“ Azzedine’s charm is irresistible. He is someone truly entrancing. He is a very real person. He had flaws like us. He was by no means a saint (Mugler talked about him as an evil tyrant), but he was very authentic. And that was very touching. There are not many real people in this world: we are very policed. Language and codes have become very uniform. He was beyond norm.” – Farida Khelfa
“ I remember when we opened the boutique in London, I can still hear him say, « Sister, it’s huge! » He had indeed achieved something incredible. He came to Paris penniless in the 1950s, in the middle of the Algerian war. The odds were stacked against him but he managed to forge his own path. He knew how to be welcomed with open arms. He knew how to be loved by all. It was Leila Menchari’s mother who brought him over and, to begin with, they lived together. ” – Carla Sozzani
Emanuele Coccia: How did each of you meet Azzedine?
Farida Khelfa: Carla, shall I begin?
Carla Sozzani: Of course, how did you meet Azzedine?
FK: I met Azzedine through Jean-Paul Goude. We were working on a perfume commercial for « Bal à Versailles » and Jean-Paul told me he was going to see an amazing couturier. And we turned up at Azzedine’s home; at that time he lived rue de Bellechasse, his first place in Paris. We immediately fell under each others’ charm; Azzedine was irresistible. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
EC: What year exactly? You were already modelling for Gauthier, I believe? The famous photograph of you together dates back to that time?
FK: It was indeed in 82-83. I was already modelling for Gauthier and Mugler. The portrait was taken a short time afterwards. Azzedine and I appeared in a whole host of photos together. Jean Paul Goude was highly inspired. There is a short-film in which I am dressed as a whirling dervish. I take him like a child in my arms and we dance. It was a fun moment. There was a metal frame holding us together. It was very uncomfortable and above all very long. We did not stop complaining about Jean-Paul’s demands on us. We couldn’t have cared less about anybody else.
EC: Love at first sight?
FK: Exactly! Azzedine’s charm is irresistible. He is someone truly entrancing. He is a very real person. He had flaws like us. He was by no means a saint (Mugler talked about him as an evil tyrant), but he was very authentic. And that was very touching. There are not many real people in this world: we are very policed. Language and codes have become very uniform. He was beyond norm. He was a free man and I liked that. I respected his freedom. This freedom came at a great cost. He lived through many difficult periods because of the choices he made. But he always stayed free. That was most important for him.
Carla Sozzani: The paradigm of this freedom was his mother. Her name was Frida and to him, she was the very incarnation of the free woman. She left her husband with their three children, when still young, not to marry someone else, but to find freedom. At the time, in the 40s and 50s, in Tunisia, it was unheard of, a radical gesture. It is from her that he learned the meaning of femininity as the paradigm of true freedom, true emancipation. Jean-Louis Froment quite rightly said Azzedine cherished the image of the Tunisian woman as the strongest and most beautiful in the world.
FK: Carla’s right. Azzedine was like his mother. He learned the price of freedom from her.
EC: At root, it is this idea of the emancipated woman that brings you together. His entourage was always full of strong women of character. And you are both fine examples of free women, who have been able to break free from the past and create something new.
FK: Yes, freedom has always been the most important thing in my life…
CS: He did indeed adore women of character: Louise de Vilmorin, Arletty…
EC: And that is the essence of his collections, the vision of the strong, independent, resolute woman.
FK: The Alaïa woman is a powerful woman…
EC: You immediately started modelling for him?
FK: No. First he invited me to his shows and only afterwards did he ask me to model. I recently watched a video of his early shows held in his apartment. He always worked at home; it was a place open to all. It was like the kitchen, its table open to all, was the true model and the centre of his world.
CS: It is something very Mediterranean. Azzedine often said that his grandmother, with whom he grew up, always laid extra places in case someone else turned up. He did the same: people could come and go, it was like Versailles and the Tunisia culture of the open table. Even during lean times, when his kitchen was small, he was extremely open and welcoming. Everybody felt happy in his home.
EC: How about you, Carla, how did you meet Azzedine?
CS: It was in 1979. I was running Vogue Italia, taking care of special issues. Françoise Ha Van, who worked for Elle, suggested I write a feature on this incredible couturier who was creating wonders with leather. I visited Paris to meet him and fell in love. I decided to produce a six-page spread and was nearly fired: publishing a six-page article about an unknown was a bold statement. After, he came to Portofino and we never left each other.
FK: He was a hugely loyal man. All his friends were old friends. He was not somebody frivolous who readily switches friendships.
CS: And he was very demanding. He did not like feeling betrayed. The smallest white lie and it was over.
FK: Yes, he was very possessive in friendship. You had to stay loyal. His friends were his family. Naomi was his daughter…
EC: And you, Carla, you were his sister…
CS: Yes, he was always like that. I remember when we opened the boutique in London, I can still hear him say, « Sister, it’s huge! » He had indeed achieved something incredible. He came to Paris penniless in the 1950s, in the middle of the Algerian war. The odds were stacked against him but he managed to forge his own path. He knew how to be welcomed with open arms. He knew how to be loved by all. It was Leila Menchari’s mother who brought him over and, to begin with, they lived together. Leila was another exceptional success story. A model with Guy Laroche and then a decorator with Hermes.
FK: I love that photograph of them walking together in Paris.
