“I don’t think I am a great designer. I’m good, but great is another matter… I have a lot to learn.”
In 1957 Azzedine Alaia arrived to Paris.
He was introduced to Christian Dior’s clients by his friend’s mother and got invited to work at the Maison. Five days later, as the Algerian war broke out, Azzedine was asked to leave - having a foreigner wasn’t good for the reputation of the house.
The war made many things complicated. Being in France at the time was incredibly difficult – foreigners were running the risk of being arrested or stopped on the street… Renting a room or getting a job was virtually impossible.
Madame Simone Zehrfuss, a wife of an architect Bernard Zahrfuss, took young Alaia under her wing and invited him to stay in their family home. The day Azzedine found himself at Zehrfuss’s, he met Louise de Vilmoirin. The writer who later referred to Azzedine as “my artist” who made her “appear beautiful” introduced Alaia to the chic Parisian community of intellectuals that he found incredibly stimulating.
Besides offering the roof over his head, Simone also introduced the young designer to a few women who later became his clients. He didn’t speak English, so she translated for him, too.
Alaia never stopped working combining the knowledge with his imagination and unique skills as if it was a science about which he wanted to know everything.
For five years he lived at the house of the Comtesse de Blegiers where he babysat and cooked during the day and made clothes in his room at night. To protect Azzedine from any trouble the Count de de Blegiers gave him his card and introduced Alaia as his protégé.
In the late 1960s Azzedine Alaia got a job at Guy Laroche’s atelier. He spent two years there, leaning and mastering his skills, but eventually felt that he wanted more, something of his own.
The two bedroom apartment in Rue de Bellechasse, on the left bank, was a tiny space with sewing machine scattered around the place. It was the safe haven, a place where Azzedine could completely immerse himself into designing the clothes – and there was nothing that could make him happier.
Alaia’s life, just like those childhood photo albums he, was filled with beautiful women who adored him: Greta Garbo, Arlette, Claudette Colbert, Rene Clair, Cecile de Rothschild. They became clients, clients became friends… The world of Alaia was full of inspiration, glamour and thought provoking conversations. It was a secret club of couture, opened to the selected few.
For the first time in history women gained an access to a designer who, according to Mathilde de Rothschild, understood “the intimate emotional, intellectual and biological facts of being female”, and had an ability to make clothes that created the most beautiful curves of all. And yet he didn’t care about fame or money – all he strived for was the understanding of the connections between the body and fabric and achieving perfection in everything he made.
In 1968 he also decided to collect couture pieces. One day, while visiting the recently closed Balenciaga atelier for some unwated mannequins, Alaia noticed a woman destroying a dress from 1955 collection. It made him sick to his stomach. Needless to say, that shopping trip was no longer about soulless dummies, but precious fashion pieces he wanted to preserve forever and the beginning of one of the best couture collections in the world.
In 1979 Alaia was approached by Charles Jourdan who commissioned a capsule ready-to-wear collection. The pieces made of leather decorated with zippers and buckles were too extravagant for Jourdan to accept, but women loved them. One of the black leather dresses was photographed for the cover of French Elle and the other, worn by created hysteria on the streets of New York – after all, nobody had never seen leather leggings before.
In the summer of 1980 Alaia landed three outfits to the editor of French Elle and her colleagues to wear during to one of the fashion week shows. A few months later an article written by Bill Cunningham appeared in Women’s Wear Daily. He wrote he had just seen the future.
To be continued…
Photo source: Alaia by Francois Baudot