This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part one of a four-part article.
Zadrian Smith: What are your thoughts on rejection?
Azzedine Alaïa: Define rejection.
Zadrian Smith: Wanting something so bad and relentlessly and being told the first time, no.
Azzedine Alaïa: From the beginning you should really have a way, something about you. Something that defines you and not just accept anything from the beginning. Never allow yourself to be rejected; be the rejecter.
The French skies are impenetrably gloomy when I arrive at chez Alaïa on Rue de Moussy. Yet when we leave, I find every inky alleyway and shadowy street we pass to be streaked with the most delicate and delicious beauty; each breath taken filled with the most wonderful tastes of culture, refinement and splendour.
The change came in the company of Monsieur Azzedine Alaïa; I had asked where he would be if Paris did not exist. For many, it would be a complex question. Indeed, his cheerful face had expressed horror at such a ridiculous suggestion. Yet his protest was simple: “Paris cannot not exist! I love this city so much. Therefore, it exists.”
I had paused for a moment upon his reply to ponder that thought; what would the world be like without Paris? My mind wandered into considerations of the world’s existence without the decadence of Versailles, the aphrodisiac of the House of Chanel, Victor Hugo’s tragic yet victorious Les Miserables, the order of Napoleonic society and the etiquette of café lifestyle. It is true. Monsieur Alaïa is right. Without Paris, the world would be - how can I say, “déclassé.” It had, in that moment, found new meaning for me.
Despite this profound moment of reflection - this épiphanie, as the French would declare - I did not understand a single word that came from Monsieur Azzedine Alaïa’s mouth when we met. As is common in France, you either speak French or nothing at all - and, despite the designer’s Tunisian heritage, he is an exemplary example of a devout Francophile. It was for this reason that I came equipped with my personal secret weapon – Esmeralda Duran.
She is dressed in a black Dries Van Noten skirt embroidered with gold thread and metallic wire and a crisp white poplin shirt tied right at the belly button. En route someone asked my French-speaking accomplice if she was an air-stewardess. I think to myself: “If there is an airline with staff dressed like this, where do I apply?” Her impeccable appearance to one side though, Esmeralda was an integral part of the day.
For the record, Monsieur Alaïa does not like interviews or photographs of himself, and he normally declines petitions from press to give him the ninth degree. After five months of waiting, I had thought we might also be one of many found wilting in that ever-growing media pile. Yet eventually, our patience paid off; an email finally arrived from Olivier Collinet, who has worked at Alaïa for 24 years and is now the Chief of Press, saying that Monsieur Alaïa had agreed to be interviewed.
There was one condition, however. The interview would have to be done entirely in French. Although I passed my French lessons in high school, my retention of the language is not very impressive. So, Esmeralda - already a contributor to PETRIe - was quickly promoted to French Features Curator and translated the entire interview, which lasted for a remarkable two hours.
“So here is how things are going to work. You’ll join Monsieur Alaïa for lunch with the rest of the team at 1:30PM,” instructed Collinet. It was another condition to the interview, much to my surprise, that had to be met before we were given the final green light. It gave Monsieur Alaïa the opportunity to “get to know us.”
Collinet leads us through the boutique on the ground floor of the Alaïa headquarters, which also houses the design atelier, press office and Alaïa’s home on the top floor. I find myself excitedly blurting out to Collinet about the similarities in his appearance with that of renowned stylist Joe McKenna, who incidentally also styles Alaïa’s lookbook and is loved by all at chez Alaïa - as well as by myself.
It seems I am not alone in thinking it; the observation has been widely remarked upon to Collinet, as he tells me with a matter of fact tone. We enter a massive white room - half kitchen/half dining room - and there he is, surrounded by his staff and standing at the head of the table awaiting our arrival - Monsieur Alaïa. From the corner of my eye, I spy three dogs - two are small and white; one is large enough to be human. Missing from the room are his seven cats and one owl.
It was hard not to smile. I deliver him our gift: a tremendous bunch of closed white lilies, which he asks the cook to display in a vase. Lunch consists of a fresh melon salad with watercress leaves, and grilled chicken breast with a medley of vegetables. I feel in awe, yet my mind reminds me that first impressions are everything. With my inadequate French, I was struggling to strike up a prolonged conversation. I needed a lunch topic that was hash-tagging globally and understood in every language.
Naturally, I chose Rihanna and her barely-there costume worn for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards. Luckily, Monsieur Alaïa, who has dressed rude girl RiRi on several occasions, had not seen the images and video of Rihanna lifting the hem of her Swarovski crystal covered dress mid-thigh and ‘twerking’ Bajan style. The video left Monsieur Alaïa in a fit of laughter and I had successfully used Rihanna’s hot body to melt the ice.
We dessert on fromage blanc with raspberry coulis, which Monsieur Alaïa declined due to a strict diet he’s been placed on by his doctor: “I’m on a diet and even though I’ve been told not to drink alcohol, I have vodka every night before I go to bed. Vodka is my favourite,” says Monsieur Alaïa. His devoted disciples rush back to work and Esmeralda and I are finally left to commence with our ninth degree. Green light! Go!
Words: Zadrian Smith
Illustration: James Wood