Follow Vogue Arabia

Azzedine Alaïa: A Last Interview with the Greatest Designer of the Arab World

Uncompromising Rebel. King of Cling. The Last Couturier. AZZEDINE ALAÏA was also an Arab and an eminent figure of the Arabian diaspora. In the year leading up to his death, Vogue Arabia’s Features Director, Caterina Minthe, spent several days at 7 rue de Moussy, the Paris address where Alaïa lived and worked, observing the comings and goings of some of those closest to him. Those encounters are shared below, along with her interview with the late Tunisian master. 

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.

“There’s been an emergency,” announces a man crossing the room towards where Jean-Baptiste Mondino and I are sitting, discussing his recent summer vacation in Pantelleria. The photographer and filmmaker behind more than a dozen of Madonna‘s music videos and I are once again at Mr Alaïa’s residence, this time inside his boutique apartment hotel, 3 Rooms, to discuss a cover shoot and story for Vogue Arabia that would ultimately not happen. We anxiously jump to our feet in anticipation of the news. “Caroline has fainted and Mr Alaïa is with her in the ambulance. We don’t know at what time he will arrive for your appointment,” the man continues. Mondino and I exchange a worried glance. Caroline Fabre Bazin, a wiry woman, is Alaïa’s right hand and has been for years. Furthermore, they are hosting a vernissage that evening. The adjoining gallery is buzzing with activity.

“You see?” sighs Mondino, looking out the window and onto the quiet street below him. “Here we are waiting for him and who knows for how much longer… but when it is under such circumstances, well, you can only love him and want to work with him even more.” As I enquire if the vernissage will be canceled, Donatien Grau, the man who curates and runs the gallery, opens the door. “Oh no,” groans Mondino. “Hide me!” he exclaims, jumping behind a curtain, motioning for me to join him before scholarly Grau “recites Guyotat.”

Inside 7 rue de Moussy, where Azzedine Alaïa’s showspace also served to house his ephemeral gallery. Here, “Claude Parent : Dessiner la Mode,” September 2017.

Sixty years after the son of wheat farmers moved to Paris to carve out a career in fashion, Alaïa was moving in a circle of philosophers, artists, and historians. First working at Christian Dior, then Guy Laroche, and Thierry Mugler, he later lived out of a maid’s room belonging to Countess Nicole de Blégiers, babysitting her children and making clothes for her to pay the rent. He eventually moved into his own small atelier in the Saint Germain neighborhood, where he created clothes for the likes of Greta Garbo. He launched his eponymous label in 1979. An insatiable collector, he celebrated the international intelligentsia; his gallery often showcased collections he owned, such as the sketches of Syrian philosopher Adonis. Through Alaïa’s introduction, I met Adonis at Café de Flore, where over an espresso, the most polarizing, living philosopher of the Arab world handed me a typed manuscript – his tribute to Arab women–which was published in the first issue of Vogue Arabia. But for all of Alaïa’s vast knowledge of and connections within the intellectual world, he also took pleasure in dressing icons of pop culture like Lady Gaga and Grace Jones. The couturier reveled in his mischievous humor and had the Jamaican singer carry him in her arms onstage to collect his awards for Best Designer and Collection of the Year at the French Ministry of Culture’s Oscars de la Mode in 1984. He has also invited reality TV star Kim Kardashian West to sit at his table and enjoy his favorite pepper garnish, which 80s Alaïa muse, model Linda Spierings, makes in Amsterdam, and would send to him via post.

Linda Spierings and Tatjana Patitz in Azzedine Alaïa. Photo taken in Touquet, France, 1986 by Peter Lindbergh.

A few hours later, Mondino booms, “Ah, voilà!” Alaïa, dressed in his everyday uniform of black Chinese pajamas, accompanied by Fabre Bazin in an Alaïa dress that offsets her pale skin, appears in the doorway. If at first I was surprised at Alaïa’s small stature (the couturier announced that day his height as 1.58m), today I perceive him to be a giant. “Azzedine,” says Mondino, “If you keep taking the ambulance, the paparazzi will think you are the one who is going to hospital and we will have a problem on our hands.” The men laugh. “Well, I have been seeing private doctors for years. And I always get a second opinion,” quips Alaïa. “How old are you now, Azzedine?” teases Mondino. Alaïa’s piercing eyes squint, “The age of the pharaohs.” During that insouciant Indian summer, where laughter resonated throughout the rooms, we could not have imagined that in a year and a half, he would be gone. Or that his renaissance was, in fact, his final act.

Azzedine Alaïa

Azzedine Alaïa designs the costumes for the 2016 production of Shahrazad. Courtesy Azzedine Alaïa

Over the past few years, Alaïa’s name was consistently in the press. In October 2016, he was putting the finishing touches on 34 weightless costumes that flared like fans for the Belgian production of Shahrazad, of which Vogue Arabia ran the exclusive for the launch of A year beforehand, we witnessed the beginning of his foray into fragrance. Alaïa was an “animalic oriental” packaged in a black bottle decorated with his signature laser cutting. The perfume’s splash aimed to recreate the freshness of a bucket of cold water thrown against a scorching wall, a childhood memory of Alaïa’s, growing up in Tunis. The soirée celebrating the launch included a twirling performance by Blanca Li that held the likes of actor Isabelle Huppert and artist Anish Kapoor enraptured. A year later, in 2016, a second perfume launched. This one was inspired by another of the couturier’s memories: the light of the Alhambra, the Moorish palace that guards over Granada. Both perfumes were co-created with a female nose, Marie Salamagne.

Azzedine Alaïa

Vogue Arabia Features Director Caterina Minthe in conversation with Alaïa perfume nose Marie Salamagne at the Alaïa boutique, rue Marignan, Paris. Courtesy Caterina Minthe

Then there were the monumental efforts behind his gallery. Right before the opening of the showcase of Entre l’Art et la Mode, a selection of photographs belonging to his “sister” Carla Sozzani, Alaïa invited Vogue Arabia to interview her. Who better for the task than Sozzani’s confidante, Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia. I watched with delight as the two traversed her career as an editor, founder of the concept store Corso Como, and collector. Afterwards she signed her book for me, “In memory of a beautiful moment.” Every instant at rue de Moussy felt historic.

Azzedine Alaïa

Azzedine Alaïa and Carla Sozzani. Photo, Sylvie Delpech, courtesy Azzedine Alaïa

And, of course, there was his couture showcase in January. Though far-flung from the centrally located fashion shows, Alaïa’s 19th century renovated warehouse remained the beating heart of his creative universe and where he had his shows if, and when, he decided to. Following a six-year hiatus, “Azzedine Alaïa’s return to couture” was the most important invitation of fashion week. On that hot July day, I accompanied editor-in-chief Manuel Arnaut back to rue de Moussy. Everyone was there, including friends and former Alaïa models Farida Khelfa and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, seated front and center. Naomi Campbell opened the show to applause in a mod, black and white shearling coat. Leather, exotic skins, and his fitted knits followed. Save for a slew of miniskirts, the clothes covered the skin, while remaining alluringly sensual. They showcased his trademark ability to sculpt clothes to accentuate the female form con brio. Never had he bent to trends like 90s grunge or deconstructed minimalism. His cutting techniques and clinging knit dresses earned him clients all over the world. He never advertised. News of his work and the pleasures they roused traveled the world through editors and word-of-mouth.

Azzedine Alaïa

Naomi Campbell opens the Azzedine Alaïa Fall 2018 couture show. Photo courtesy Azzedine Alaïa

Once inside the warehouse, if you make a left, you will find a narrow stairway that leads down to his kitchen. Blocking the passage is a giant dog. Not Anouar or Waka Waka, the small Maltese dogs that Naomi Campbell and Shakira respectively had gifted him, but rather Didine, Alaïa’s enormous St. Bernard. Make it past him and you are greeted by the maître’s cook – and even the couturier – preparing plentiful dishes for his revolving door of eclectic guests. This is where I sat with Grau and Fabre Bazin to interview Alaïa. Hours passed; he was working and would be late. As the clock struck 7pm, the couturier arrived, visibly miffed to have interrupted his work for an interview.

