Beauty, creativity and family: Azzedine Alaïa remembered

If there was anything Azzedine Alaïa, the revered designer who died aged 77 this weekend, enjoyed more than actually making clothes, it was sitting down to a meal with his “family.” By family, Alaïa – who reinvented the modern silhouette of women – meant an extended tribe of supermodels, bold face names, stars, heavy hitter artists and a large gang of adoring staff, who would sit down to lunch or dinner in the kitchen of his Marais headquarters. Where, the gentlemanly and intensely opinionated Azzedine would see everyone served before he touched his own plate.

Alaia at Galleria Borghese – Foto: Ansa

For fashionistas, dining at Alaïa’s table was a rite of passage. Like a golfer playing St Andrew’s or a country singer performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, if you had not broke bread in Alaïa’s cuisine, you remained a fashion undergraduate. The half dozen times I’ve dined there, under a photo-montage of Marlon Brando by his best buddy Julian Schnabel, there was always a supermodel by Alaïa’s side – Naomi Campbell at one languid lunch for 30; Stephanie Seymour for a post-opening dinner of 45, Yasmin Le Bon at a Harper’s Bazaar shoot brunch. Most of these beauties called him Papa, which made sense seeing he’s put them up over the years in his three-room upstairs Inn. Inside his rambling multi-staircase home, an amalgamation of a one-time factory, a cut-stone mansion’s façade, art gallery, Marc Newson-designed shoe shop and warehouse, crammed full of huge paintings, all by Schnabel, located on rue de Moussy.
 
Ladies came because no designer better redefined a woman’s body than Alaïa, with his sculpted, figure hugging architectural line. Ironic then, that Azzedine always dressed so simply – in black cotton Chinese pajamas. Phyiscally he was tiny – but his influence was immense. Before Alaïa, women could certainly look exotic, alluring and beautiful, but Alaïa turned them into superheroes, an inspiration that continues today. It’s 37 years since his first runway show, and 33 since he was voted Paris Designer of the Year, when Grace Jones (who donned Alaïa in A View to a Kill) famously carried the diminuative Azzedine in her arms on stage. This decade, he dressed two First Ladies, Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama, as well as Kim and Kendall, Rihanna and Ashanti, and let’s not forget Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes. And no runway season is complete without references to Alaïa’s oeuvre – seen in recent years in Christopher Kane, Marios Schwab, Roland Mouret and Victoria Beckham, to name a few.

Azzedine Alaïa with Grace Jones – AFP/Georges Bendrihem

Born into a landowning family, he arrived Paris in 1957, leaving his native Tunis for a job at Christian Dior. “I lasted only a week, they must not have liked my face” he would cackle. After stints at Guy Laroche and Mugler, he opened his own house in 1980 and began creating for the likes of Greta Garbo, Arletty or Louise de Vilmorin, in between designing Crazy Horse strippers; before his break-out moment as an enfant in the arms of Grace Jones, nearly a foot taller than Alaïa, just 1.6 meters in his black Nike sneakers.
 
“At college, I quickly realized that I could never be a great sculptor, so I changed paths, which was easier as I always loved fashion,” Alaïa once told me at one “small lunch” in 2000. Alaïa was such a welcoming host, with frequent dinners of 60 people, his chef took to calling the kitchen the Gare du Nord. He was the Andy Warhol of Paris fashion. On ocassions he staged massive happenings in his gallery, like the MR2 Kabarett of artist Mike Bouchet last year, where waiters served wine from jerry cas; angry sailors staged performance art wrestling matches and women slid out a giant elephant’s backside. During fashion seasons, le tout Paris showed up chez Alaïa, from Kanye West and Pedro Almodovar to Kim Kardashian and Livia Firth. All perched around the table, some tossing scraps to his favorite hound, a massive St Bernard named Dedine, Linda Evangelista’s nickname for Azzedine.
 
Recalled Naomi Campbell at a late supper:  “The day I met him, when I was 16 years old, I was with Amanda de Cadenet and I had had my bag stolen. I didn’t speak French and I didn’t know anyone. So I go along with Amanda, who has a meeting with Azzedine, and somehow we formed a connection even though I didn’t speak French and he didn’t speak English.” Taking matters in hand, Alaïa called Naomi’s mother, and said ‘look, she’s young, I’ll take care of her,” and Campbell moved in to her own room, chez Azzedine.
 
Obsessing over women is what Alaïa did best. Major designers rarely grant personal fittings, but Alaïa would see multiple clients – gazing adoringly at a Middle Eastern princess one minute, a movie star the next, before disappearing with a model into his immense fitting room clad in red velvet drapes, gigantic mirrors and a immense broken-plate portrait of Azzedine, by Schnabel, where the subject’s eyes follow you around the room. His upstairs studio loft space was crammed full of beautiful clothes: racks of bustier dresses in macramé laser cut leather; slinky ribbed cocktails in viscose or wonderful suede Robin Hood jackets with his signature grommets.
 
Despite his immense gifts, Alaïa did have an erratic career. He drove the American department stores crazy, by refusing to show during the official Paris schedule forcing them make return trips across the Atlantic, which eventually they stopped doing. And, his production has always been limited, partly because he sews many of the prototypes by hand himself.  “You know what the secret of my clothes is? Hard work. A great architect is not a great architect if he does not build buildings, simple as that. Even a straight skirt is still is tricky for me,” he once explained.
 
And one stage, after his beloved twin sister died in the 1990s, he almost completely stopped showing. Staging a show clearly demanded huge mental effort for Alaïa, who once literally could not speak after one runway event so drained he was by the exertion. So, in 2000, he sold his business to the Prada Group, igniting a fresh burst of craativity.

All told, I attended six Alaïa shows, including his final runway event was this July. Gallery owner Kamel Mennour; Sydney Picasso, daughter-in-law of Pablo; ex Culture Minister Jack Lang and even fellow designer Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton sat front row on metal school chairs. Combining supple metal tracks, leather strips and taut knits into clothes of great power – like snakeskin jackets and coatdresses held together with micro grommets that won Alaïa a standing ovation from the 400 guests. A final reminder that Alaïa women manage to look like they could conquer the world at the same time as they seduced it.

Azzedine had little doubt he was a member of the creative Pantheon of fashion, up there with Dior, Chanel and Schiaparelli. Yet, he never hurried after honors. He’s almost certainly the only designer ever to turn down one of France’s greatest distinctions, Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. “I could not accept, because I do not like the decorations. Certainly, people deserve recognition for doing lots in life… Now, if the Queen of England awarded me something, I’d accept that. Especially if it had been the Queen Mother!”

Though he did love his Rome exhibition of 2015, a brilliant display in the Baroque Galleria Borghese, entitled Azzedine Alaïa. Couture/Sculpture, where classical statuary was posed beisde his iconic looks. Alaïa ‘s drop dead, mid-90s Screen Goddess columns entirely in sync with Roman beauties in marble togas, and suavely in juxtaposition to the room’s key piece – Paolina Bonaparte posing as a Venus for Antonio Canova. Bernini’s magnificent Daphne and Apollo, where the subject’s hands grow into trees, surrounded by Azzedine’s organic Africa period – works from 1992 that include shells and horse hair. Most memorably, Alaïa’s justly famed Crocodile jacket looked at home when hung between two burly Roman generals in matching brown marble.

“I am a visitor in this beautiful city, yet my fashion looks very at home,” smiled Alaïa during a private tour. For such a proud man, I never recall him being more fulfilled.

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