Olivier Saillard on Azzedine Alaïa

High tales and revelations of the mysterious cult couturier ahead of a Paris retrospective

Fashion Q+A
Demarchelier (300)
Molded leather bustier with taffeta skirt, Alaïa couture AW03 Photography by Patrick Demarchilier

For a legendary designer, Azzedine Alaïa is remarkably private. Little is known about the 74 year-old Tunisian “couturier” who dressed Grace Jones and Tina Turner in their heyday. Alaïa is reluctant to talk about himself. He rarely gives interviews, hardly ever stages fashion shows and only presents new collections when he feels they are ripe enough. His singular personality (particularly in an industry where most people go to any length to steal the show), combined with a tremendous talent and a unique vision of couture, has made of him one of the greatest fashion icons of our time. So much so that the Galliéra Museum in Paris is now reopening, after a four-year hiatus, with a retrospective dedicated to his work, the first one to ever take place in France. To celebrate the occasion, Dazed met Olivier Saillard, director of the museum, to discuss Alaïa’s life and work. 

Dazed Digital: When did you first meet Azzedine?

Olivier Saillard: I first saw him at the beginning of my career – I was then working at the Musée de la Mode in Marseille – but we didn’t really speak until four years ago. I had just written a book on 20th century fashion which of course featured his work, so I sent him my text for approval prior to publishing. We’ve been a lot closer from then on. Azzedine takes his time when meeting new people: at first he’ll simply look and evaluate. It took several meetings, work days and dinner parties for me to realize how generous and loyal he really is.

DD: How is a typical dinner party chez Azzedine?

Olivier Saillard: It’s radically different from any other dinner party in Paris! Actresses, singers, top models and artists are invited, but so are their boyfriends, secretaries and personal assistants. They are greeted by Azzedine himself who shows them to the kitchen, where the table is always set with no particular seating arrangements, so it all feels very intimate and spontaneous. At his last dinner party I met Rihanna, film producer Harvey Weinstein and Mathilde de Rothschild. Azzedine was visibly interested in them, but he was just as eager to talk to their assistants. As usual we drank lots of vodka (Azzedine’s favourite) and we talked until the small hours. In that sense his parties feel rather un-Parisian and very anti-socialite.

He is very appreciative of women...contrary to other male designers, whose admiration verges on a fantasy that sometimes ends up turning women into transvestites

DD: What fascinates you most about him?

Olivier Saillard: His tenacity. His career spans for five decades and in all that time there hasn’t been one weak collection. He has never taken anything for granted and has always worked with the same strength and determination. I also admire his sense of rigour, which is clearly visible in his pieces. People generally just see the sexy, voluptuous side of Azzedine’s work, but I’ve always seen a kind of Mediterranean austerity in it. Black is his favourite colour, his collections rarely feature prints or jewellery and his dresses, even if they follow every curve of the female anatomy, often cover most of the body.

DD: Is his work a reflection of his relationship with women?

Olivier Saillard: Absolutely. He is very appreciative of women, all the while remaining realistic - contrary to other male designers, whose admiration verges on a fantasy that sometimes ends up turning women into transvestites. For him, a beautifully made dress’s job is to enhance the natural beauty of the woman wearing it. People should notice the woman’s face before seeing the dress, he always says. 

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Leather and metallic fishnet skirt and top, Alaïa SS10 Photography by Peter Lindbergh, 2013

DD: Yet critics have often objected to his dresses, claiming they are meant exclusively for women with perfect bodies...

Olivier Saillard: True, but I can’t agree with that opinion. Alaïa dresses look good on all body types, especially on curvy girls. Also, we tend to typecast Azzedine as the inventor of the skater dress, tight around the waist and with a flared skirt. We forget he makes trousers too, as well as shirts, jackets and large coats inspired by Greta Garbo. There’s more than one Alaïa silhouette.

DD: Is it true then that Greta Garbo was one of his first clients?

Olivier Saillard: Yes! Cécile de Rothschild, one of Azzedine’s friends, introduced them in the early seventies. She visited his atelier in the Rue Bellechasse and ordered several oversized coats. In order to get the right proportions, Azzedine did the fittings on one of his male friends. Yet Garbo found the coats too small for her liking, and he had to make them again. Ever since, his coats have had that Garbo-inspired shape, more feminist than feminine.

DD: Women have inspired him, but he has also inspired them. His relationship with top models in the eighties and nineties is particularly touching.

Olivier Saillard: Stephanie Seymour, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and of course, Naomi Campbell were all remarkably close to him. To this day, Naomi calls him “papa” in French. I think he was like a father to them in a way, a true friend. He saw their talent before the rest of the world did, and, when working together, he made the most of their natural beauty. He never tried to transform them or to hide their true identity behind big wigs and complicated makeup... No doubt they appreciated that.

He has such a tremendous respect for creativity that he refuses to sell it off every three months. Only one other designer has ever been so brave, and it was Cristóbal Balenciaga

DD: Azzedine’s work and his private life seem so entangled...

Olivier Saillard: They are. His career has grown at the same pace as his friendships. And that seems only natural, given that he has always lived and worked in the same space, keeping his home right next to his studio.

DD: He used to live and work in a “chambre de bonne” (a tiny attic room) when he first moved to Paris, has he somewhat kept the same lifestyle all these years?

Olivier Saillard: He often says he lives like a poor man with money. His relationship with possessions is a particular one: he is a keen art collector, but his pieces are not on display at his home. He doesn’t seem to need many things, except good work conditions. He knows wealth is temporary and he is aware that he could lose everything at any given moment. He has even told me he wouldn’t mind going back to his “chambre de bonne”. I think his freedom stems from that sense of detachment.

DD: Azzedine is very critical of the current fashion system and has always done things his own way. Yet today he is an iconic designer, revered by the industry and loved by the public.

Olivier Saillard: Exactly, and I think that’s the result of some sort of poetic justice. Some designers capture the spotlight for a while, but if they have no real talent interest will inevitably wane. Azzedine has worked consistently for more than forty years, staying true to his values and never desperate for attention. The public appreciates that, just as they appreciate his particular way of working, presenting his collections whenever he is ready, never giving in to the pressures of the industry. He has such a tremendous respect for creativity that he refuses to sell it off every three months. Only one other designer has ever been so brave, and it was Cristóbal Balenciaga.

DD: Does his outlook influence designers today?

Olivier Saillard: His outlook on design does, particularly since the year 2000. All the high heels, the willowy shoulders and the defined waistlines we see on catwalks today originated from him. His rebellious attitude towards the industry, however, is a lot less mimicked. Young designers admire his independence, but they don’t have the audacity or the possibility to follow on his footsteps. Hopefully that will change. 

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Black wool fabric, crocodile skin appliqué, Alaïa AW03 Photography by Paolo Roversi, 2013

Alaïa, at the Palais Galliéra, runs through January 26, 2014.

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