With today’s unstable political and cultural climate, Alaïa said that he considered it a risk to speak his mind. At the time of our interview, terrorist attacks were rocking his homeland. I asked him when was the last time he had visited. “I had to cancel my trip to Tunis three times,” he answered. “I would almost prefer to erase myself than contribute to controversy.” He recalled the time of his grandparents, which he considered to be one of liberty. “Before, no one cared if you were wearing a hijab or not. Today it has become a polarizing piece of clothing. But you cannot tell people how to dress, or fine them,” he said. Grau offered, “France has always had this obsession to push people towards laicity. You cannot wear a hijab and go to a public school. It’s just not allowed.” Alaïa added, “In Tunisia, the burqa is forbidden. And that’s because this is something that never originally existed there.” Though, he remembered his grandmother wearing one. “She would hang it by the door and throw it on to run her errands. It had nothing to do with religion.”

Alaïa, who historically never was one for political correctness, continued, “On the other hand, I have never seen so much vulgarity – women caking their faces with makeup – as I have seen in Lebanese magazines, or at Balmain, for that matter, though I do like Olivier Rousteing.” He spoke of Oum Kulthum, the late Egyptian singer considered to be the Arab world’s answer to Maria Callas. Alaïa listened to and sang along to Kulthum’s music every night as he worked in his atelier, often into the early hours. “She was a woman who worked to advance the Arab world. If she was alive today, she would continue to drive progressive thinking.” Remarking on the cultural differences within the Arab world, he recalled one of his trips to Saudi Arabia with Farida Khelfa, who, along with modeling for him, also worked at his atelier some 20 years ago. “We were walking in the souk when we spotted a store that sold beautiful men’s shirts. The sizes were very big, so the man got out his measuring tape and started to make gestures with it. ‘What is he doing?’ I asked. He was measuring Farida from afar. He wouldn’t touch her.” Alaïa grabbed the tape and started to measure Khelfa himself, when the man began shouting. “I told Farida, ‘That’s enough. Get the shirt and let’s just go.’” Alaïa recalled trying to incite discussions about his experiences with Saudi men, “I told them, ‘ Things have to change.’ But they just answered, ‘We don’t speak of such issues.’”

Naomi Campbell left, Farida Khelfa far right.

The conversation took a lighter tone when he began to list his favorite designers. He spoke of Rei Kawakubo and Nicolas Ghesquière, and added, “Vetements is good, but everything Demna Gvasalia does – the big jackets – Margiela did before him. If you want the truth, it doesn’t make any sense. But because nothing exciting is happening today, we’re talking about it. As we should. But it’s pure styling, not creation. He did not bring a new silhouette or create a new woman. In any case, what man will look at a woman with shoulders out to here?” he said, spreading his arms wide. He continued that today’s young designers need to think differently, “And not look for inspiration in the military vests of the Middle Ages. To progress, you have to study as much as possible. It’s a creative job but don’t forget that it’s a job nonetheless. Maybe you will not become a great creator, but you can still develop your talent into other things, like becoming a costumer for the theater. You have to learn how to work, and stay humble. The past exists to teach us. The future is obscure. Live in the present, in your epoch.”

With a Cheshire grin, Alaïa signaled that the interview was over and that he had made reservations for dinner at Hotel Côstes. That evening he dug into his French snails voraciously, and when it was time to leave, men and women whispered, “It’s Alaïa,” as he crossed the courtyard. Others made no sound but lowered their gazes and bowed their heads in acknowledgement as he passed. Outside, he gave a man his autograph, but stopped short at posing for a selfie. At midnight, we bid him adieu, and he went back to his atelier, to work. He was 81 years old. If much has been written about Alaïa’s independence, he was, in fact, a slave to his work and to the women he revered. He was also a protector. When 16-year-old Naomi Campbell arrived in Paris, he fed her. He gave her a bed in which to sleep. A phone with which to call her mother. Campbell, who never met her biological father, writes, “He is my papa. He brought me into his home and helped raise me.” Alaïa left Tunisia more than half a century ago, but he lived as an Arab – his generosity knew no bounds – until his last breath. Recently, Alaïa did return to Tunisia, signaling an evolution for both the country and the couturier. Vogue Arabia cover star and Tunisian Afef Jnifen was one of the many who welcomed him in his homeland.

To those who say there will not be another: don’t turn your gaze away from the Arab world. This region will once again astonish you. To those who seek to close their borders to immigrants: open your hearts to the legacy of Azzedine Alaïa. He was not just the greatest designer of the 21st century. He was and remains a beacon of hope to all immigrants in search of their place in the world.

Related Read: Vogue Arabia December issue editor’s letter 

View All
Vogue Collection