When invited for lunch chez Azzedine Alaïa — in his vast open kitchen at a big glass table — you never know who might show up.
You can count on assorted coworkers — from the press office, ateliers and commercial department — and his gigantic St. Bernard named Didine, either snoozing on a bed in the corner snoring like a tractor, or poking his moist nose between the chairs in search of a handout.
On this day arrives model Gail Elliott and her husband, Joe Coffey, whose wedding in 1997 at the height of the supermodel craze boasted bridesmaids Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen and Yasmin Le Bon — and a formfitting Alaïa gown made just for the bride.
“This is from a long time ago,” Elliott coos as she flicks through the camera roll on her iPhone, showing Alaïa a picture of herself towering over him; another of her strutting the runway with Linda Evangelista.
Next she shows the diminutive designer images of her fashion line Little Joe Woman, composed of slipdresses and other beach-y styles. “We sell online and we just opened a store in Bali as well,” she relates.
Alaïa smiles and sips green tea while the rest of his guests complement their roast beef and vegetables with a 2013 Pouilly-Fumé.
“I have a lot of work right now,” the designer says, confessing he had slept only two hours the night before, toiling — as is his custom — from 9 a.m. every day until the wee hours.
That’s been his rhythm for more than three decades. He’s fine with it and he’s not budging from it, which has earned him the respect and admiration of designers of various generations.
“He’s so authentic in the way he works, it makes him a unique designer,” says Alber Elbaz, describing his clothes as exceptional in photos, on the rack and especially on the body. “He’s not part of the system — he’s created a system of his own. He’s chosen something that works for him and that allows him to work with passion and compassion.”
Alaïa’s I-did-it-my-way ethos stands out even more today as brands experiment with consumer-facing fashion shows, coed formats and trans-seasonal collections — anything to perk up lackluster sales of ready-to-wear in an age of Insta-everything.
The designer shrugs when told how Burberry started an avalanche of change by deciding to show seasonless men’s and women’s wear collections together on the runway twice a year — and make all the collections immediately available online and in-store.
“It’s not creation anymore. This becomes a purely industrial approach,” says a designer who rails against a fashion system forever locked in overdrive. “But anyway, the rhythm of collections is so stupid. It’s unsustainable. There are too many collections.”
Let Kanye West rent Madison Square Garden for his Yeezy fashion show and Chanel fill up the Grand Palais with a staggering installation. Alaïa parades his collection with showroom models and only a house photographer after most of the fashion flock has fled following nine days of Paris Fashion Week. Editors and the odd celebrity — Sofia Coppola, for example — mingle with boutique buyers, their laptops open for order-placing at small round tables. This year, the designer scheduled his fall show for April 3, nearly a month after the end of the Paris collections.
“It works, why should I change?” Alaïa says, shrugging again. While declining to give figures, citing a policy of parent Compagnie Financière Richemont, the designer hints that business is going swimmingly.
While he has trimmed wholesale accounts to about 250 doors, that includes about 80 shops-in-shop configurations. Investments in staffing, and a three-story flagship in an 18th-century mansion on the Rue de Marignan that opened in 2013 speak to Richemont’s confidence in the brand’s potential. (It took majority control in 2007.)
Alaïa discloses that he is now searching for buildings in London and New York to establish similarly grand Alaïa flagships, plus a fourth one down the road in China to follow up on his 2014 opening of a shop at Beijing’s Shin Kong Place mall.
While best known for his curve-enhancing dresses and tailoring, he’s also ramping up sales of accessories, which include zippered wallets pavéd in tiny studs and gleaming, minimal crocodile bags in quirky colors like aquamarine and olive green.
Once his guests filter out of the kitchen, Alaïa orders an espresso and sits down with WWD to reflect on the state of the fashion system, which is yielding too much vintage — and too many copycats.
Showing just after Paris Fashion Week — is that a creative or commercial choice?
It’s a question of time. There are very few of us in the studio. I have only two assistants, there is nobody else and I do a lot of things myself, especially all the fittings. I don’t just give the drawings and leave. The truth is, I work more than all the others. That’s the difference. I don’t do eight collections, but I’m implicated in everything from the beginning to the end. I even control the deliveries, I look at the stores, what’s working, what’s not.
Do you like all these steps: sketching, draping, fabric development, fittings?
Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be a couturier, I would be a stylist. Because there is a difference between a couturier and a stylist. It’s a different work, that’s all.
How many collections do you design a year?
Four. That’s already the maximum. And that’s why a lot of designers break down. There is a huge loss of creativity.
Any plans to change your rhythm?
No, we don’t do big shows. We do shows for the buyers and for the press. It works. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t be placing orders and our business wouldn’t be growing. If there are no good clothes, customers don’t buy in the stores. My rhythm is like this. I don’t mock what the others do.
Do you do small and discreet shows to avoid people copying you?
No, that’s not the reason, not at all. Although there are too many copies at the moment.
Are you flattered to be copied, or the contrary?
When designers appropriate ideas from others and journalists don’t say anything at all, it’s not right. For example, this season with Roberto Cavalli, it’s incredible and journalists, nobody, has noticed a direct copy of my 1985 dress that Tina Turner wore. People told me not to say anything. Everybody has forgotten, even Hervé Léger with the bandage dresses. Now it’s become a summer special for them, and nobody says anything. Journalists shoot it. Although typically, no, they should refuse to shoot when it’s things like these.
Have you said something to the Cavalli house?
Oh yes, it’s with the lawyers now. And there’s another Italian, he has copied everything, everything, everything I do. We sued him a while ago and he did it again. It’s not good. You have to take action because it’s not right.
Does Richemont ever interfere in your business?
No, with Richemont I have a lot of respect. They know it’s working, and they give me a lot of freedom. I work well with them.
So nothing changed since the investment in your house?
No, they gave us a lot of possibilities. We hired quite a few people. There’s the Rue de Marignan boutique in a hôtel particulier. It’s not given for nothing, and at the same time they never say no to anything. They are really good people.
Smartphones, Instagram, live-streaming — has all this changed fashion for better or worse?
Yes, it has changed a lot, and it’s good. I think we have to live in our times. You can’t say things were better before and today is second-rate. Though I don’t know how to use the computer, others help me use it, and the speed of finding information is fantastic. But a computer doesn’t speed up creativity. It’s not because you type on a computer that it will give you ideas.
Some people think the fashion system is overheating. Do you agree?
Yes, it’s a system that’s a heavy load for young designers. There’s nothing you can do about it: The industry became this way and it’s almost inhumane, the amount of work today.
You said quite a few designers have already cracked because of this.
Yes, that’s the proof. There’s a lot — not just one or two — and this season, all of a sudden, several of them have left and there aren’t hundreds to replace them. Especially for big companies, there’s not a lot of designers who can handle the workload. Because then people don’t have time to live. Journalists, they too have to defend this. You know they travel all the time. They are never with their children, their husbands. There will be a lot of old maids and bachelors in this profession. Very few can handle it. It’s a life that’s too accelerated.
What’s the solution?
Creativity. And I don’t think really new ideas can come out every two months. It’s not possible. That’s why now there is a lot of vintage. There’s too much vintage — in all the houses, it’s too much. We don’t have good ideas every day, it’s not possible. Nobody has new ideas every day. When you have one in the year, that’s already good.
And what is your latest good idea?
It hasn’t come yet, I’m running after it! [Laughs] I’m on horseback, like a cowboy.
Being independent is key for you. Is that what you recommend to young designers?
No, it’s over being really independent, unless you have enormous means. Otherwise it’s difficult. The proof? All the good designers work in big houses. They’re not with their own names, their own brands.
How is the Alaïa company doing at the moment? Still growing?
Otherwise I would not be here. They would have fired me if it didn’t work well. The company is well-organized, and everyone has his own position, gives the maximum, and does his job well.
How does your new perfume work?
You can ask the people of the perfume. We’re number-one at Saks. You can ask Saks. Now the second perfume is out soon, next year.
What is your typical work day? When do you start?
I’m ready at 9. The assistants work from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. but I work until 3, 4 a.m. Last night, I slept two hours. I was busy preparing things for the ateliers.
Can you talk about your design process?
We start by researching the fabrics, the materials. The style of a house, when there’s a style to it, remains steady. Chanel, for example, is about a suit. Her silhouette has stayed from the beginning until now. I try to follow the times and to follow the women, above all.
And how do you see the brand in the future?
In the future? Listen, I think day-by-day only. The future is obscure for me. Everything can change in life.