Farida Khelfa / Text Anja Aronowsky Cronberg

« Journalists are always quick to mention my background, but I don’t feel I represent anyone other than myself. I just want to be myself; I cannot be the spokesperson for any community. I’m African,  Algerian, French. This is my story, but I’m not a leader. »

– Farida Khelfa

Peter Lindbergh, 2016, courtesy of the Estate

You’ve probably seen the photographs – the one were she, elongated and with hair wildly cascading down her back holds a tiny Alaïa in outstretched arms. Or that other one where her pale face and red lips are framed by a blanket of jet black shiny hair, and two glossy tears wind their way down her cheeks, slowly. Or that other one still, where, face framed by yet another waterfall of curls, she stares at you defiantly, bright red lips pursed. Farida Khelfa has lived a life in the fold of fashion. Growing up as one of nine children to Algerian immigrant parents in a Lyon banlieu, she was spotted by her first Pygmalion (or perhaps by just a man) while policing the door at a Paris night club in the 1980s; the teenager became integral to Jean Paul Goude’s work and life. Many opened doors followed. Christian Louboutin was her friend, as was Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa. Pierre et Gilles photographed her. So did Helmut Newton and Peter Lindbergh. Years as the perhaps most successful model of ‘beur’ origin followed, and today terms like ‘muse’ are often applied when describing her. But what is the fate of the muse? And what is her voice? Is it as important as her image? 

I’ve been thinking about that when we meet in a little café in the Marais. I have my two-month-old daughter with me, and since she has told me that she loves babies, I’m hoping that the little one will be a welcome distraction to any awkwardness that might arise in the interview. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about that. She is warm and curious. She holds my daughter in her arms and reiterates that babies are her real passion – just what a new mama wants to hear. 

People sometimes say that the men in my life have been Pygmalions of sorts but I don’t see it that way. Of course the men I met and shared my life with taught me a lot, but they were interested in my style, my way, my attitude. They learnt from me too. Jean Paul Goude, Azzedine Alaïa, Jean Paul Gaultier – all my friends. I learnt from them all. But mostly I have leaned from books; I always read a lot. My father was analphabet, so whenever we were going somewhere together I always had to read out the street signs to him. I knew from an early  age how important it is to know how to read. Then again, if people want to think of the men I’ve known as Pygmalions, I let them. C’est pas grave. I know who I am. I don’t need the approval of anybody. Some people wants to project their image onto you. I know that, and there nothing  I can do about it.

Journalists are always quick to mention my background, but I don’t feel I represent anyone other than myself. I just want to be myself; I cannot be the spokesperson for any community. I’m African,  Algerian, French. This is my story, but I’m not a leader. I’m agoraphobic for starters so I could never speak to a crowd. And my life has changed too much for me to represent anyone other but myself now. I say what I think, but I don’t ask anyone to agree or to follow.  I cannot see myself as someone for others to look up to. To be that person is too much responsibility – I just want to be free. My thoughts and opinions change all the time, and I don’t always agree with people and there’s no need to give your opinion about every subject.

My parents left Algeria in the Fifties, just after the war, with three kids. The other six were born in France. There were no jobs in Algeria so they came looking for a better life. But life in France was difficult for them. Everything was hard: raising their children, working, fitting into French society. I remember people in France using ‘tu’ to address my father. Even as a young girl I realised how disrespectful this was. You know, still today I find it difficult to say ‘tu’ to people I work with. As I was growing up, I felt I had no choice but to leave my parents, to run away to Paris. I come from a rather violent. environment. I left school when I was sixteen. After that I learned from life and books. I wanted so bad to be free, to leave, to dance. The fashion industry was so nice to me. The LGBT people were so nice to me. Maybe they saw l’énergie du désespoir. I’m never satisfied, always restless. Voilà.

Peter Lindbergh, 2016, courtesy of the Estate

I don’t think the fashion industry is racist. It chooses you for who you are, not what you represent – or that’s been my experience at least. In the Eighties fashion was very black. That fashion was so white in the 1990s has to do with where the money was coming from. The companies thought they would sell more if they targeted white people; now they are realising that there are so many consumers to be found in Africa and the Middle East and Asia Things are changing again – think of  Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton. Okay, maybe he’s an exception but we had black designers in the Eighties too. Patrick Kelly for one. He died prematurely – who knows how far he might have gone otherwise. And Azzedine Alaïa was from Tunisia. I think it’s important to not be too focused on racism. I’m going to say something controversial now. Racism is normal. Let me explain myself. When you have a new neighbour, you don’t just jump to welcome him. You’re suspicious at first, afraid – who is this person? It takes a little while to get used to someone new. It’s human to be wary of someone you don’t know. What matters is not to proselytize racism. I don’t want to place too much attention on racism because it prevents you from doing what you want. You can’t expect everybody to love you. Or if people love you one day, they will hate you the next. C’est comme ça. You can never please everyone;

The last show I walked was for JeanPaul Gaultier. I had my son two years later. I stopped modelling when I had my first child. Later I really wanted to get a real job. I had been acting and modelling but I wanted an office job – something more regular. I started working with Azzedine in his studio; I was his directrice de studio. I was there for eight years, assisting with fittings, answering the phone, the press and client appointments. I learnt so much from Azzedine– it was a fantastic job for me. He was a big brother to me. Alaïa invented the supermodel you know. In the 1980s we all worked for him for free –Linda, Naomi, Cindy, all of us – just to get the clothes we were modeling. In the early 1990s he lost his sister and needed time to mourn. He stopped doing shows. He always did whatever he wanted, even though it made things harder for him. Imagine, showing the collection one month after everybody else – it demanded a lot from both buyers and press. But he was very free with his work, though he was an incredibly hard worker. He worked all the time.  And then with big backers come different responsibilities, and for me it was time to move on. So I went to work for Jean Paul Gaultier. I became directrice de studio for him too, though only for the couture. I didn’t stay long though. To work with Jean Paul is a nightmare! [Laughs] We preferred to stay friends than to continue working together, and we’re still very close. After that I started making documentaries – my first was on Jean Paul in fact. 

I love making films. I did one on Tunisian youth, and another following Sarkozy in the presidential campaign against François Hollande. I start without knowing where I will end up and I love the freedom of that. Now I’m working on a film about working women in the Middle East – Qatar, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. I first went to Saudi Arabia in 2016 with Franca Sozzani and I was so impressed. I met women wearing the hijab and making clothes. Very articulate, and seducated, and I started wondering why you never see those women represented in the media in the West. I want to present an alternative, to show that you don’t need to be afraid of Arab women. We can agree or disagree with their opinions or appearance, but we can’t speak for them. We have to allow them to speak for themselves. I want to give a voice to these women.

Fashion has been slow to embrace and cater to older women, and I myself have conflicting feelings about growing older. For me it’s very important to have a good body. To do sports. Yoga. Meditation. I have a lot of tricks. On the one hand, I accept myself more as I get older. On the other, I still feel young so experiencing my appearance change is strange. The first time someone called me ‘Madame’ I was shocked. But life changes you and you have to adapt. It’s not like I go about my everyday life thinking about my age. I feel the same as I ever did. But then one day I might look in the mirror and discover a new wrinkle and think, merde! And other times, I put on some makeup and think ‘pas mal du tout.’ [Laughs] 

                                                            in something we Africans got 5, and  SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue, cover story
                                                                Venice Biennale 2019
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg
August 2018