Editor’s note: When Surface learned of the revered designer’s death in November 2017, our editor-in-chief Spencer Bailey penned this remembrance of Azzedine Alaïa.
Everyone knows Azzedine Alaïa for his clothes. High-profile power women—Naomi Campbell, Carine Roitfeld, and Michelle Obama number among the devoted—have been wearing his figure-flattering, clingy, swingy knit dresses and goddess gowns since 1979. It was then that the native Tunisian, after working for Guy Laroche and Christian Dior, first hung out a shingle at a tiny apartment on the rue de Bellechasse in Paris.
It’s hard to say who reveres him more: his customers, faithful to the point of addiction; other designers, from the late Lee Alexander McQueen to Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello to Alber Elbaz, who have drooled over his technical chops and integrity (Alaïa ruthlessly oversees everything and still cuts his own patterns); or the retailers who sell him out in good times and bad. (His clothes are in more than 300 points of sale now; Harrod’s once sold 60 dresses in a day.) The fashion industry today is struggling with declining sales and cultural relevance, but you can set your watch by Alaïa’s work and yet always remain awestruck by it. That is true of no one else in the business.
This would all be enough, but the couturier’s specialness goes beyond his wares. In a press-hungry age, he is famous for avoiding publicity and cares nothing for the fashion establishment, including a rather open disdain for doyennes like Anna Wintour. He refuses to set regular fashion shows, and, a friendly introvert, though a fierce one, he detests talking about himself. (He has refused an appointment to the French Legion of Honor three times.) “Yes I’ve walked out on interviews,” he confesses, after we finish ours, seated, as always, around the huge dining table in the studio kitchen where he serves staff lunches daily. Alaïa delights in the company of his close-knit staff, from shop employees to his right hand, Caroline Fabre-Bazin, with the manner of a teddy bear, albeit with a perverse sense of humor.
There is always a moment of hazing at an Alaïa interview. Bore him and he’ll spin elaborate, goofy fictions to amuse himself and anyone else in the room who knows better. (They play along.) Thankfully, I’m there to talk to him about art, specifically Galerie Azzedine Alaïa, physically the largest component of his vast, Gustave Eiffel–era headquarters in Paris’s Marais neighborhood, and a subject he doesn’t get to talk about quite as much.
Aside from in-person visits to his Italian factories, almost everything in Alaïa’s world happens more or less in the same place, with the kitchen at the center of it all. The gallery is not an afterthought. Outside of meals, Alaïa spends almost all day and well into the wee hours working among cutting tables and bolts of fabric in his upstairs studio. In the same building, on a higher floor, is an apartment where he lives with his partner—the painter Christoph von Weyhe—and a number of animals. On the ground floor is his shop. “I hear everything that goes on,” Alaïa says. He’s known to drop into the gallery to oversee hanging, or into the shop to sell to customers, some of whom have no idea who he—the diminutive man in the black traditional Chinese suit he seemingly never takes off—is. “When fashion tires me, with collections and dresses, I turn my attention to art and I calm down,” he says.
Even with the punishing hours, he’s not a recluse, and travels for exhibitions, especially to London. He has a growing love of the internet, which helps him discover new things, “like this honey badger,” he says, referring to the viral nature video, “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger,” which features an exceptionally sassy voiceover. “He eats cobras and fights panthers!” When it comes to the ephemera of our media-saturated age, the absurd prominence of marketing in both fashion and art, Alaïa, like the badger, doesn’t give a shit.
Despite trying to sell me a story about how he met the gallery’s head curator, Donatien Grau, and half his staff at a “girlie show” in Pigalle, Alaïa is dead serious about fine art, and believes it should be shared. (In the same spirit, he will later make sure I know the girlie show thing is a joke.) The word “Galerie” in his institution’s name since its founding in 2004 isn’t to imply “gallery,” a private endeavor whose purpose is to sell works at a profit. Alaïa’s is modeled after a similar space in Milan, 10 Corso Como, founded by one of his closest friends and collaborators, Carla Sozzani, who in 1991 created her gallery in the European sense: a window to the world, open to the public, set up strictly for amusement and edification.
