On Saturday, November 18 2018, news broke that Azzedine Alaïa had passed away peacefully at 77 (or 82, depending on the source) after falling into a coma at a Paris hospital. By Monday, his remains were flown to his native Tunisia for a Muslim burial at a cemetery in the town of Sidi Bou Said on the shores of the Mediterranean. Among the close friends and relatives present that day were Naomi Campbell, Farida Khelfa and Afef Jnifen, three women who considered him both a father figure and a mentor for taking them under his wing.
As an influx of tributes to the French/Tunisian designer flooded social media following his death, those closest to his inner circle remained silent, grieving most acutely the loss of a master couturier and an individual who cared deeply about those who remained loyal to him. Among them is the designer Sophie Theallet, who first came to Alaïa as a young intern in the mid-’80s fresh from the Studio Berçot, Paris’ prestigious design school. “The school’s director, Marie Rucki, was very close to Azzedine. I had worked hard as a student and won an award, so before graduating early she offered me a summer internship with him,” says Sophie, who made her way to the designer’s atelier, then located on the Rue du Parc-Royal.
We clicked immediately and worked well together, because he appreciated that I had an opinion and knew what I wanted,” she says, recalling that she initially declined his offer for a full-time position in his studio because she wanted to work with Jean-Paul Gaultier after her internship. “Looking back now, I don’t think I was quite ready to work with him yet and needed to experience another designer’s studio. He not only respected my decision but helped me get a position at Gaultier, which shows how generous he was,” says Sophie, who spent four years at Gaultier’s studio, before receiving a call from Alaïa one day asking if she could assist him with his collection. Initially agreeing to stay for a month, she would spend the next 10 years by his side as his trusted right hand.
“I think he knew I would eventually make my way back to him, because his ideal assistant was someone who thought like him and could provide feedback,” says the designer, who described her relationship with Alaïa as that of a teacher and an apprentice. “I stayed with him for so long because I worked hard to gain his trust and confidence to share his work with me; something he rarely gave and only to a handful of people, which is why he had such a close knit family of friends and colleagues around him,” says Sophie, recalling that the designer also had a mischievous side.
“He loved life and I’ll always remember how much we laughed together. He had an infectious sense of humour that came out when he was around close friends and he loved to pull pranks on his staff to lighten up the mood in the studio,” recalls Sophie, who followed the designer to his new headquarters on the Rue de Moussy, which he’d acquired in 1987. A warren of workrooms divided up into spaces for gowns (flou), leather and tailoring, the designer could be found at his worktable, wedged into a narrow space between a wall and a brick pillar covered with photos of models, friends and clients.
“The magic really happened at night when he stayed up till 4am cutting his own patterns, sewing samples or fitting a model, while Umm Kulthum’s voice wafted from a DVD player,” notes Sophie of Alaïa, who was known to do the occasional repair on pieces created some 20 years ago for devoted clients. “Very few designers work like that today, much less do their own patterns and fittings, but he was happiest working on his craft,” she adds, making the point that each garment hanging in his Julian Schnabel-designed boutique was the result of hours of careful adjustments and pinning on a model’s body. “His clothes were special because they felt completely resolved in terms of their design and execution,” she continues, adding that he would fit and refit a garment dozens of times, taking it apart like a puzzle and re-assembling it until he was satisfied.
“He taught me the importance of constantly questioning the work and coming up with technical solutions, which is important because if you don’t do that things become predictable and you stop having something new to say,” notes Sophie, pointing out that although the designer had perfected age-old couture techniques, he was constantly subjecting his ideas about style to what was going on in the street. “He didn’t live in the past, but was interested in the contemporary world around him, which was reflected in the clothes he made,” she says of the designer, who over the years would attract a loyal group of couture clients, which included a handful of discerning women from Kuwait and Saudi. Although the Chambres Syndicales didn’t officially recognise him as a couturier, the designer had built the foundations for his house on his made-to-measure clientele, who remained central to his creative process, even as his ready-to-wear business steadily grew.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, following short stints at Dior and Guy Laroche, Alaïa built a reputation as a hired hand amongst certain Paris designers and couturiers for his technical ability to bring their most complex designs to life. For Yves Saint Laurent, he produced the prototype for his famous Mondrian dress in 1965, while the late ’70s found him making clothes for his friend Thierry Mugler. By that time he had already set up his first formal atelier in a tiny apartment on the Rue de Bellechasse with the assistance of Simone Zehrfuss, an early client who helped nurture his career. “Women have always played a central role in Azzedine’s life, protecting and supporting him, which is why he loves them and wants to make them look beautiful,” notes Sophie of Alaïa, whose business up until the early ’80s was a mostly made-to-measure affair, where clients came to be fitted for dresses through word of mouth.
