“I have eliminated only the word “old” and my age. I have kept everything else. All my memories and objects are still there.”
Trying to trace Azzedine Alaia’s roots is an impossible task for somebody who was born on planet Earth, the designer is as fascinating and mysterious as another galaxy.
He was born in 1940 in Tunisia, with its endless landscapes, overlooked by the gold disk of the sun melting in the hazy skies and softened by the air saturated with history and spices. Most of the childhood years were spent in his grandparents home under a watchful eye of a loving grandmother and grandfather, a police officer who worked in ID card department.
From the age of 10, whenever Azzedine didn’t have classes, he would come to the station and sit next to a woman who made the ID cards, then save the scrapped photos and organise them in his album back at home…
Cinema was another favourite. Every week the boy spent hours in Cine-Soir, a movie theatre that belonged to his grandfather’s best friend. His grandfather would leave Azzedine there in the morning, go to work and pick his grandson up at the end of the day. While the men played cards in a nearby cafe after work, the boy watched the movies over and over again, soaking up the beauty of the costumes and learning the dialogues that he would then perform in front of his friends in exchange for crayons.
His sketches were the way to release his need for beauty and dreams and his talent was beginning to show.
At the time he was helping his mother’s friend, Madame Pineau, a local midwife, to deliver babies. She was a part of their family, very close with his parents and grandfather (Alaia’s grandmother run away at the age of 70) and, by his own admission, one of the most important people in his development. It was Madame Pineau who first noticed Azzedine’s sketches and, when he was 15, enrolled him at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study sculpture.
While completing the course, Alaia continued assisting at the clinic, but it wasn’t just the childbirth that fascinated him, but an extensive collection of Madame Pineau’s fashion magazines, catalogues and art books that was available to him. It was that very first introduction to fashion that make Azzedine realise that his true destiny was not art, but working with female body that he could sculpt using fabric rather than marble.
Either way, he needed the money to continue his studies and since his choice of school was against his father’s wish, the boy found himself in a difficult position – he wanted to learn the skills, but couldn’t ask his father for support in order to pay for the course.
One day, while walking through the neighbourhood, Alaia noticed a sign on the door of an atelier saying that the couturier was looking for somebody to finish the clothes. The teen went straight in, but instead of admitting that it was him who needed the job, he said that it was something his sister Hafida wanted to do to help her with a course in couture she studied at boarding school.
Azzedine got the job, went back home and asked the girl to show him how to sew. A few months later he met two sisters from an influential Tunisian family who liked his designs and introduced Alaia to another couture house where the teenager spent his summer holidays learning essential skills and making copies of Dior and Balmain dresses.
It was a wonderful experience but not what Alaia dreamed of. His thoughts were in Paris. He wanted to be a part of it.
In 1957 his grandfather finally gave his permission for Azzedine to travel to Paris and study couture.
The new chapter of his life was about to begin.
To be continued…
Photo source: hand moulded chain mail / Summer 1992 collection / Alaia by Francois Baudot