Ten Interviews: Azzedine Alaïa
I’m petrified before I meet Azzedine Alaïa. I don’t know what to ask him. I’m in Rome, where Mr Alaïa is unveiling an exhibition titled Couture/Sculpture, at the Galleria Borghese. It’s hot as hell, even inside the museum, which has no air conditioning, because it was built in the 17th century. Even Monsieur Alaïa, when he arrives, exhales sharply, walking from the shaded loggia into the balmy opening hall. “C’est très chaud,” he murmurs, dressed in his habitual black pyjamas, as the sweat rolls down my face. Despite my abysmal French, je comprends. Some things transgress a language barrier.
Azzedine Alaïa only speaks French. Language, he has said, “is one of the few things I’m lazy about. I don’t speak a single word of English.” It lends an odd cadence to our interview, conducted in a slightly cooler side gallery with a translator – his long-term right-hand woman Caroline Fabre – in tow. We’re flanked there by two Alaïa dresses, in changeante silk velvet, in a papal purple and cardinal red. They, in turn, are flanked by Caravaggios – the sort you normally see on picture postcards, rather than in the flesh. Those Alaïa dresses co-ordinate with the lushly coloured fabrics swagged across their painted protagonists. It all interrelates perfectly. One kind of masterpiece meeting another.
The Galleria Borghese is housed in a baroque villa, situated in lush gardens on the edge of Rome. It was originally built by Flaminio Ponzio for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V. The ceiling and walls are sumptuously frescoed, tumbling putti chortling amidst great pilasters of gilt and Carrara marble. Scipione Borghese was a patron of the sculptor Bernini, whose energetic, expressive statues jut from pedestals and walls. He also harboured a Caravaggio fixation, and picked up a Titian, a Raphael and a few Barocci on the way.
That’s heavy-duty art. In fashion, Alaïa is the closest thing you get to that. But there’s also a link to the handcraft of small-scale artisans, or even local dressmakers, pouring love into the garments they create. It’s industry lore that Alaïa cuts every pattern and sews every sample himself. He may lavish, say, two years of work on perfecting a jacket with a flank of bristling Nile crocodile. He can do that because Alaïa stopped showing his clothes formally on catwalks in 1992. He now presents informally, to people he knows and likes rather than the fashion press en masse, inside his atelier on the Rue de Moussy in the Marais. During the biannual show seasons in Paris, supermodels, cultural figures, fashion press and an inordinate number of dogs pile into the kitchen of Maison Alaïa – maison in both the domestic and couture sense – for dinner. He also has a tiny, three-room hotel above, all concrete and white walls and breathtaking chic, that he rents to friends and family.
All of the above – the well-worn, well-known myths of Azzedine Alaïa – was why I was petrified to ask him anything. Alaïa has been working in fashion since the 1950s, exploded onto the scene in the 1980s, retreated from it in the 1990s. He has been interviewed hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Everyone has probably asked him variations on much the same questions, over and over. Occasionally, he is inscrutable. Which makes sense, given that backstory. When I ask about his intentions in displaying his work on mannequins rather than the body, and if one satisfied him more than another, he paused, then stated: “I don’t think of my own work.”
Okay. Scratch out the next 10 questions, then.
I don’t really know how old Alaïa is. He’s coy about his age – he’s coy generally, to be honest. When the curators present both Alaïa and his exhibition to the press, he hides, only shaking his head and grinning when asked if he’ll say a few words, resolutely remaining mute. “Azzedine speaks through his work,” said the curator Mark Wilson, who worked with Galleria Borghese director Anna Coliva on the selection. The gregarious, Massachusetts-born, Amsterdam-based Wilson, who heads up the exhibitions department of Holland’s Groninger Museum, has curated five Alaïa shows in total, the first in 1997. He recalls that each time Alaïa tweaks the dimensions of his plexiglass mannequins – originally based on the proportions of Naomi Campbell – he redrafts each pattern, recuts and resews each dress, a further expansion on the lore that the Hand of Azzedine touches every one of his pieces. The trio of opening garments in this exhibition, acetate bandage dresses that helped cement Alaïa’s name in popular consciousness in the mid-1980s, have been remade, repeatedly. For this reiteration, the mannequins are elongated, stretched out like Giacometti figures to fill the exhibition space. New body, new dress.
Alaïa originally wanted to be a sculptor, but instead of working in marble or bronze, he elected to work in fabric. When I ask him about that study, Alaïa smiles and shakes his head. “Un peu.” He pinches a pleat into the air, to indicate the time he spent on the endeavour. “When I realised I couldn’t be an amazing sculptor, I changed direction.” Instead, he decided to sculpt women’s bodies through his clothes – the Borghese are dubbing Alaïa’s work “Soft Sculpture”, although what they really mean is pliant. There’s nothing especially soft about that croc-back black jacket, nor another crocodile in buttery walnut that sits like a hollow bust alongside a pair of solid Berninis in variegated marbles.
Mr Alaïa intimates that, although he leapt at the approach of the museum to show here – the show has been pulled together in a record four months, Alaïa forgoing the private presentations he sometimes stages during Paris couture week to devote more time to Rome – he was afraid. “At the beginning, we came twice or three times to the museum,” he recalls. “The museum is full of art pieces, full of masterpieces, so you can’t take anything out. I didn’t want to bother the visitor who is coming only to see the Bernini or the Caravaggios – they’re very important! It’s very dangerous to put something into a museum like this.”
