
Yes, I even kept a cassette. In the apartment there was a small living room. We put chairs around. There was only one row. From time to time, we put a second for the people we knew. And the girls paraded, we had 12, 15 models. The biggest ones: Stephanie Seymour, Iman, Naomi ... I started to be known. The televisions, the Japanese wanted to film. How did you want to do it? There was no place! People were standing on the stairs. So I decided to do the parade in the street. What was strange was to see the policemen look at the girls, the passers-by too, and the children who stopped when they came home from school.

Today, you could not do it anymore.
No, Today fashion has become so theatrical! You spend hallucinating money to build
places for parades. Me, it did not cost me anything, it was the street. The models passed rue de Bellechasse, turned rue de Grenelle, came back ...

I read in an interview with Stephanie Seymour that you pay them with clothes?
Yes. Stephanie Seymour came from New York and she was paying for her ticket to come and go. She is more than a friend, she is like my daughter. She calls me dad. They call me all dad. Because I took care of them.

You collect clothes that belong to another era, your own collections span decades. Does looking at the past allow you to draw a better present?
If there is no past, how do you want us to advance? Between the past the present and the future, the hardest is the future (to laugh).

Two years ago, you agreed to re-run during the Sewing and Ready-to-Wear Room Calendar. Since you have resumed your parades off schedule at your own pace.
I scroll off schedule, but more or less at the same time. Buyers are in Paris. They do not have time to come back. They leave New York, they go to London, then to Milan and here. It's impossible rhythm!

Is that why you did not run this season?
I did not show because I did not have time. Either I took care of the exhibitions, be I made a timeless collection. But what interest? The world of fashion should change system. Hardly have we finished the winter we start the summer. Which creator can follow this rhythm, make eight collections a year? This system bothers me. I do not want to work that way.

It takes courage to hold this posture out of order.
I am out of order because my head will never be in the system. I must leave a solid legacy for the group (the Richemont group, owner of the brand since 2007, ed), and I prefer not to do what I do not feel. If there had not been the legacy of Dior or Chanel, these houses could not have continued like this today. They live on a name of the past. It is unfortunate that large groups do not take young people who have the talent to create their own home instead of making them work for others. It's hard to change the codes of a house! At Chanel, it's easy: Coco Chanel herself repeated herself. But the others have not stopped changing: shorten, lengthen, the New Look, the line A, the line in Y, the line this, the line that ...

Groups that can invest do not want to take that risk. They are willing to invest several million euros in a house that already has a shop and that is fine, but small investments do not interest them.
It's a shame for new talents who will stay working for others. When I started, nobody financed me! Today, it takes courage to do it. When you open, you know you're not going to make money: for three or four years you have to tighten your belt.

Your work is in the long term.
I never wanted to do anything new. I do not even think about it. There is an evolution in the way the garment is worn. Take a tight 50 XNUMX dress: you can not live today in there. The sleeves are narrow, it is the aesthetic of the time: it was beautiful silhouettes for photos, but we can not move with. They were made for women who went out, who came dressed for the cocktail, dressed for lunch. They had their maid. I knew these women! The life of that time is over. Even though today's rich women have much more buying power.

Do these women buy differently?
Before the richest women bought two tailors, three dresses for the day, a raincoat, evening gowns in relation to their program of the season. Today, in the fashion houses, we do not see a dress for the day, not a raincoat. The parade begins with the embroidered dresses. Now embroidered dresses, today, there are not many women who wear them.

However, you need embroidery to keep the job going!
Yes, you have to, of course. Even for the spirit of sewing. France is rich in that. She must not lose it. Only here can we give the name haute couture. Crafts, small hands, workshops are here. The spirit is French. America, however, tried to appropriate it but it did not work.

You spoke of raincoat, but yesterday I met a hairdresser who had started his career at Maniatis. He told me that one morning he had arrived very early and he saw a woman in a coat of crazy elegance coming out of the living room. It was Greta Garbo. And his coat was from you.
Do you know that I bought this coat? At the Garbo auction. A friend sent me the catalog. I open it and it is marked: Garbo - Alaïa. It was the coat I had made him. He was intact! I also bought a pair of glasses, shoes, and a travel bag, so we can expose the Garbo look. I dressed her, I made her several pieces at the time.

How did you meet Greta Garbo?
It was Cécile de Rothschild who had brought her to rue de Bellechasse. She was coming for a fitting. I enter the room. And I see Garbo sitting on the couch, his hair tied with a rubber band, a bangs, and a sweater with very long sleeves hiding his hands. And Cécile de Rothschild who says to me: I'm not going to introduce you, Mr. Alaïa? I answered him: No, Miss, it's not worth it. Garbo ordered me a coat. She wanted a huge, very large one. It was the Courrèges era, everything was small. To have the right width, I tried it on Christoph (the painter Christoph von Weyhe, the companion of Azzedine Alaïa, ed.) Over his jacket and his own coat. The sleeve was big, the collar was big, everything was big. After she ordered pants, jersey tunics.