Like at 10 Corso Como, no work is sold in the Galerie; everything goes back to the artists once the exhibition is through. “Art came first for me,” says Alaïa, who studied sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and only turned to dressmaking after realizing he “didn’t have great talent as a sculptor and it wouldn’t be worth it.” He’s had an eye for aesthetics since childhood, and says the first “art” he ever acquired were leftover ID photos he would pilfer from Friday afternoon visits to his policeman grandfather’s local bureau. “I’d keep them in boxes and sort them: beautiful, OK, ugly; blonde, redhead, brunette,” he says.
His desire to collect has never abandoned him, even when he couldn’t afford it. His tastes run classical—his first major piece was a Roman torso. “I bought it when I was still on Bellechasse, and then sold it to pay my taxes one year. I’d find pieces for such good prices and hopefully I knew the auctioneer and could make payment arrangements.” His personal collection now includes Jean-Michel Basquiat, César, Tatiana Trouvé, furniture by Jean Prouvé. There are also pieces from his dear friend the late Pierre Paulin—one of the most important private collections of historic haute couture—and a lot of Julian Schnabel, another close friend since the ’80s and whose fauvist, rough bronze racks display the clothes in Alaïa’s rue de Moussy shop. “Azzedine’s relationship to art is altruistic,” Schnabel says. “There’s no strategy or scheme. He’s not in the art world, per se. He’s in his own world, and it’s a beautiful world.”
One way to translate “beautiful world” into French is beau monde. It’s not Schnabel’s meaning, but in reference to Alaïa, it’s also apt. “In the gallery, we started with projects more related to fashion and photography,” Grau says. “But we’re expanding it now to more encompass this extraordinary community that surrounds the house.” With intimates that include Alejandro Jodorowsky, Richard Wentworth, Paul McCarthy, and Marc Newson, Grau is not exaggerating. Shows can be conceived of as if by serendipity, on the passing advice of another artist friend; they can feel spontaneous, and still be a big deal.
Activity has stepped up since an investment in Alaïa from luxury group Richemont permitted him to open up a second shop in Paris in 2013, and the gallery space, which was once borrowed for press sales and fashion shows, can now operate full-time. One could say it is on fire lately, with special commissions and ambitious group exhibitions. January’s show was of architect Jean Nouvel and his mentor, the late Claude Parent, showing plans of unbuilt museum commissions. Upcoming will be another Parent show, his last commission before he died earlier this year, featuring illustrations of Alaïa’s work. (Parent was a fashion illustrator before becoming an architect.) Soon after will be selections from Sozzani’s vast photography collection, curated by Fabrice Hergott, the director of Paris’s Modern Art Museum. Last year, it presented never-before-seen graphic works by the Syrian poet Adonis. “I was so happy to be shown at Alaïa’s gallery,” Adonis says. “I had the feeling I was somewhere beyond the market, beyond all the artistic trends tied to kitsch, outside of any form intended for art sellers.”
It would be easy, though not entirely correct, to conflate Alaïa’s interest in art with his métier, especially since so many refer to him as an artist in his own right. There have been shows at the Groninger Museum, in 1998, and the Galleria Borghese last year, pairing his designs with works of iconic modern and classical art. But Alaïa refuses the comparison, seeing the function of fashion and art in society as very different. “If anything my work comes closest to architecture,” he says—there are patterns and rules, and function is key. But he defends the job of a couturier as worthwhile enough in its own right, not to need puffing up with outside comparisons. Despite how banal most fashion has become—too many shows, too many clothes, all decoration and not enough craft, trends Alaïa criticizes harshly—he is one the best living examples we have. And like the honey badger, he keeps on keeping on. “I haven’t succeeded yet,” he tells me. So what, you’ll succeed when you die? I ask. “Maybe not,” he says with a belly laugh. “Maybe not at all.” After an afternoon full of them, this was the biggest joke of all.