CS: Leila knew some incredible things about Azzedine… He truly had an exceptional career. He was very successful, very quickly. As soon as he started producing prêt-à-porter, from ’81 onwards, he was everywhere. In ’85 he won his two fashion Oscars: after arriving empty-handed in Paris, he suddenly found himself several years later on a podium at the Paris Opera with Saint Laurent and Hubert de Givenchy. That was an exceptional evening…
EC: I heard he didn’t want to go on stage.
FK: They had to force him. He was very shy, he didn’t like talking in public: as soon as there was a camera about, he felt uncomfortable.
CS: Those years had a deep effect on him. But his success also put great pressure on him and his production.
FK: Yes, success always breeds anxiety. Some years were very tough for him.
CS: Yes, especially after his sister’s death. He was very close to her. Azzedine said that his sister taught him how to sew. She arrived after him on the rue de Bellechasse in the late ’70s. They lived together, they worked together. They were a team. They even looked like each other.
FK: His freedom came at a price, but the joy he felt for his work never diminished. It always expressed his huge desire for life. He never stopped working. That was something that left a huge impression on me. He taught me that even when the going get tough, you shouldn’t give up. His career was so exceptional. I have such huge respect for him because I know he was right. You should never give in. And at one point, Carla turned up to save his enterprise.
EC: You started working with him after being « fired » by Condé Nast, I believe?
CS: That’s right; I had left Vogue to become the editor-in-chief of the new ELLE ITALIA. I was very pleased with the move. At that time, Vogue was devoted exclusively to fashion. And with ELLE in ’86, I was able to start looking at culture in all its forms: art, cinema, cuisine, photography. I decided to throw myself in at the deep end, and formed a new team – from Bruce Weber to Steven Meisel, Nick Knight to Jürgen Teller. My features however focussed on Gauthier and Alaïa rather than Italian designers, which put their noses out of joint. For the fourth issue, which never came out, I had planned a cover with a famous Azzedine dress (which later he called the Carla dress), photographed by Paolo Roversi. The editor accused me of foreign bias and of publishing blurred photographs. The directors called me in and offered me money to quit. I retorted that I was proud to be fired and that Diana Vreeland had been fired too. They asked: « Who is Diana Vreeland? » I immediately answered: « Go on, write your letter now. » Azzedine was very proud! « My sister! You got yourself fired for me! » he’d say.
EC: From the outset he was considered as a French couturier, despite his Tunisian roots?
CS: Absolutely. And he considered himself as a French couturier: he was very attached to his roots, but he was very attached to his French citizenship. He refused all honours, though. Each time he would say that he had already received the greatest honour of all: being awarded French citizenship. He managed to appropriate the French cultural tradition in a very fine and intelligent way. We had just opened an exhibition about his first collection produced on rue de la Verrerie in 1991, after Azzedine had bought his architectural complex in the Marais, another huge example of his success. The building had belonged to the Bishop of Beauvais. The Marquise de Pompadour had grown up there and the collection was inspired by her. It was very impressive to see his ability to appropriate such a symbol and use the codes of French intellectual history to produce something very personal. Azzedine always surrounded himself with intellectuals who loved him. He loved art and he loved collecting art. According to him, his collection began with a Coptic head that he’d found in the window of an antique store rue de Lille in the 7th arrondissement.
FK: That famous Coptic head! He wasn’t well-off back then, yet he still invested in the work.
CS: Yes. I heard that he stared at it so intensely that the saleswoman stepped outside and invited him to buy it.
EC: He also collected clothes, I believe?
CS: That’s right. He started with a Balenciaga piece that he bought when the fashion house closed in 1968. He then collected dresses by Madame Grès, Vionnet, Charles James, Givenchy, Dior, and later Gauthier, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons…
EC: Among the couturiers, who were his friends? I know that Thierry Mugler supported him to begin with and I read an interview with both you, Farida, and Jean-Paul Gauthier.
FK: Yes, Jean Paul and Azzedine were very close, even if they didn’t see each other much. He did not really spend time with other couturiers, but was of great support to young designers like John Galliano…
CS: And Vivienne Westwood…
EC: And among the young, who was he close to? I know that Nicolas Ghesquière loved him…
FK: I remember for example that, when he was running Givenchy, Alexander McQueen came to visit him and expressed his respect.
CS: Yes, Alexander McQueen was always very inspired by Azzedine. All designers were very respectful of him. Nobody was jealous. Nobody was in competition with him.
FK: It was impossible to be in competition with him. He had a unique touch. He would spend hours constructing an item of clothing. The fitting sessions were interminable. They could last a whole night. He loved fitting sessions. He’d make us listen to Oum Kalsoum and lose himself in work. I remember Elle MacPherson wandering around naked in his studio, the good Australian woman she is!
CS: His studio was incredible. All the best were there. There’s nobody around like that these days.
FK: We broke the mould. They all had strong personalities. Azzedine loved women and respected them greatly.
EC: You produced a documentary about young people in Tunisia after the revolution: what is the image of Alaïa today in his country?
FK: Everybody knows him. He was buried with full honours. All young people know Alaïa. They dream of being Azzedine Alaïa.
CS: In France or Italy, it’s the same thing. He is a legend because he has everything. Independence, the strength that comes with work, perfection and savoir-faire. He had an ability to produce his own designs. That is something very rare.
FK: He was timeless and immortal. He knew how to do it. His dresses have never gone out of fashion. I still wear them, even if they were made thirty years ago. Being immortal means existing at all times: yesterday, today, tomorrow and the day after.
In something we Africans got issue 5