Part miracle worker, part fashion architect, Azzedine Alaïa takes some time out for a leisurely chat about his life and times at his home in Paris.
The Tunisian-born Parisian designer Azzedine Alaïa is a bit of a conundrum. At the center of a fashion house of fifty people that has slowly been taking over, in capital terms, a sizeable chunk of a block of the ancient Marais neighborhood, and constantly surrounded by staff, friends, and admiring clients, Alaïa is still considered something of a recluse. This is possibly because he doesn't court the fashion publicity circus, doesn't tend to dash out of limos onto red carpets, doesn't get snapped by paparazzi on the street eating a sandwich with his mouth open. It's not because he's shunned the outside world, rather he's brought it in to meet him, to share his world, so he never has to compromise his talent to make a cheap buck on the back of a press-garnering gimmick.
Azzedine Alaïa, though he's very polite about denying it, is generally regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, designer of our time. A man who has taken fashion design beyond mere dressmaking, turning it into an almost scientific rite of seduction and concurrently an exercise in often unbelievably complicated construction that looks effortless, this shy-looking but wise-cracking genius has been one of the most important and inspirational figures in the latter half of the 20th century and the start of this one. Case in point, the number of designer's, young and old, who either acknowledge a huge debt to the master's influence, or blatantly rip off his extensive research and experimentation, while never managing to carry off the perfection and nuances that only work grounded in the strictures and possibilities of haute couture can achieve.
His ground-breaking, body-accentuating output aside, Alaïa is renowned for many things: his informal group lunches in the kitchen of his fashion houses, his art collection, his fidelity to and enduring friendships with his former models. The couturier's creative friendships have extended to a shoe corner designed by Marc Newson that looks like a glass-fronted grotto embedded in the wall of his otherwise low-key Paris store; there's also the three-suite mini-hotel, 3Rooms, located next door, and developed in conjunction with his close friend Carla Sozzani who pioneered the concept at her celebrated Milan store 10 Corso Como. Azzedine Alaïa sold a stake in his company to Prada in 2000, but kept the rights to his name. In the process he received a welcomed financial boost and distribution capabilities, but unlike most designers who sign their life away, he has been able to continue as before, even encouraged to do so, so respected is his talent and way of working.
Between a leisurely Saturday lunch in the famed kitchen with staff and friends, and a tour of the sunlit rooftop ateliers and a studio bursting with half-made jackets and a rippling suede peplum panel for a jacket hand-embroidered with naïf folkloric florals, Azzedine Alaïa chats about everything from the workings of the fashion world to the fact he doesn't like scent on men.
Why have you kept your business small and operated as a relative outsider to a fashion system that lauds you?
I don't really have a great desire to enter into certain aspects of fashion, the fashion system. And the workload is the same, if not greater, when you have more visibility.
Therefore you must have more time to experiment and evolve.
l try to find this time. l often work late into the evening, so when l want to do something l can.
You're famous for the fact that you, your staff, and any guests, all lunch together at the long tables in your kitchen. How did this informal entertaining experience start?
When l started working there were just three people and we used to eat together, and then we were four, then five, then ten, and we still ate together. We have a cook here, and it's fairly agreeable for us all to meet up at lunchtime so we can eat together.
Is it a complement that so many designers say that they're inspired by your work?
I guess it depends on who's saying it. With the young it's a compliment, but from someone who's no stranger to the business it's not a compliment! I don't like mentoring young designers because it's very difficult to advise someone, because it's a generation later, the world has changed, it's not the same problems, the same way of living. Now everything is so much quicker, you don't have the chance to wait years for your moment to come.
You in turn are a huge admirer of the work of Madeleine Vionnet. Has it proved an inspiration reference for your own work?
No, l admire it a lot, and l think among designers no one can fail but admire it
If designers can boast so openly about being literally inspired by another's work is this not a big sign of creative laziness?
No, no, no. It's the system that's changed. Now they do far too many collections. Before there were only two collections, not like the race you have today; it's a lot. So designers need a lot of people to work with them, researching, having assistant designers, this is the problem. There's no time to dream and think.
What are you yourself inspired by, the woman's body?
The body, of course, is important, for me it's very important. But inspiration can come from many things: design, painting, an exhibition, a silhouette spotted in the street.
But you create everything on a real body?
Always. l start out with a dummy, but after that it's on a real body.
Is fabric always more important to you than color?
Yes; when I design something, in my head the fabric always starts out as black.
You work without a design team, don't you?
l don't do the whole thing of "l need inspiration, l need people to go out and buy clothes, buy this, buy that". I'm not trying to create this personage that befits a great artist – that's not my thing.
That makes you pretty rare in this milieu then, one imagines.
l hope so! No, l guess there aren't many people who work like l do. That's one of the reasons that it's difficult because you have to continue to maintain a certain level. And now we have more and more clients so it's developing well.
Why have things picked up for you?
Well, before, we didn't want to sell to certain stores, or they simply didn't come. And now the Russian market has really opened up for us, and that was a market that didn't exist before. We're selling in boutiques in small places where you have to wonder what there is there, but the stores are buying, and paying, for very expensive pieces. China's starting, Japan's developing, London has more sales points.
And the people who're buying are new to the label?
It's new for a lot of people because it didn't exist for them before. But I have a core clientele that has remained. l can assure you there's a group of women, no longer all that young, who continue to buy.
Can you explain what's so special about the actual work behind your clothes?
l always want to provide work that's the equivalent of haute couture, because since it's expensive the least one should expect is the appropriate quality.
