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The dream life of Azzedine Alaïa

December 5 2015

Photo: Buonomo & Cometti

The fashion designer, who has dressed the most beautiful women in the world, has answered thousands of questions, has felt miles of fabric, always runs after his Graal, perfection. Diving into the world of the imagination of the Master. - Isabelle Cerboneschi

It all starts and ends with these two letters A. A., the first of the alphabet. A.A. as the beginning of an incantation. There is magic in Azzedine Alaïa's clothes. And in his hands that every day return to the profession, in the beginning. Who come back to A.

Faced with Azzedine Alaïa, time seems to have abandoned his story. The passing years have forgotten this man with the child's silhouette and the talent of giant. In his eternal Chinese uniform, he is as he was and has always been, an ageless master who possesses in his hands the gift of giving birth to sculptures of flesh. With his robes, he "arranges the bodies", with an ideal in mind: that of a Mediterranean for whom the curve has value of virtue.

When he was a child, in his native Tunisia, he followed women to look at them better, to see how they walked, how clothes moved around them. Her whole career, his life has revolved around women. He even followed the Sisters of Sion in Tunis "with their dress of good sister, their cornet, their belt with a cross which hung". A woman dressed in Alaïa knows that when she is gone, the eyes will linger on her back, her behind, as he says, and will follow her for a long time.

Azzedine Alaïa arrived in Paris in XNUMX at an age that no longer matters. "I erased the age," he says. This son of Tunisian farmers landed in the capital during the Algerian war: France at the time did not expect immigrants as prodigal children. However, at the heart of this Gaullist and hierarchical France, there was a large family to welcome him: that of the Marquise de Mazan. Then a second, that of the Countess de Blégiers, where he stayed for four years. He kept his children, Diane and his brother Guy, and incidentally he drew his dresses. In this France before May 68 Azzedine Alaïa, this stranger to whom no one has had the indelicacy to ask for accounts of his origins, knew how to link precious friendships: with Louise de Vilmorin in particular, and, in another style, with Arletty.

Because Azzedine Alaïa knew how to clothe the women who surrounded him with talent, he entered Dior, to better get out five days later. He stayed two seasons at Guy Laroche before entering Thierry Mugler. In 1965, he opened his first couture workshop rue de Bellechasse: an apartment populated with sewing machines and 18 workers where he received, in a happy mix of genres, Arletty and Cécile de Rothschild, Greta Garbo and the dancers of the Crazy Horse . But it is from 1981, when he launches the brand that bears his name, that he acquires his giant stature. The times have changed, so are women. The body is at the center of their concerns. Just like money, but stay closer to the body and the desire of Azzedine Alaïa to redraw the contours: the time of the body conscious was cut to its measure.

For a long time, Azzedine Alaïa refused that a perfume bears his name. Or, only if it is not really a perfume. "I wish it was like mineral water. We would not feel it, but we would feel a presence. I would like a perfume which one could not say what it is. You arrive and you are fresh at any time, like after the shower. The smell of a new skin ", he confided to me during a interview in the spring 2009. It was not until 2015 that perfume Marie Salamagne hatched this smell of skin. Her name is Alaïa. With notes of pepper, peony and freesia, it does not summarize but knows how to be discreet in front of the master and his work. Even musks have the elegance of not being noticed. They hardly whisper.

We had an appointment on October 30 at lunchtime in what became his mansion: in three buildings are grouped his workshop, his house, his shop, his gallery of exhibition, his offices, a hotel of some rooms, and his kitchen, huge, where he receives every day around two large tables. That day, the family Alaïa, Didine St. Bernard, some friends, and me. It was of course a question of the departure of Raf Simons from Dior and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin, the frenzied pace of fashion, the eight collections a year that some houses ask their artistic directors, fashion shows (is it still very useful?) effects of the fast fashion on the big names in fashion, a waste of material and talent. But what was said exactly that day will remain in Mr. Alaïa's kitchen: the table conversations must remain at the table. Between bursts of laughter and chocolate, the interview of the day was light. That's how he accepted it.

IC: What is your most precious childhood memory?
Azzedine Alaïa: That's when I went back to my grandmother's house. She's the one who brought me up. I spent the summer at my father's house and was waiting for my return to my grandmother's house. There was a lot of freedom at home. This is the person who has counted the most in my life.

Do you believe in fairies?
I do not believe in fairies, but I met a lot of fairy women.

