The Future of Fashion: Azzedine Alaia

There was an extra buzz in the front row at the Comme des Garçons show this season. A star was in our midst, and not just some movie actor or singer. Azzedine Alaïa, the great Tunisian-born, Paris-based designer, had come to support his friend, Rei Kawakubo. Fresh off the triumphant collection he showed during Couture in July, the first presentation he had opened up to the world’s cameras in eight years, Alaïa is more than great. He’s unique. He is the only major designer to produce collections on his own timetable, devoting his time to his private clients as well as to a thriving ready-to-wear business. (Richemont is an investor.) A few days after the Comme des Garçons show, I went to Alaïa’s headquarters in the Marais, a sprawling converted warehouse that houses his boutique, his cluttered studio (where the TV is usually tuned to the National Geographic Channel), and his living quarters. The thing that strikes you first is his vitality. He has the most infectious, mischievous giggle in fashion.

You are one of the only designers who have managed to work outside the system. What is your secret?
No, it’s not a secret. Today I believe that designers are asked to do too much, too many collections. It’s inconceivable to me that someone creative can have a new idea every two months. Because if I have one new idea in a year, I thank heaven. I pray, I do everything, but God doesn’t always give me ideas. [ Laughs.] That’s why I’m always late with the collection.

Is it possible for young designers to follow your example?
I don’t know, to be honest. Because it’s not up to the designers anymore, it’s up to the places that employ them and demand this work from them. In my case, no one demands anything of me. When I decide to do something, I do it. But I make sure it works, too. The proof is that you sell.

Do you think it’s possible to change the system?
I don’t know, but something has to change. There are too many designers who are in a bad state, who are sick, who feel obliged to take drugs. Me, I’m high on life.

Did the stress contribute to the Galliano situation?
Yes, and [Christophe Decarnin at] Balmain. McQueen. There is too much pressure. If it ends up destroying people, it’s not good. A human being is not a machine. Especially when it comes to creating. You wouldn’t ask a painter or a sculptor to do an exhibition every two months… I even think it’s hard for the buyers and the journalists. They have to run from New York to London to Italy, Paris. And when it’s finished, they start again. They can’t spend any time with their families, their children. It’s not good.

It seems very important to you to be independent.
Even if I was in prison, I could be free in my head. I can adapt easily.

Is it true that you were offered the Dior job?
I don’t want to go into that story again. [ Laughs..] No, they asked me a while ago, at the same time as Galliano, when he was at Givenchy. They asked me for Dior, but I couldn’t do it.

Do you think you would have been happy working for a big house?
Anything’s possible.

What do you think of fast fashion retailers?
I like them a lot.

It might surprise people to hear that.
It’s a very good system. Even if you don’t have money, you can still dress well. I shop at H&M and Zara for my cousins and my nieces.

You don’t think they copy other designers?
Listen, everyone copies.

You’re known for your devotion to technique. You’ve worked with the same knitwear factory in Italy for 30 years, for example. But do you think technique is dying out?
No, because there are people at the big houses who don’t know technique, but they are surrounded by great technicians. Dior wasn’t a technician. But he had a feel for fashion, he had worked for a number of years at other houses, and he was surrounded by great technicians like Marguerite Carré … Chanel didn’t cut but she had a feel for it… Balenciaga, he cut. He knew. Cardin, he knew. There are people like that. Vionnet was at the highest level. But at the same time there are other houses where the designer is surrounded by people who even today have a lot of technique and understand it.

You’re not concerned that young designers will lose the sense of technique?
No, because there are good schools, schools where they learn. These schools exist.

So you are optimistic about the future of fashion?
Fashion will last forever. It will exist always. It will exist in its own way in each era. I live in the moment. It’s interesting to know the old methods. But you have to live in the present moment. The evolution today is in the machinery. There are machines that did not exist before. It allows you to be a lot more of a perfectionist.

Does the Internet interest you?
It interests me, of course. When I’m looking for a singer or music, I do the search myself. [ Laughs.] No, I don’t know how to use it. But all my assistants know how to do it. I ask them to look it up for me.

But you don’t have a BlackBerry?
I have one, but I leave it on the table and I forget about it for a week.

What is the role of the fashion press?
The press is important, very important.

Has that role changed with the Internet?
It’s changed a lot. At any second, the whole world knows everything. That’s why it’s important that fashion magazines work more seriously, that they take the time to do good subjects with good photographers that you don’t find on the Internet. With the Internet, fashion goes directly to the world the same day, the same hour. Whether you are a journalist in the room or someone at home, you see it at the same time.

Is that a good thing?
It’s good, but not for the newspapers. Soon people won’t read newspapers anymore. They go on the Internet for their news. I saw a television program the other day; at schools they don’t write [by hand] anymore. Pupils go to school with their computers. Learning to write will disappear. And when they asked the little kids about it, they said, Yes, I look on the Internet if I want a book. The brain worked better before because you were forced to use your brain more. But that doesn’t mean the intelligence is less. People are more advanced now. When I meet kids today, I think, my God, I don’t know anything. But every era is different. You shouldn’t think it’s good or not good. You must live in the era you’re in. Each era will be different and it’s important to follow it. You don’t want to grow old with the past.

You and Karl Lagerfeld have managed to avoid that trap.
You’re talking about two different worlds. He goes in one direction, I go in another.