But you do produce some actual haute couture also.
Yes, but very little, special orders for clients. l find that it doesn't make the same sense today, there are so few clients. But, yes, of course, women come to order wedding dresses or something for a special occasion. And women who had wedding dresses made when they were younger come as clients for other things when they are older.
And all of that work is done here?
Well, we have two dressmaking ateliers, a tailoring atelier, and one for leather, so four in total. Some things for production are made here, like the corsets.
There's rather a connection between a dress corset and lingerie. Have you ever considered producing the latter?
l mean it's something that interests me a lot, but it a question of finding the time to do it with the factories that know how to produce it properly. We could do it, but now I'm occupying myself with the perfume.
You're bringing out a perfume?
Not quite yet, we're still working on it. For the bottle, all of that, I've two or three people for that.
But the actual juice itself hasn't been decided upon?
Not yet. We've smelled lots of scents, we just haven't decided on that yet. But after that you have to have the right distributor, otherwise there's no point even bothering. It has to be sold in lots of places so that people can find it easily.
Do you have a favorite perfume?
Now l like things that barely smell at all -- that's a problem!
Do you wear one?
Before, yes, but not anymore. Before it was Cristalle from Chanel because it was light, and Mouchoir de Monsieur from Guerlain which is a good scent but a bit strong, and more and more l find that l don't actually like to smell scent on men.
So when can we expect the Azzedine Alaia perfume?
As we don't have a distributor yet I can't say for sure. And since we're busy looking after the development of accessories, and the shoes which are selling really well.
And you've got a small line of accessories emblazoned with the Julian Schnabel 'A'. Is there a Vuitton-esque monogram line on the cards?
No, that's just a number of pieces for summer done in denim. There's an umbrella too, but it's all just an A that's basically a print, nothing more. I don't really like that idea.
Marc Jacobs, of course, is a friend of yours. Do you attend a lot of Louis Vuitton shows?
When l can l do it. At Vuitton, Dior Homme, Dior women's wear, but at Dior Homme now there's no longer Hedi (Slimane). I go to Galliano who's a friend, too, and Comme des Garçons, a very good friend. Yohji too.
Do you have a favorite designer or one who you admire a lot?
I really admire Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, so that's a woman, but when it comes to men it's a tie. lf l like them, l like their work and they're friends so l like them as people too!
Among the great Paris designers of the 80s, notably you, Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler, only the first two of you are still really working successfully. Does that sadden you?
The other two made a choice, according to their natures. Mugler went to the United States, he didn't want to work here anymore. He's someone l like a lot, l find his work really interesting. Claude l haven't seen in a long time.
Can you tell us about how 3Rooms started?
At the start it was a small building in bad condition, and l turned it into apartments that, for six to nine years, were rented. But when l had a friend coming l wanted to able to keep some space available, and Carla (Sozzani) said, do like me with 3Rooms. And I'm so glad because if they were still rented I couldn't have them now when Stephanie Seymour comes, when she calls and says what dates she'll be here l can reserve two floors for her. Veronica Webb, the same.
You've stayed very close to your former models.
Last week Linda Spering, who was a big model, who had been here for two months to learn French, was here with her 16-year-old son for three days. That's a friendship that's lasted twenty years. All the girls l worked with I've stayed in contact with.
Do you have a muse?
l don't like that word. Everything depends on the person you meet and dress. lf it's a woman it depends on her personality, not on mine. There are girls who wear clothes so well that they're more than just outfits. There's Victoire de Castellane who comes here to dress herself. l really love this girl, she's got such a sense of humor, she's so full of energy and life. When a woman who loves the clothes wears them it's really an expression of her and her personality, and that's more important to me than any muse.
Do you get stopped in the street by women who are fans of your work?
I think it's really brave when a woman does something like that. And it's so much more than a compliment, because you can't do that with other designers, you can't just approach them, they have bodyguards – but guarding what bodies?! Who's going to attack them in the street!
You don't bother with the star system for yourself.
I would rather die than go around making myself out to be a star.
Through your work you created clothes that elevate women to the level of goddesses. Did you have a progressive upbringing when it came to women?
I lived in such freedom, it's true. Until the age of seven l was looked after by a grandmother who never spoke about religion, who believed in the force of nature. And l didn't know the difference between a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim. No one in the family was veiled, and my grandmother, who regarded her cashmere veil as a cache-misère when she went out, had it hanging inside the house.
What do you believe in?
l believe in nature, but l don't believe in any religion at all. l respect them a lot, and if l go into a church l even pray. I can go into a mosque, the same thing; into a synagogue, the same. But l'm not a believer at all. I believe in humanity, and that's it.
Do you still enjoy working?
Yes, it's a pleasure because I've never been motivated by earning lots of money
Do you keep archives?
Everything; well, nearly everything. Right from the beginning. And of course l collect other work, too. I want to be able to do a museum here, for exhibitions, like l did with Paul Poiret. My archives l don't want to show straight away, but others like Balenciaga, Vionnet, but l could always ask of other people too.
Poiret is flavor of the month with the big exhibition devoted to him at the Costume Institute at the Met in New York, but there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between your work and his.
Personally l believe that all of the great designers have brought something to their time and it can be very interesting to look at this work because it can help clear up preconceptions you had and give you a real insight into a particular couturier's style, his development, because, you know, Paul Poiret was very modern, he worked with vintage a long time before Margiela.