Which ones?
Louise de Vilmorin, Arletty. They counted a lot for me. I learned a lot more from them than from fashion. Each had his personality. Louise de Vilmorin was an extraordinary woman. When I met her, I was not known at all. She told me carried extraordinary interest. She took me with her to weddings, evenings. My first trip to Rome, it was with her that I did it. We had invited by Simone and Bernard Zehrfuss, who was an architect. The book of the exhibition I made at the gallery Borghèse in Rome in October 2015, it is in memory of this trip, it is a tribute to Louise. Arletty was LA Parisienne, with her voice, her style, her intelligence, her rapidity of thought. She made short but dense sentences. Unforgettable. She never wore jewelry, accessories, or fuss. She was blank of any decoration. And that remained to me.

What perfume, what smell of childhood do they have the power to make you travel?
That of summer, at the end of the day. We were in the house. Everything was whitewashed. We watered the walls. There was a freshness that in
side and out.

It's this smell that inspired your scent?
Yes. This is the smell that I wanted to find in this perfume.

What music, what voice manages to move you and carry you away?
There are many. Right now, I'm listening to Pavarotti, Callas. But every day I listen to Oum Kalthoum. In my childhood, every first Thursday of the month we had to dine early. We had to stay calm, to make no noise, because my grandfather was trying to pick up on the radio the waves coming from Egypt, because Oum Kalthoum was singing the 1er Thursday of the month. This is the first great voice I listened to in my childhood. But all the big voices carry me away.

Is there a film that you liked so much that you wanted to jump on it to live the story?
Several movies! I jump in, I stomp, I screw them (Laughter). I would be ungrateful if I only mentioned one or two.

What is your quest, your Graal?
I'm still running behind ...

Among all your creations, do you have a favorite dress?
Not yet.

Which gave you the most trouble?
At the moment, it's harder for me to make a simple straight skirt than before, in the 80 years for example. The times have changed. The skirt must give a look, it must be much more flexible, less tight, while giving the impression of being. When a woman wears a straight skirt, she must disengage from her silhouette of sensuality. The sleeves of the jackets are also difficult. Seeking to create a new form is also very difficult. Everything is difficult in reality. Even find the buttons that goes with a garment. But I always try to find.

Which mythical animal would you like to be accompanied?
There, I have Didine. He has been with me for seven years. All my animals are
mythical. I have a cat that died not long ago. I have six cats and three dogs left. I sleep one night on a floor with some cats and another night on another floor with the others. One of them does not get along with some people. They sleep with me in the bed. I have a pussy Bengal very jealous. When her brother hunts her, she is still waiting for the moment to take revenge and she pee on the pillow or on my head. From someone else, I could not accept that, but they are my cats. When you love someone, you accept everything.

What song do you sing when you are happy?
I sing a lot. And I dance too! All day, we have music in the studio. And the TV. A channel on animals. But now I'm watching the news. That depresses me. When I see the horrible things happening in the world, I wonder why we do this job, why we do so many collections. But we continue. From time to time, I sing the Duo of Rossini's cats. I put Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and I sing with her.

What is your favorite subject?
I love them all. I try to control them. I love knitting, but every time I meet new material, I wonder what it could give and what I could do with it. The material directs me, often.

Can beauty save the world?
Beauty I do not know, but women, maybe? I believe in women.

Do your hands see better than your eyes?
Both are directed at the same time.

If you had magical power, what would it be?
I would like to be a healer. But for now, it has not come. I have never healed someone with my hands, at least not as far as I know.

Do not you think that by making dresses as you do, you are a little healer?
My dresses cheer up people. It helps. And then with my dresses, women find husbands (Laughter).

If you could erase an episode of your life, what would it be?
It's hard to erase something from one's memories. I erased age, for example. But not the memories.

If you were offered the power to change one thing, which one would you change?
The state of the world is very serious. But if I had the power, I would already like to arrange the relations between Israel and Palestine, that they can live together serenely.

If you were to relive a day of your life, what would it be?
Wait until I die to find out (Laughs)! I am a happy man. I am privileged, I have no right to complain at all.

Are you aware of bringing beauty to the world?
Oh, no!

In spite of all these exhibitions which were dedicated to you to the Galliera museum, to the gallery Borghèse?
I am happy to have had these exhibitions during my lifetime. But I do not have the necessary perspective to realise this. I am waiting to do other exhibitions. If you come to ask me, in any case I will go ... No way to leave my place!

And he ends with a laugh, taking a chocolate ...

A version of this interview was published in the Hors-série Luxe du Temps on December 5 2015