Azzedine Alaïa passed away on 20 november in Paris. In 2010 I interviewed the great couturier who opened up about his native Tunisia where he is now buried and about his desire to leave a mark.
The couturier Azzedine Alaïa is a sculptor of the female form.
The former fine art student from Tunis retained from this initial education a sense of the construction of the feminine silhouette, using it to develop an instantly identifiable style.
In his huge loft space in the Marais, filled with pieces by designers and close friends, this warm, understated man, both unusually instinctive and mischievous, was having friends over.
He assembled a creative world around him, according to who was visiting, with the filmmaker and painter Julian Schnabel, Carla Sozzani, high priestess of Italian fashion and creator of Milan’s famous concept store 10 Corso Como, or the former model Stephanie Seymour.
“I come from the Mediterranean. In Tunisia there were the Romans, the Carthaginians. I was nurtured by all of that. But I don’t think the place you come from is important. It’s an accident of nature which depends on your mother’s place in life and who she met at the time…”
“In Tunis we learned the History of France before the History of Tunisia.
We sang the French song “En passant par la Lorraine”… Paris was a dream. During the month of Ramadan, I would go to visit an animation hut which was open in the evenings. We would sit on a bench and peer through the little window at images of Paris by candlelight: Place Pigalle, Versailles. When I saw Versailles, I was bursting with happiness”.
“My first encounter with Madame de Pompadour took place at art school in Tunis. I was in the sculpture section and I copied a plaster cast reproduction of her face. A pretty neckline. Beautiful hair. An intelligent, skilful woman who reigned over Versailles and who succeeded in holding her own against the pope.
Later on, I learned that where I live now there was an “hotel particulier” in which Madame de Pompadour had lived as a child. The Pompadour is mine.”
I had a happy childhood.
I went to the cinema once a month when the films would change.
The cinema was owned by a friend of my grandfather’s. I would watch the film four times in a row while my grandfather played cards outside.
The shock came when I watched “Bitter Rice” with Silvana Mangano. In Tunis, I was used to beautiful girls. But when Silvana Mangano goes into the rice field in her shorts, it’s the height of chic.
I wanted to learn couture, but I had no clear vision of a career. I had recommendations. I met Louise de Vilmorin, Arletty…
I wanted to know what happened inside a dress. How the slips or bustiers held in place. Five days at Dior. It was the end of the Algerian war… Then Guy Laroche, five and a half years.
It was in the 1980s that I developed a silhouette.
Before that I was in a couture house on the Rue de Bellechasse. I learn a lot from women…
Certain women have style and know what they want. Girls have a nice silhouette. With their mothers it’s even more interesting. Almost an orthopaedic exercise. You remodel. You sculpt around the body. Everything can be shown. You just have to find the right way to do it.
I have no notion of age. I don’t want that to be what drives me. I never celebrate my birthdays. I don’t want to know the age of women. I like women who wear clothes without thinking about their age. There is nothing ridiculous about it. Ridicule emanates from you, if you want it to. Women dedicate the best years of their lives to raising children. It’s too much!
The ideal woman
I have no ideal woman. Any woman can inspire me. I have seen Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell start out as adolescents and become women. I have a great fondness for them.
I have a great affection for artists and designers. I prefer them to people who work in fashion. With the designer Mark Newson there is a roundness, a sensuality, close to the body. With the designer Martin Szekely there is this fascinating rigour. But I have difficulty finding the right words to explain all that.
In the evenings I listen to Oum Kalsoum but also Lady Gaga and Shakira. I don’t differentiate between them. Each to their own and in their own way.
I admire the great couturiers, like Madeleine Vionnet, for example. But these days I feel like I am an apprentice. Reworking the straight skirt, for example… I’ve done so many of them. When you are young you think you’re a genius, but as you get older you realize you know nothing. There is nothing new and the time allotted to us is too short.
The pace of the world is frenetic, too frenetic.
When I design a dress now, I consider how it’s going to be used. The woman will go out. The dress must have an effect. She must get a sense of satisfaction from it. I think about the price she has paid in order to possess it.
This is the important thing for me now. I have a foundation project in the process of being created. I have preserved all my archives. Plus there are my collections of design, vintage clothing and paintings. I am not one of those couturiers who is only interested in clothes. You must enter a different stage. I would like to organise even bigger exhibitions.
As we pass through in this life we must leave a mark.
According to our sources, the foundation may have been created. Its purpose is the preservation of Alaïa’s creative output alongside the couturier’s personal collections. It seems Mr Alaïa had in his possession an enormous collection of items relating to the history of fashion, one of the largest collections in private hands of twentieth-century dresses, according to specialists, comprising among others much of the archives of the Hollywood costume designer Adrian, a cape painted by Matisse for the Ballets Russes, dresses by Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret, all the photos of Dior’s favourite model, Bettina Graziani etc…
This homage is illustrated by photos ( except one, in Rome, Villa Borghese in 2015) of the now forgotten first retrospective of his creation in 1997 hanged in dialogue with Julian Schnabel paintings and part of Peter Brant’s collection of art in Groninger museum, in Holland .