But you respect Lagerfeld?
I respect all designers. No doubt he is a worker.

People would say that you are two of the greatest designers.
I don’t think I’m a great designer. I’m good, but great is another matter… I have a lot to learn.

Going back to magazines, do you look at fashion magazines?
I look at them. I don’t have time to read them, not at all. You buy them because [your clothes] appear in them. And if they don’t look good, it drives me mad [laughs]. I say, Don’t give them any more clothes to shoot, because it drives me mad. And it’s true, my team hides them from me. If the photos aren’t good, they don’t show me the magazine.

I hope our shoot turns out OK then.
When your magazine comes out, I’ll call you on the telephone. Be careful, because I like to play tricks, too. I play a trick and I let the person get upset, and after, I call them and tell them it was just a joke… There are too many editors who give their advice to fashion houses. It must stop, that nonsense. Everyone has their own métier and should stick to their mÉtier.

Is it important to you to make a woman look beautiful in your clothes?
It’s the most important thing. Think about it. You are married. You have a woman. You know that she buys a dress to feel good in it, to feel beautiful. My first thought is the woman’s body, how she is in a piece of clothing, how she moves. There are certain fabrics I refuse to use. If it’s going to crinkle, I say no. I hate that. Because today people are traveling so much, they don’t have time.

So the woman comes first?
I look at them. To stay in contact with the lives of women, I go down to the boutique and I watch them. How they try things on, how they act. Because the truth is there.

Is it important that actresses wear your clothes?
There are certain actresses where it’s important, because it’s their era. There are a lot of people who observe them, watch them. It’s important for a designer that his clothes are worn by beautiful women.

And fashion in general is growing?
It’s not dead, fashion. No, no, no. Just look at all the boutiques that are opening. People are buying a lot of clothes, more than ever before.

What impact have the emerging markets had on your business?
They didn’t use to come. But little by little [they started]. And now Russia is an enormous market. The number of women who come, young, young Russians. They have the buying power, and now China is starting to move. The Arab countries. They are some of the biggest customers.

And how big a role do the accessories play in your business?
The belts, the shoes, and now the bags are starting to become important, but the clothes are the most important here. There are houses where the accessories are the most important, but here it’s the clothes.

You like it that way?
Yes, because I’m a couturier. The accessories are something extra. But at the same time there are women who are crazy about shoes.

You always wear the same uniform.
I’ve been wearing Chinese clothes since I was 14. I can’t wear a suit. I’m small and when I put on a suit, it’s not possible. [ Laughs.]

What does Paris mean to you?
It’s very important for me. Truly.

Could you live anywhere else?
Yes, I adapt quickly. I went once to New York on my own. I didn’t speak English. But even if you don’t speak the language, you end up finding a way around it. I’ve never felt ill at ease in another country. I feel good right away. I went to Africa with the Masai, and I was in conditions that people would find difficult, but I felt truly at ease.

Do you see differences between people in the East and West today?
Today there are no more differences. People are almost the same everywhere. [I notice that] when I see people at the airport, each time I go to the airport.

But what about the conflicts in the world?
It’s sad that today these wars exist. I would like to live in a place where you could live without problems of nationality or passports or religion.

How important is your Tunisian heritage to you?
It’s important because I was raised by my grandmother. And she was a woman who was very free for that era in Tunisia. My grandfather took me to the cinema every week. I’d watch a film four times in a day, and you can calculate how many times in a month. I learned by heart all the films that I saw, the costumes, the dialogue, and I would play each role. It’s true.

When did you first know you would become a designer?
I never did. I never thought I would at the beginning. I was at the École des Beaux-Arts. My father didn’t want me to go. He wanted me to study [at the lycée]. I couldn’t ask him for money because he thought I was going to the lycée with my brother. But not at all. I’d leave the house with my brother. He’d go the lycée. I’d go to the École des Beaux-Arts. And I started to think about how I could earn money so I wouldn’t have to ask [my father] for it. And it happened that there was a couturier in the neighborhood who put a sign on the door saying they were looking for someone to finish the clothes [at home]. I went to see them and I said I was there for my sister. My sister was going to boarding school and they had a course in couture… and I asked my sister to show me how to do it… and so I was able to earn a bit of money. And here’s where coincidence comes in. A family, who saw me going to this couturier with a package of designs, asked to see me. I told them what I was doing. And they arranged during the summer holidays for me to come to [another] couturier who was making copies of the couture houses. Dior and Balmain, I believe… And I learned a bit, and after, I wanted to come to Paris. But I wanted to come to Paris to be in Paris. I didn’t think I was going to become a designer.

[The French actress] Arletty was an important person in your life.
She became a great friend of mine… In the film Hôtel du Nord, she has this very zipped-up dress. And I thought, you only see something like this in Paris, you don’t see it anywhere else. Because there was a tonality that was unique to Paris. It doesn’t exist anymore… A friend of mine who was a hairdresser was coming to dinner, and he said, I have to do Arletty’s hair first at the theater. She’s playing [a role]. I said, I adore her. So he took me with him. And when I went into her dressing room with him, he introduced me and told her I was a couturier. And she looked at me and said, “He’s small, but when you look at him, you can’t forget him.” [ Laughs.]

Photo: Bruce Weber