One of my favorite parts of this work, I am talking about writing, is definitely the time devoted to research. At this stage, in addition to the predisposition to be extremely receptive-which is good for the mind but also good for the soul-you discover a wealth of anecdotes, facts and stories that you did not know beforehand and that surprise you with their uniqueness.
One of these stories (I make amends, I did not know it) is that of Azzedine Alaïa‘s rocambolic life, lived always and everywhere against the tide.
Azzedine Alaïa was a Tunisian couturier – woe to call him a designer, he did not like that definition – born in the capital of the North African country in 1935 to two farmers. Azzedine had a twin sister Hafida (a seamstress and who taught him how to use a needle and thread), whom he loved more than anything else in the world and who was his greatest source of inspiration for embarking on the path that would later become his life, along with reading Vogue, which a close friend passed to him under the counter.
Azzedine’s childhood in Tunis was simple, humble and at the same time rich from a sharing perspective. His mother left the family fairly early, his father worked practically all day cultivating the fields while he grew up with his grandfather, with whom he often went to the movies, and his grandmother, the other decisive figure in his life. From his grandmother he learned acceptance, openness and sharing. In fact, she used to welcome everyone into her kitchen, where she always cooked in larger quantities than the actual diners because if someone arrived at the last minute, they would still have their plate at the table.
He earned his first savings at a very young age by helping his midwife, Madame Pineau, in her studio where he used to leaf through Vogue. It was she who encouraged Azzedine to take up art studies. Indeed, he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Tunis, at which he pursued the study of sculpture and began to take a greater interest in the forms of the human body.
Once he finished his studies, he decided to move to Paris with the very few resources he had managed to set aside and rented a very small apartment (a “chambre de bonne,” a typical Paris studio apartment), sharing it with a friend with whom he had left.
Having learned to use needle and thread very well, having delved into body shapes through his studies and being tormented, in the good sense of the word of course, by the draping and bias cutting of Madeleine Vionnet–surely one of the most decisive precursors of 20th century fashion–he found a job at Dior, where, however, he lasted only five days, the reason? Apparently they only let him sew the garment labels.
To earn a living he also began babysitting for wealthy women of Parisian mobility, such as the Marquise Mazan and the Countess of Blégiers. During his breaks, however, he sewed the dresses that those same upper-middle-class urban noblewomen regularly wore at social events.
Another great quality of his was affability. Thanks to his networking skills, as we would say today, he was able to build a network of friendships and connections that enabled him to expand his clientele and of course his fame in a very important way.
Among all the encounters of this period there is one that is more important than the others, the one with the German painter Christoph von Weyhe who would be his lifelong companion from then on, until the Tunisian couturier’s passing in November 2017.
His name began to turn and to become a certainty: he began to receive the most important women from Paris and elsewhere in his first atelier on the Rue de Bellechasse, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Léonie Bathiat aka Arletty, to name a few. He welcomed them into the kitchen, as his grandmother did with guests, and sewed the dresses directly onto the bodies, often forcing the clients/friends to stand for a long time, but they did so with joy.
“In order to know it (ed. the female body), one must love them, women, and be interested in them to the point of forgetting oneself”, Azzedine had of way to reiterate several times declaring his unconditional and sublime love for women.
He never wanted to enter the glossy and “official” world of fashion, as had done, for example, Saint Laurent or Pierre Cardin, he remained true to himself by disavowing the rules of the fashion world. He walked the runway when he wanted to and when he felt he was ready, never taking the calendar into consideration, he changed the status of models forever making them what they are today, superstars, think of a young Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell for example.
He worked for Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler but his being “against” never allowed him to compromise and thus submit to certain dynamics.
The last 15 years of his career have been difficult, first a deep oblivion and then a rebirth thanks to the Prada group, the Richemont group but above all his fraternal friend Carla Sozzani.
A simple, straightforward, sincere, consistent man with unparalleled talent, Azzedine Alaïa has left a crucial legacy for the entire fashion world.