Feted as he is universally, it’s strange to hear Alaïa talk about fear. He is, perhaps, the only person who would dare to question himself: the rest of the fashion industry, when asked which contemporary fashion designer could stand up next to renaissance greats, would invariably answer “Azzedine.” There’s simply no other choice.
Then again, Alaïa doesn’t really consider himself part of that industry. It’s not just about stepping out of the catwalk merry-go-round, via his will-he-won’t-he shows – which includes showing up for interviews – that generally don’t happen. There’s something deeper at play. When I begin to ask if he is interested in what other designers are doing, Fabre frowns, and shoots me a look. “What do you think?”
When I ask him if he feels connected, even, to fashion today, Alaïa’s reply is direct and brief. “Pas de tout. I do not agree at all with the system of fashion today.” In particular, Alaïa doesn’t agree with the speed. Which you get. You get it because you can juxtapose an Alaïa dress from 1984 with one from today, and there’s a shared handwriting. Many crow that Alaïa is the designer who defined the 1980s, which often mires his work down in images of Grace Jones and Tina Turner, of tight skirts and powerful shoulders. Of course, Alaïa did all of that, better and before anyone else. But he could as easily do it today, and had by 1980 been working for 23 years, quietly creating faultless clothes for private clients. They included Greta Garbo, who demanded not clingy, sensuous dresses, but trousers and a wide-cut coat with a high collar, to hide her face. “There is no difference,” states Alaïa, of his work today rather than then. “There is an evolution in my work, but nothing is broken between two steps.”
So, rather than fashion designers, I wonder if Alaïa is interested in designers full stop. The rooms at his tiny hotel on Rue de Moussy are filled with archive furniture pieces from his own collection, by Jean Prouvé and Harry Bertoia. He is good friends with the designer Marc Newson, and created the wedding dress of his wife, the stylist Charlotte Stockdale. Mr Alaïa nods when I ask. “You have to care. You have to be curious. Sometimes, it’s to avoid making a mistake,” he states. When I wonder if that includes modern design, he is quick to answer in the affirmative. Alaïa’s clothes can only seem timeless because he is acutely aware of what is going on around him. He can then boil it down to what’s important – in short, not most other stuff going on in fashion – and use it to inform his garments. Alaïa does attend a few fashion shows, such as those of Raf Simons for Dior, or Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. But that’s it. “You have to be in your time,” states he.
The fact Alaïa is launching a perfume feels very of the moment. His business is small, around £40 million, which in fashion terms (at least today) is minute. But Alaïa punches big. He has 140 square metres of retail space in Barneys department store in New York, for instance. He is equally well represented in other stores across the world. His clothes sell by the shedload to women who demand the very best of both quality and design. A fragrance is the perfect way to spin that out to a wider audience, and push the profits. Since 2007, he has been part of the Richemont group, who have some fashion holdings (notably the fashion house Chloé), but are better known for jewellery companies such as Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, and the watches of Jaeger-LeCoultre and Baume & Mercier. Those represent painstakingly crafted luxury with an eternal quality. Alaïa fits right in.
But back to that perfume, and to Alaïa continually confounding expectations. His fragrance debut has been rumoured for years, but when the news of its final release emerged this year – abruptly, without the usual tattletale or leaks of the fashion industry – it still managed to surprise. Those who expected a Schiaparelli-style curvaceous torso as the bottle are met, instead, with a Martin Szekely-designed obsidian brick, like an artefact recovered from an Egyptian tomb. Alaïa is Tunisian, so the North African connection is appropriate; the etched-in geometric patterns, like fret-worked screens, that decorate the bottle are also punched through the iron doors of his Paris headquarters, and frequently perforate his dresses, in lace or broderie anglaise. The bottle is topped with a golden cylinder, like a spool of thread. The focus is pulled back, once again, to the craft.
I ask if, perhaps, this perfume is somehow a step into the demanding, profit-driven fashion system. Alaïa seems nonplussed. “Non, non, non. Perfume was always in fashion, by couturiers, always,” he states. As he asserts, his thinking so opposed to the clichéd fashion cant, I immediately think of Parfums de Rosine, the fragrance house founded by the couturier Paul Poiret in 1911, rather than the bold-faced names of Chanel or Dior. Alaïa is an ardent admirer of Poiret, so that makes sense. “I have been working on it for a long time, several ideas have been proposed… I didn’t think that the time was right. Even for the smell – the first briefing I did, I said, ‘I want mineral water’.” Alaïa grins. I do, too, thinking of the perplexed face of his nez, Marie Salamagne of Beauté Prestige International, who helped concoct the eventual fragrance.
The Alaïa Paris fragrance doesn’t smell like water any more, FYI, more like peonies, pink pepper and musk. Although I suspect it would have ended up being bottled Evian if Mr Alaïa had insisted thus. “I always feel free,” he asserts. “Even if there’s finance behind, if I don’t feel it, I don’t do it.” Thinking about women paying good money to splash cold water on their neck from an Alaïa bottle (which I’m sure many would), a line from the perfume’s press release sent out in May leaps out at me now: “My perfume is not reasonable.”
Neither is Mr Alaïa, sometimes. That’s why he’s a genius.
Alexander Fury is fashion editor of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and i