You met extraordinary women!
That's right, I was lucky. The most famous women, I met them. Many at Louise de Vilmorin. I went there on Saturday and Sunday. I was not known at all. She was sending me the car to go to Verrières-le-Buisson. She said to me: You do not have money to take the taxi, I send you the driver early because it must serve later. I arrived first. I was waiting for the blue salon. Louise was coming down when the guests started arriving. There, I met all the big American actors. All actresses. The women of the world, the princesses, the duchesses, the countesses ...

You do not want to tell it all?
These are things that I lived, it's a passage ...

Yet it is the picture of an era.
Yes, and I saw it change quickly. I saw the women in the 60 years come with their Rolls, their driver, the cap, the buttons livery, then Mai 68 has upset all that. No more cap, no more outfit, no more Rolls: it had become Simca. Some kept them, their Rolls. But it was different. There was a change of mentality. The gap between social classes has narrowed. Besides, it upset the seam too. Women no longer had the same needs. Before there were parties in June, in Paris, balls everywhere. The women went to Italy, to England. Some took 20 suitcases, they had two maids, they were traveling in senseless conditions. Today, they are not going to walk around with so many suitcases. They would need a private jet.

In our previous interviewwe had talked about perfumes and you told me that if you made one, you would like a perfume that feels new skin.
Yes, I would like him to feel his own. I do not like perfume. I only like mineral water (to laugh). We cool off, we go out, we're cool.

Yet you have signed a thirteen-year license agreement with Beauté Prestige International. When your perfume will he go out?
I do not know. I have a problem with the dates: I have been told many times and I have not remembered anything (Laughter). It's something that does not concern me at all.

I imagine you participated in its creation.
Yes, I am obliged.

A perfume is an activator of memory and memory. Without revealing the secret, what memory did you want to lock in the bottle.
I do not know yet. We work on the bottle, the packaging first. It's too early to talk about it.

This is a year where you have projects at 360 degrees. You have also created the costumes for Marriage of Figaro for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Ballet Nights Angelin Preljocaj. What constraints did you have to respect so that your costumes could meet the demands of the body of a dancer on the move?
With dance, it's the opposite of opera. The singers are used to being corseted. The dancers are always in motion. They must be comfortable, they need fluidity. Very high heels, they can not. I loved working with Angelin. It came. He asked me if I wanted to do the costumes for his ballet. I told him I had never done it. It was exciting. We are redoing two sets of clothes because three troupes will be playing for three years in the world with this ballet.

A ballet inspired by the Arabian Nights it was predestined for you?
(To laugh) Me, I fall where they put me.

When you were a child, did you have the idea of ​​a destiny like yours?
Listen, I have never imagined anything! When I arrived in Paris, I just wanted to stay there. I was fortunate enough to be accepted in big houses, in people who did not let people easily into their intimacy. They did not know me, they just knew I was from Tunisia, I could have been an assassin. For the people who came from North Africa, at the end of the Algerian war, it was difficult. Some did not even find a maid room to rent. While I was received in good conditions. I was so happy to dress interesting women! I learned the craft with them. As they had a taste and knew what they wanted, I discovered with them what clothing is.

You have sewn your destiny.
He did himself. Things are done alone. Of course, I worked a lot. But I was not interested in making money. I was offered the artistic direction of big houses several times. Almost all homes elsewhere. But I was not interested. My story started like this and it will end like this ...

Alaïa, Palais Galliera, fashion museum of the City of Paris. Tel: + 33156528600. From 28 September 2013 to 26 January 2014.

Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris Tel: + 33153674000.

A version of this article appeared in the Hors-Série Mode du Temps the 18 September 2013

It's never perfect, it's never finished a garment. When it has to be finished, we finish it, yes. But we can take it back, do it better each time. As we can miss it too.

I wait. I'm like cowboys, with a lasso: when I find an idea, I run behind to catch it. It's hard to get an idea, by the way.

It is unfortunate that large groups do not take young people who have the talent to create their own home instead of having them work for others. It's hard to change the codes of a house!

That's right, I was lucky. The most famous women, I met them. Many at Louise de Vilmorin. I went there on Saturday and Sunday. I was not known at all. She sent me the car to go to Verrieres-le-Buisson.

I saw the women in the 60 years come with their Rolls, their driver, the cap, the buttons livery, then Mai 68 has upset all that. No more cap, no more outfit, no more Rolls: it had become Simca.