This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). Part four of a four-part article.
ZS: What role has loyalty and friendship played in your career?
MAA: It’s almost the most important thing. No, it is the most important thing.
Monsieur Alaïa whips out his iPhone, swipes through some images and passes it to me. He is pictured with a wolf. I admire the image with surprise and admiration, and hand back the phone.
ZS: What has been the highlight of your career?
MAA: It hasn’t happened yet.
ZS: How would you define success?
MAA: Success is not important. You have to live in the moment and take advantage to the maximum. Don’t ask yourself many questions.
At this stage, Alaïa’s Commercial Director, Caroline Fabre-Bazin, another longstanding member of the team since 2003, enters the room and sits with us. It is the first time that someone from his press team becomes part of our interview; a rarity with modern designers, many of whom come hand-in-hand with their PR team. This is my obvious cue that it is time for the interview to come to a close.
I’ve stolen two of the 20 hours that Monsieur Alaïa works a day. He only sleeps three to four each day and spends the rest of his time obsessively involved with his craft. Fabre-Bazin informs me, “collections are always late, because Monsieur Alaïa is never satisfied.” This is a man whose version of a vacation is sitting on a stool in front of a television watching National Geographic, The Travel Channel and The History Channel in order to expose himself to the world.
I am sure there are many designers who wished they could live in the world that Monsieur Alaïa has created for himself. With no advertisements or adherence to the fashion schedule, Monsieur Alaïa has rejected the normal demands of the fashion industry. Even as an asset of Swiss conglomerate Richemont, which has expanded the Alaïa brand with fragrance and cosmetics, Monsieur Alaïa still maintains complete creative control; an ongoing battle that many designers who are a part of fashion conglomerates struggle with daily - the balance of business and creativity.
ZS: What advice would you give to a student who has all the talent, but no money to afford school?
MAA: Today it is very difficult. It is impossible to get launched like in the past. It is very difficult for a young person today to work within large enterprises. When I was young, I lived in a small studio and took small orders and was able to make the pieces for my clients. It’s about longevity, being able to stick it out. It’s a shame that there are a lot of young people with great talent that we may never see because of how the industry has changed so much over the past years.
It comes as no surprise that Monsieur Alaïa has been offered France’s highest decoration, the Légion d’honneur, three times. However, what is perhaps unanticipated is that each time, he has declined to accept.
ZS: Don’t you feel you deserve it?
MAA: No. It bothers my spirit and head. It’s a decoration and it’s only my beginning. It’s not the end of my career. It’s just the beginning. I believe there are researchers who deserve it more than me.
ZS: Where do you see Alaïa between five and 10 years from now?
MAA: One has to live now and afterwards we will see. I don’t know what will happen. The past we know, it is very clear. The present, we are here, and the future is obscure.
Yellow light! Red light! Stop.
Monsieur Alaïa stands up from his seat dressed in his uniform of black Chinese pyjamas - his favourite colour. Still utterly amazed and lost somewhere in Esmeralda’s French-to-English translation, I realise that I have just interviewed a man whom I consider to be the greatest designer of this generation.
We walk towards the glass lift, enter and press one of the glowing buttons. Monsieur Alaïa is returning to his design work, I am heading to the press floor to make the edit for my favourites and highlights shoot of his collection - two further hours spent with Collinet, adoring the creativity and imagination of Monsieur Alaïa. The man behind the work is himself standing opposite, staring with intent at the issue of PETRIe 65 that I find myself cradling in my arms.
He had looked at the hardbound copy page by page with lingering interest at the start of our meeting, admiring the photo shoots. “Would you like to have this copy of PETRIe?” I find myself asking, spur of the moment, but listening to my gut instinct.
“Je voudrais,” he says.
As I hand him the issue, something else clicks in my head. Or perhaps in my heart. I once again blurt out, exhibiting the same excitement as when I first spoke with Collinet about his appearance: “Shall I sign this copy for you?” We stand in the moving lift, a group of us huddled together, while Monsieur Alaïa holds out the issue and I pen my signature. It is a surreal moment, exceeded only slightly perhaps when he later jumps out from behind one of the clothes rails, much to Esmeralda’s surprise.
Standing at 5’2” he is Fashion’s Tall Order, the Ultimate Rejector - he is Monsieur Azzedine Alaïa. He has integrity, soul, heart, passion and most importantly, a relentless individual perspective that he is not willing to compromise on for anyone.
Words: Zadrian Smith
Image source: couturestyle.net