Remembering Azzedine Alaïa: The Designer Who Took Time

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Remembering Azzedine Alaïa: The Designer Who Took Time

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The last time I saw Azzedine Alaïa, the Tunisian-French designer who died this past weekend and was possibly the last of the great couturiers, it was midnight on a Wednesday in July, after the final couture shows in Paris, and I had come down to his kitchen to say goodbye.

I had been a Fashion Week guest in the hotel attached to his headquarters on Rue de Moussy since it opened, and after about 10 years I had earned kitchen privileges. That room — a large glass-ceilinged space with industrial fridges and stoves and a big, rectangular glass dining table — was the heart of his house. It was where he fed his staff members; where his Saint Bernard, Didine, had a mattress in the corner; where he would host meals (people talk a lot about his couscous, but I always associate him with mashed potatoes) populated by the famous and unknown alike. The dinners would often go on into the small hours of the morning over vodka (he was partial to vodka) and rising decibel levels, sometimes culminating with Mr. Alaïa dancing to Beyoncé, or even, on the rare occasion, singing. He could twerk, kind of.

I used to go into the kitchen via the back door — the hotel and the house share an internal courtyard — after returning from the last show of the day, and grab a plate of whatever was on the stove that night to take upstairs while I worked. Over the years I had inadvertently walked in, unannounced, on everyone from Lady Gaga to Alicia Keys; Cindy Crawford and her daughter Kaia Gerber; Franca Sozzani’s birthday party, and a whole bunch of models new to Paris that Azzedine had kept on to feed after a show casting.

Once I stayed to eat with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and Kanye spent the whole night casting furtive glances my way trying to figure out who in the world this random person was. At Mr. Alaïa’s table, everyone was equal.

That particular night, however — that last night — I was flying home the next day, so I wanted to thank Azzedine, and say I would see him in January. When I got downstairs a battalion of Chinese editors who had just been feted were leaving, and I thought the night was over. I was long past the stage of being ready for bed, but then Naomi Campbell, who was Azzedine’s quasi-daughter, and Edward Enninful, the editor of British Vogue arrived, and it turned out that for Mr. Alaïa, the evening was just beginning.

It’s part of why it was so shocking to hear on Saturday that Azzedine Alaïa had finally run out of time.

He had been, up until the moment his heart gave out, time’s ultimate champion. He understood, more than anyone I had ever met, time’s value and importance to the creative mind. Aside from his constant quest to use clothing to make women feel more invincible and secure in their own selves, and his deep and abiding friendships, time was his greatest obsession.

Or, to be fair, the lack of time the fashion world increasingly grants its designers to explore their own ideas: to try new things and be wrong and try again before having to offer them to the world. The impossibility of being creative on a hamster wheel of a schedule that demands a sprint from collection to collection (eight a year! more! plus social media and packaging and stores and ad campaigns and so on). The inhumanity — that is how he saw it — of forcing everyone to show after show after show without time to eat, or talk, or digest the aesthetic feast arrayed before them. The way it resulted in the increasing disposability of product and people.

Mr. Alaïa with Carla Sozzani, the founder of 10 Corso Como in Milan and a close friend of the designer’s.CreditPascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe

He had made it his mission to stand against the tide; to become the lone voice to say (loudly) what others might only complain about behind closed doors; to refuse to devalue the hours needed to think and experiment and work. He set his own schedule, day by day and long into the night, and season by season. Meals started when he was ready — he had to be dragged out of the studio sometimes — and so did collections. I was not the only journalist whose relationship with Mr. Alaïa began when he stood me up for an interview and I had to reschedule.

Sometimes he would have a show the week after the season had ended and everyone had left Paris, because that’s when the clothes were ready. Sometimes it was two weeks. Sometimes it didn’t happen at all. Last July, it actually happened during the official season, and attendees leaving the previous show were so scared of missing it that they abandoned their town cars and jumped on the Métro because they feared getting stuck in traffic.

Often, late at night during the collections, after whatever guests had come for dinner had left, I would see the light on in his ateliers across the courtyard when I was up writing a review. And I would know he was bent over his sewing table, moving a seam a centimeter this way, curving it again that way, perfecting and pushing his expression of a line, all by himself in the room.

On occasion I would go back through the kitchen, down a hallway that led to the boutique, and then up the stairs on the side to his atelier, to sit in a corner and watch him work, to try to understand how he managed to get the clothes to fit the way they did and fall the way they did, so they felt so much better than anything else you could ever put on. I never quite got it, but that was part of the allure.

A design by Mr. Alaïa, displayed in 2015 in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.CreditGiorgio Onorati/European Pressphoto Agency

A dress was finished when he said it was finished (one honeycomb pattern took him, he once told me, six years to get right). This could be, to those other parts of the system — retailers and manufacturers and the keepers of the calendar and, yes, critics — deeply frustrating, but to the many designers who idolized him but did not dare step out of line, it was an inspiration. He did what they dreamed of doing.

It was very hard.

Students and young designers just starting out often say Azzedine is their role model, because he did it his way, in his time frame, but they rarely understand the self-belief and stubbornness it took, and the time he spent in the wilderness, railing against a system everyone else was celebrating, working alone. He made money — enough to take care of his employees, and live the way he wanted, and once Richemont made an investment he had security — but he could have made a lot more if he had played the game. For him, the trade-off was worth it, because you could not put a price on creative freedom, but it came at a cost. In the rush to celebrate his accomplishments, and there were many, we should not forget the sacrifice involved.

Ultimately, he did not have to kowtow to the fashion world, because the fashion world (and the art world and the literary world and the music world) came back to him. His work was so singular, they had no choice. And you could argue that only a designer of his rare talent could ever take the stand he did. But he would probably say, “How would you know? Since no one else is given the time to figure out if they have the talent, too.”

To this end, Azzedine left a last testament of sorts: “Taking Time,” a book to be published by Rizzoli next fall. A record of a series of conversations on the subject he conceived with the cultural critic and academic Donatien Grau, it includes discussions between Jean Nouvel and Claude Parent, Jean-Claude Carrière and Julian Schnabel, Isabelle Huppert and Bob Wilson, Jony Ive and Marc Newson, and Blanca Li and Rossy de Palma, among others. Plus one between Mr. Alaia and Mr. Grau, which will serve, unintentionally, as his final statement on the subject.

Also a reminder that, once the accolades stop and the impossible task of figuring out what happens next to his house is resolved, perhaps the best way to truly honor him would be not simply to wear his clothes or donate them to a museum for posterity but to pick up his baton. To raise a glass of vodka over green beans and roast chicken, and never sacrifice curiosity and exploration for expediency.

To take time.

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