The relentless pace of the fashion industry has almost certainly contributed to the retirement, the downfall, and possibly even the death of some of the industry’s greatest creative talents. But is anyone asking questions that might lead to change? Today on the eve of his off-schedule show in Paris, BoF brings you an exclusive interview between our friends at 032c and the revered couturier Azzedine Alaïa, son of Tunisian farmers who has rejected a corporate fashion system he has called ‘inhumane’ and recently turned down the chance to replace John Galliano at Dior.
PARIS, France — Quietly outside the fashion spotlight, Rue du Moussy is Alaïa's home and workplace. The boutique, the atelier, the showroom, the studio for private clients, the designer’s residence — it’s all here, under one roof. For more than a decade, Alaïa has premiered his collections at his own rhythm, in discrete, private défilés here. He creates one collection per season. He doesn’t advertise; very few magazines are sent clothes to feature. He rarely gives interviews, and makes no public appearances.
Everything Alaïa creates, he creates with his hands on a bust — to feel the movement of his creations he even maintains a fitting model in residence. Every piece is handmade. The clothes are there to make women even more beautiful. That is his goal. Pure and simple.
Monsieur Alaïa — fashion today, what is it like?
I can only speak for myself, but for a long time now the system of fashion has had nothing to do with our time — it doesn’t suit our time at all. The world is changing rapidly. We see the proof of change every day in the news. Young people want change in this industry, too, yet we continue, just like in the 19th century, to do défilés. There is no need – no interest, really. We could do fewer collections and obtain the same results. We don’t lose any money if we do less.
Is money really the only concern?
Creativity should be the only concern. But today there is no time for creativity; nobody has time to develop a special silhouette or a special fabric. Of course there are a few exceptions, like what Nicolas Ghesquière does at Balenciaga, or Alber Elbaz at Lanvin. But designers working for big houses like Dior or Vuitton have no time to reflect. We can’t just squeeze the young talents out like lemons and then throw them away. Four collections for women, four collections for men, another four collections to sell, and everything needs do be done within four-five months — it’s a one-way course towards emptiness. It’s inhuman.
You’ve been showing clothes at your own pace and in your own house for a while now, but this season it seemed especially exclusive, focusing solely on knitwear.
Maybe in July I will show other clothes, if I have the time to develop them. I refuse to work in a static rhythm. Why should I sacrifice my creativity to that? That’s not fashion, that’s industrial work. We can hire people to design all day long and then fabricate what they design and sell and sell and sell — but that has nothing to do with fashion, with la mode. And it’s a shame talents are being abused for this. I really don’t understand that. I have to live as well. That’s what life is about: living. Tell me how these designers who work for the major houses can have lives? How can they raise children if they are never home? They are gone for one, sometimes two months, while their children have to go to school. They have husbands, wives, but they can’t live their lives. People need time for that, and talents need time to create something. It’s stupid to ask someone to create eight collections per season. Look what has happened to John Galliano or this poor young guy from Balmain, who is now in a psychiatric hospital. After five or six seasons, he was already broken. Or last year, McQueen — dead. And there are many more that are just so tired. There is a pressure that is mad.
How do you work?
I first need to work on the fabric: I need to cut it, think about the shape, drape it on the bust — reflect on it. I make every piece with my own hands. And this season, where I decided to show only knitwear, I sold two times as much as I did last season. You know that at Barneys in New York I got a 140 square metre space just for me, for my clothes? If you do one beautiful skirt per season, that already is a miracle. If you do one manteau that women desire, you have won. You don’t need to do long coats, short coats, one with a zipper this way and another one with buttons that way.
Also, people travel a lot today. Seasons are not what they used to be — we go skiing in the summer, swimming in winter. We don’t need to think in seasons anymore; we need to think about beautiful clothes. We really have to do something about this situation in fashion.
What do you do to deal with that?
I remote. I don’t do fashion just for the show. I have done it in the past, but I stopped. There are other problems to solve, so I moved away from such frivolous things. I give myself time, as much as I need. I am not afraid to lose. As I say, you need one miracle piece – nobody can do a ton of great clothes. And Alaïa is expensive, like couture – it’s luxurious, like all high fashion brands. I don’t know why people in fashion don’t treat it as luxury anymore.
You have said before that we are missing philanthropy in fashion.
New talents, like Haider Ackermann, really have to watch out for themselves. The decision for someone like him is hard — to be approached by a big maison and then say no. But signing a big contract is like signing a contract with the devil today. He can’t do his collection and do, for example, collections for Dior. Of course there are exceptions, like Karl Lagerfeld — he can do Fendi, he can do Chanel, he can do photos, film, Diet Coke — but that’s something very different. There is just one Karl Lagerfeld — it’s a whole other system.
What about your system?
I just concentrate on the clothes I make. I think, “Why do I make clothes? What should the clothes I make be about?” There is just one good reason to do fashion: to make the woman look more beautiful. If that is not the case, it has no meaning for me to create. And it has no meaning for her to buy something that massacres her style. I truly never calculate — I only think about women when I create. And I owe it all to the women, all my success.
Are you interested in money?
Only to spend. And of course I had to learn, and I have learned, it’s good to have it to be able to do things.
Are you interested in success?
Everyone is! Even a sweeper is interested if you say he sweeps well. It shouldn’t go to your head though, because it’s not for ever. I am not pretentious in such things. You know, from the beginning I could have been the best paid stylist. I have been offered the highest paid contracts in the world. I refused them all. It’s not my thing. I don’t want to cheat people. And there are certain people I am allergic to. I even intervene when I don’t like a customer; I rush in and check all the names. If I don’t like them, I don’t take them.
What keeps you going?
I don’t let things get to me.
How many hours a day do you work?
I begin at 9 am and I go to bed around 2am, sometimes around 3am. I sleep little. If I’m not working or entertaining, I love to watch the National Geographic channel. It takes my mind off business. I don’t take things too seriously, though — in this system, you are closed in. You will wake up one day and you will think, “Shit, what have I done?” You have to take things with a lot of laughter. I laugh with everyone, this way I will be able to die happy. And I put myself on the same level as everyone else around me – from the directrice to the workman, everyone. Except my pets — they are the Kings; you must treat them like royalty.
Four or five hours of sleep — is that enough time to develop a dream?
I don’t waste time when I sleep.
How would you describe the man I am facing right now?
I don’t try to understand myself. I live more like this: every morning when I wake up, I ask myself, “What will I learn today?” Really, it’s true. When I wake up I am happy to open my eyes, happy to be alive, to feel good, to have no diseases. And then I ask myself, what will I learn today? Who will I get to know today? I am a very curious person. The beauty of working in fashion is it gives you the possibility to meet a lot of people – interesting, amazing people. I think I’ve met the most interesting people of my time, from all fields, and I am very grateful for that.
What have you learned today?
The day is not over yet. But I promise you I learn something new every day. And I want to try to keep it that way, until the day I die. Even in designing, there are so many things I still have to learn. I’ve been trying to manipulate clothes for thirty years, but I know I can still get better. Sometimes I redo one thing five, six times. I am always in doubt; I am never sure of myself. Even when you tell me I’m an influential designer — I don’t see myself like that. So I don’t like decorations. You know Sarkozy offered me the Légion d’honneur medal? I refused. People said I refused because I don’t like Sarkozy, but that’s ridiculous. I refused because I don’t like decorations — except on women. My dress on a woman — that’s a beautiful decoration.
This edited interview was conducted by Jina Khayyer and was first published in the Summer 2011 edition of 032c .