Inside Farida Khelfa’s 19th century Parisian townhouse there’s an esoteric mix of international modernism, French old masters, and African sculptures.
Until two and a half years ago, Farida Khelfa had never lived in a house. For the 59-year-old French-Algerian model, actor, and filmmaker, who found fame in the 1980s as a muse to designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa, it had been apartments all the way. So when she moved into a late-19th-century four-story building in Paris’s affluent 16th arrondissement, she was freaked.
“I know it’s crazy, but it took me two years to get used to it,” she says. “Of course you say, ‘I love my house!’ But the reality was, ‘I’m by myself in a house!’ Now, I do love it and don’t know if I could go back to an apartment. So, voila!”
Luckily, Khelfa and her husband, Henri Seydoux, had someone to help them through: their good friend Philippe Starck, no less, transformed the house to breathtaking effect. “Philippe has been a friend for many, many years,” says Khelfa. “He understands us very well and knew what we wanted.”
Starck ripped out walls to make each floor open-plan, replacing the original staircase with a spiral of oak and white render that curls up through the center of the space. “The staircase really made the shape of the house,” says Khelfa. Another key structural feature was the glass extension to the basement kitchen. “That was Philippe’s greatest idea – a big veranda that opens on to the garden.”
Luxurious though the house is, there is simplicity at its heart. White-painted walls set off wide oak floorboards and vaulted ceilings that lend the space the serenity of a midcentury American chapel. This quietness allows for the couple’s singular collection of art to take its rightful position.
“Oh, the art is Henri, you know?” Khelfa says nonchalantly of the mind-blowing mix of old masters and contemporary African paintings on every wall, and the African figurative sculptures and historic artefacts gathered, like a flash mob in suspended animation, in the upstairs salon. Seydoux, father (from his first marriage) of actor Léa and stylist Camille, is the CEO of telecommunications company Parrot and co-founder of Christian Louboutin. He has been collecting a mix of grand old oil paintings by the likes of François Gérard and Hyacinthe Rigaud as well as 20th century furniture by Jean Royère, Jean Prouvé, and Charlotte Perriand, since he was a teenager. “Every weekend he goes to Drouot [the Paris auction house], where everyone goes now, but he went in the 1990s and bought a lot of pieces cheap because they weren’t fashionable,” says Khelfa.
The collection of contemporary African art is possibly the foremost in France and a source of delight to Khelfa – if you follow her lively Instagram feed, you’ll see her out and about at openings supporting artists from that continent and beyond. “African art is such an important movement. I love Chéri Samba, of course, he is one of the best. I like George Lilanga, Moké, and the furniture of Gonçalo Mabunda. And I love putting modern African sculpture with an Ancient Greek head and an 18th century painting,” she says. “The mix of all these pieces makes the atmosphere of the house very special.”
It’s typically droll of Khelfa to confess that, prior to moving, one of the things she liked most was a blank space. “I always loved white, clinical walls,” she says dreamily. And yet it was she who was responsible for the dramatic arrangement of the paintings. “I wasn’t busy at the time, so it was my job to hang the art.” She laughs. “It was overwhelming at first to have this art looking at me, but it became like therapy. Now, it’s so nice to have paintings all over the house. You can stare at them for hours and see different things every day.”
She has several works by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed to remind her of her heritage, but her favorite piece is an Ancient Egyptian sculpture of Sekhmet, a warrior goddess with the head of a lion. It sits next to two imposing oils, one of Joachim Napoléon Murat by Gérard, the other, unsigned, of a rabbit walking on its hind legs and carrying an umbrella. “It’s like living in a museum, but it’s not ceremonious because you can touch everything,” she says.
Furniture is singularly eclectic. A favorite chair with a carved head by Bandia Camara, known in the family as the “African king chair,” is where Khelfa, a great reader, sits every morning devouring e-books. In the evenings, they gather in the kitchen with their student sons, Ismaël, 24, and Omer, 21, and entertain friends. Seydoux is the chef. “He loves to cook, and it’s a good thing because I hate it,” says Khelfa. “I’m very bad!”
A rare tell of Khelfa’s glittering fashion career is her spectacular walk-in closet, a floor-to-ceiling mirrored storage system that glides along tracks operated with industrial hand wheels. “It was Henri’s idea to make it like the archives in a museum,” she says. “I worked in fashion for so many years I have tons of clothes. This makes it easy.” The mass of couture she has collected over decades from Gaultier, Alaïa, and Yves Saint Laurent is in off-site storage. “This is just what I wear on an everyday basis. But it’s nice when you can see all your clothes, otherwise you always dress the same.”
Khelfa was one of 11 children born to strict Algerian parents in the suburbs of Lyon. At 16, she ran away to Paris. Six foot tall with a spectacular tangle of long, curly hair, she worked on the door at the famous nightclub Le Palace, roomed with Christian Louboutin, and started modeling, first for Jean Paul Gaultier then for Thierry Mugler and Azzedine Alaïa. She was one of the first Arab women to break through into the Western fashion industry, her striking features and angular frame making her a gift for photographers such as Helmut Newton, Pierre et Gilles, and Jean-Paul Goude, whose 1980s images of the towering Khelfa and the tiny Alaïa are endearingly witty.
It’s been some career. She’s since managed Alaïa’s fashion business and then Gaultier’s haute couture line, and was an ambassador for Schiaparelli when it relaunched under Diego Della Valle. She has acted in 17 films, and is a filmmaker, too, with documentaries on Gaultier, Louboutin, and Nicolas Sarkozy (Carla Bruni Sarkozy is a close friend), as well as two on youth and women in the Middle East. Her next, still in the planning stages, will retrace her own fascinating roots. She leads a disciplined life, rising at 5.30am to run on a machine in the home gym. “I used to go out every morning running in the dark. Doing it at home is much better.” She works in her bedroom at a Charlotte Perriand wooden table “with a lot of mess on it.” Her bedspread is a graphic batik bought for her in Dakar by a Parisian boutique owner – “he called me from the market and I was able to choose the ones I liked.” The bed is set against a marble wall and overlooked by a grand gilt-framed oil by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée. The tableau is a summary of the house’s unique style – a marriage of art, Africa, and cultural history. “We did it together, the arrangement of the house,” says Khelfa, fondly. “It’s not a fashionable look created by someone else, it’s a personal design. You can tell that this is our life.”
Originally published in the October 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia