Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa looks back on his glittering career

As the Azzedine Alaïa retrospective draws crowds in Paris, Elisabeta Tudor talks to the Tunisian designer about his glittering career

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:32pm

It's impressive how much devotion one designer can inspire. Supermodel Linda Evangelista, in the late 1980s, said that to work for Azzedine Alaïa, "we do whatever we can to change our dates, or cancel other shows, because we all love Azzedine".

The Tunis-born, Paris-based womenswear designer is undoubtedly the supermodels' favourite since the early '80s. Even at the opening of his latest retrospective, an eponymous exhibition at the newly opened Palais Galliera in Paris, Naomi Campbell would follow his every step.

He approaches his clothes like a sculptor or an architect or a writer

Few people know that Campbell was discovered by Alaia, and used to adopt his last name as a joke, pretending to be his daughter.

So how did Alaïa, so-called "king of cling", manage to maintain success throughout the decades, without any obvious commercial strategy?

"You have to live surrounded by the things and people you love," he explains over lunch at his Paris atelier. "This is the only way to keep your memories alive, and to forge yourself a strong identity."

The Alaia DNA is strong indeed. His collections are subtly sophisticated - and timeless. "He approaches his clothes like a sculptor or an architect or a writer, and he often says, 'I make clothes; women make fashion'," says Galliera Museum director Olivier Saillard, who curated the retrospective.

Alaïa's signature style is seamlessly developed, from one collection to another, staying true to the elements that made his fashion famous - his zipped dresses, his African-inspired patterns, and above all, his second-skin, figure-hugging fabric treatments - without ever bowing to trend or a business obligation.

"I am not 'anti-fashion'. My world is rather in parallel - [not] anti," Alaïa says. "The excitement over ready-to-wear fashion has become accustomed to an inhuman pace. There are too many collections. Nobody, even the designers, can follow up any more.

"That's why we work at our own pace. I'd rather supervise collections myself, because I want the job to be done right. I like to work on each piece, even if it takes a long time.

"We are a small team of 20 people in the studio, but the advantage of creating with a small team is not having to spread your creations all over. If a designer delegates too many responsibilities to somebody else, he loses his own soul," he says.

In July 2011, Alaïa's last showcased haute couture collection, at his Parisian headquarters, was packed to the brim and was acclaimed by the industry's professionals.

On 7 Rue de Moussy, in the middle of the lively Le Marais district, guests arrived to see his first show in more than a decade. No particular announcement was made, no press notes were released and even the presentation was off-schedule (set up months after the end of the official season).

But Alaïa has the luxury of swimming against the tide.

If fashion itself has never been an inspiration for him, women definitely are. "It is with women that you learn fashion," he says, adding in jest: "I only talk to men when I can't avoid it anymore."

From the streets to the catwalk, Alaïa constantly identifies his designs with strong-minded women. From the early '70s onwards, unofficial ambassadors such as supermodel Stephanie Seymour-Brant, and actresses Arletty and Greta Garbo would queue to get into his small studio on Rue de Bellechasse to buy a made-to-measure dress.

"It was like a secret club," says Seymour-Brant. "Only the lucky few had Alaïa in their closets."

Following his first ready-to-wear show in 1982 (where Naomi Campbell made her catwalk debut), the designer slowly, but firmly, developed his retail business.

In 1983, he opened a boutique in Beverly Hills, Neiman Marcus bought his collection for San Francisco, Les Createurs followed in Geneva - not to mention the London boutiques Browns and Joseph.

Madonna, Grace Jones, Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn - the jetsetters of the '80s - became regular clients.

In 1985, Alaïa was honoured with two awards by the French Ministry of Culture. Four years later, he was asked to create the famous tricoloured dress worn by opera singer Jessy Norman at the Bicentennial Parade, directed by Jean-Paul Goude and held on the Place de la Concorde, to mark the French revolution.

In 2007, the designer was able to buy back the Alaïa shares he had sold to the Prada Group in 2000, restoring his independence as a couturier.

Today, he has a contract with luxury goods firm Richemont - but, that said, the creative and artistic direction stays firmly in his hands, Alaïa says. Influential women, from US first lady Michelle Obama to former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, are still wearing Alaïa.

"It's great to meet such personalities. But to be honest, I don't really care if my dresses are worn by Michelle and Carla, or by a poor woman. Every customer is valuable."

The same applies to his latest gallery show: there's no hierarchy in presenting his pieces. Together with set designer, Martin Szekely, Alaïa and Saillard selected 70 designs. From the iconic zipper dresses and silky cape gowns (made famous by Jones), to his rayon striped long dress called houppette, this exhibition traces Alaïa's unique journey. Retrospectives can sometimes feel like closure, but according to the designer, he is far from finished.

"I wake up every morning curious about what I will learn today, and never regretting anything at all.""Alaïa" is at Palais Galliera, Galliera Museum, Paris until Jan 26, 2014