“I learnt a lot while assisting Azzedine during fittings with private clients who represented a diversity of ages, shapes and backgrounds. He learnt how to make great clothes by observing and listening to women and was very comfortable around them. It stems back to his years in Tunisia surrounded by his mother, grandmother, twin sister and cousins,” continues Sophie, pointing out that one shouldn’t assume his clothes were only meant for those with perfect figures. “He earned the trust of these women in the same way couturiers did in the past. It was important for him to learn how to dress everyone, which is why his clothes always made these women feel self-assured,” says the designer, adding that Alaïa was also very respectful of his clients, creating clothes that were never vulgar or pushed the limits of taste.
In 2002, when Yves Saint Laurent shuttered his couture house, effectively dismantling an atelier of artisans who had worked with him since the beginning of his career, 15 of his former employees were absorbed into Alaïa’s atelier. Among them were two heads of the YSL tailoring and dressmaking ateliers, Monsieur Jean and Madame Georgette, who had been with Saint Laurent for 33 years, followed by a dozen petite mains who filled two new studios in Alaïa’s Marais headquarters. For two years the designer had been searching for skilled couture seamstresses; turning customers away because he had been producing each custom garment, including his ready-to-wear samples. With a proper workroom in place, as well as a former Saint Laurent vendeuse to take care of clients, word soon spread amongst Alaïa and Saint Laurent customers, who began calling to make appointments.
Similar to couturiers of the past, who traditionally had their cabine of house models, from his early beginnings Alaïa had also cultivated a stable of models who would help shape his creations. It’s a reminder that his most iconic designs were conceived through a process of draping, pinning and cutting directly onto the body of a model, who would patiently await his instructions. One of the most notable was Farida Khelfa, the statuesque French/Algerian beauty who would go on to become the directrice of his studio in 1995. But there were other memorable names such as Veronica Webb who lived with him for several months when she was 19, as well as Naomi Campbell who first worked with Alaïa at age 16, and whose career he helped nurture. Never forgetting his North African roots, Alaïa was a steadfast believer in diversity, who in addition to Naomi and Veronica, was known for populating his runway shows in the ’80s and early ’90s with models such as Iman, Yasmin Le Bon, Katoucha, Gail Elliott, Yasmeen Ghauri and Gurmit Kaur.
“Most of the girls were around my age at the time, and they all called him Papa because he took on the role of a parent who cared about their wellbeing; not only giving them a place to sleep at night but also educating them about art and culture,” observes Sophie, who developed a close friendship with Veronica Webb who went on to walk in her runway shows. Sophie would also travel with Alaïa several times a year to the knitwear factory in Florence that served as a kind of laboratory for developing his textiles, while another factory in Vicenza produced his collections. For some 40 years he had collaborated with Silvia Bocchese, the knitwear factories’ owner, who would personally deliver samples to him in Paris to discuss adjustments before taking them back to explain the changes to her knitters.
“It’s because of this long-standing collaboration that he developed a library of textiles that reveal his deep understanding of the qualities of stretch fabrics, a material he began using to shape the inside of garments he made for private clients,” says Sophie, noting that Alaïa was also a great collector of mid-century couture by the likes of Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Adrian, Madame Grès and Charles James. “Early in his career, he would take these gowns apart to study their construction and meticulously sew them back together again. But by the time I came to work for him, he had fully mastered those couture techniques and was building on that knowledge to create his own vocabulary,” says the French designer, who vividely recalled watching Alaïa drape a Madeleine Vionnet gown on a mannequin. “He was the only one who could figure out how it went on because he’d taken the time to study her technique,” remembers Sophie, noting that at the heart of Alaïa’s world was his basement kitchen.
It is there, seated at the head of an immense glass-and-metal table, that the designer could be found on most days having lunch and dinner with an eclectic mix of clients, editors, photographers, artists, stylists, models and his staff. “There was something very democratic about the variety of people he brought to his table, reflecting his childhood growing up in a large close-knit family in Tunisia. He extended that warmth and privilege to many people,” says Sophie, noting that Alaïa would often prepare and serve meals himself. “In truth, making and sharing food has always been very important to him because it reflected the deeply human way he connected with those around him, which I hope he’ll be remembered for, together with the way he made women feel through the beautiful clothes he created.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia