Lise Sarfati / Azzedine Alaïa / Carla Sozzani – Translation L.S Torgoff

Lise Sarfati Austin, Texas. Fashion Magazine 2008

It’s eight o’clock in the evening on a September Monday. In a kitchen where wine and vodka are served generously, the gallery owner Carla Sozzani introduces Azzedine Alaïa and Lise Sarfati to each other. Carla, whom the designer calls his “sister,” is showing Lise’s work this fall at her Milan gallery. We’re sitting around in Azzedine’s kitchen – his nephews are to drop by later – and the conversation moves right into gear. The increasingly lively table talk is about Texas and Russia, Tunis and Paris, fashion and photography, children and women. Azzedine dresses women, Carla often exhibits work by women and Lise likes to photograph them. Then Azzedine starts cooking: Rib of beef for everyone, strawberries for dessert. The red wine and the chatter flow freely.

Lise Sarfati: This issue of Fashion Magazine was done in Austin, Texas. A small town, but still it’s the state capital. The idea was to do a kind of tracking shot of the city, to shoot, in their own homes, girls who aren’t professional models. That’s because I’m not a fashion photographer, and anyway, Texas is more of a rock ‘n’ roll state. I really like the way people there relate to clothing. It’s always very unambiguous, very sophisticated. They all go to a place called the Buffalo Exchange, where you sell the clothes you never wear anymore and buy new ones. People mix clothes from different periods. It’s a lot of fun. Have you ever been to Texas, Azzedine ?

Azzedine Alaïa: I know women from Texas who spend a fortune in New York, especially at Barney’s and Bergdorf Goodman. There’s one in particular who buys everything. She flies in for the day on her private jet, goes to the store with her hairdresser and manicurist and plunks herself down in a room where the girls bring her loads of furs and lingerie – everything that’s just come in. She gets back on her plane the same night, as soon as her purchases are delivered to her plane. Two Fendi sable coats, minks, some of the most expensive items. One of the salesgirls, who’s French, called me up to tell me, “She buys your clothes.” That Texas lady is incredibly sophisticated. And very American – thinner than thin. Americans are fantastic when it comes to fashion. They don’t have the same hang-ups we do – we’re boxed into a certain system by our culture. When you see fashion editors there, they just plow right ahead. Their European counterparts have to think about everything twice before they do it.

Lise Sarfati: I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to say to you. That we’d talk small talk and maybe get along well, but then what? Then I realized that what we have in common is a difference. You’re a complete artist, you create the materials and what you make with them, whereas what I do is to put mirrors in the right place to reflect an image.

Azzedine Alaïa: What you do is not like a sculptor, but a painter.

Carla Sozzani: What Azzedine does is to change women’s mentalities. No one else does that.

Azzedine Alaïa: I’m not into fashion for its own sake. It’s for the women. I’m obsessed with making them beautiful. This year, I told myself I had to visit my aunts in Tunisia. I have a house there where I haven’t spent fifteen minutes in ten years. I bought the tickets and packed my bags, my mind totally made up to go for five days. But there was this commission, a dress where something just wasn’t quite right. It bothered me. It’s a question of honesty: I didn’t want a dress to leave my atelier under those conditions, even if the customer paid triple. I redid it completely, and let me tell you, the night I spent tailoring was pure pleasure. I wasn’t even tired the next morning, just surprised when the cleaning people started to show up for work and I realized I hadn’t slept. Since the dress had to be delivered, one of the girls got up at five a.m. to pack it up. I said to myself: what a lot of to-do for an item of apparel, what a lot of bother for so many people just for the pleasure of fashion and to please a woman!

Lise Sarfati: What motivated you ? A desire ?

Azzedine Alaïa: More a respect for the person who pays so much for something to wear. I respect every woman who comes into my shop, whether she has money or not, because she opened the door and because she comes to me with admiration.

Lise Sarfati: What about your minimalism, your focus on materials and pure lines, and at the same time, attractive colors, the not quite gray, the almost pink ? Does that have some special meaning for you, in your world ?

Azzedine Alaïa: I’ve always felt that when a woman puts on a dress, it’s like a picture frame; it shows her at her best. The dress shouldn’t overshadow the woman; it should bring out her own beauty. What you see is the woman and you forget the dress. I don’t want to be “in the moment.” My ambition has to do with long-term continuity. Women come to me because they want to be beautiful, even if most of the time they wear jeans and sneakers. Also, they want to please their men !

Carla Sozzani: When you feel good and that you’re pretty, it’s not just to please men. It’s also for other women.

Azzedine Alaïa: And to please yourself! You learn your trade from working with women. In that sense, a wedding is one of the most intense moments of your life, when your childhood dreams crystallize. Sometimes parents come with a daughter who doesn’t give a damn. There’s nothing she wants. It takes a lot of patience before she finally opens up. Sometimes, little by little, she gets into it. She says, “I want that like that,” and I’m, like, “But you said you didn’t want a plunging neckline!” By the end of one fitting I did, the girl looked like a nightclub dancer with pompoms! More generally speaking, I’ve noticed the emergence of a new generation of customers. I find this new crowd interesting – young people who’ve become very rich and don’t have time for anything. That changes how you think about your work. The old rich, who inherited their fortunes, were different. Even the best-off families didn’t let their fifteen – or eigh teen – year-old daughters wander off to find themselves a millionaire or buy a dress. Luckily.

Carla Sozzani: My father was furious at me when I was fifteen and spent a fortune buying dresses.

Azzedine Alaïa: Carla has been interested in photography for a long time, and not just fashion photography. She has a fantastic collection. She has an eye for photos just like her eye for design. For instance, I first found out about Marc Newsome through Carla. Her way of seeing things made me change. I threw out all my old stuff.

Carla Sozzani: I’ve often featured work by women in my gallery. Francesca Woodman, for instance.

Azzedine Alaïa: Women or men, it doesn’t make much difference to me. I dressed three men lately because they were important people. Women are easier. An opera singer or a great actress has everything. Even when they’re crazy, there’s something about them – something that can be either almost ridiculous or fantastic.

Lise Sarfati: Men or women – it doesn’t make much difference to me either. Everyone tells me, “Oh, you take pictures of girls,” when for me, it’s all the same. But you can’t go back and forth between them – you have to choose one or the other. When I was living in Russia, I mainly photographed boys. That probably had something to do with the destruction of the Russians’ mental world. For example, I met a man who worked at a bank. When I asked him, “Why do you need money and beautiful clothes right away ?” he answered, “Because who knows if I’ll be alive tomorrow.”

Azzedine Alaïa: I feel the same way he did. Live for the day and seize the time! I don’t save anything. It’s all gone in a minute. My grandparents never accumulated anything; they never thought about leaving an inheritance. My father didn’t give me money and I rarely asked for any. That seemed like how it was supposed to be, since I was living in his house. That education made me what I am. I’ve always made my own way in life without thinking about tomorrow. I don’t like property. First I lived and worked on rue du Parc Royal, and later opened up on rue de Bellechasse. In those days I could have become the richest guy in my profession. I was offered so many contracts! When I move away from someplace, there’s no nostalgia for the past, and when I go somewhere elsewhere, I want to make the most of it. I’m just an occupant. There were so many people who passed this way before me.

Lise Sarfati: What about you, Carla ?

Carla Sozzani: I’m just passing through !

Azzedine Alaïa: Carla never stops. I’ve never seen anyone with so much energy. I admire her! I first met her at one of my shows at rue de Bellechasse. She was with the Vogue crowd. Carla was the first to take an interest in me, to arrange photo shoots. She handled everything with ease – fast but well thought-out. There aren’t many women who can be like that, and at the same time seem so fragile. Look at her wrists – but she can move a table in a heartbeat. She could kill a regiment. We worked together on an exhibition I did in Groningen, in Holland. The whole museum, twenty-two rooms. There were supposed to be some Picasso sculptures and a mummy. I wanted stuff that went with contemporary art and African art with Basquiat. I wanted some Schnabel. It was fantastic. People really went along with what we wanted. I don’t know any other country where they would have done that. In France, they’d never get you a mummy !

Carla Sozzani: At six in the morning Azzedine was still ironing the dresses.

Azzedine Alaïa: I’ve slept so little in my life – all those nights where I got by on two to four hours sleep -that I’ve already put in the equivalent of at least three hundred years. Carla is the same way. At Groningen, she asked them to repaint the walls, to keep track of everything, to make sure the mummy got dusted. When everyone else wanted to go to bed, she’d say, “No way – we have to finish!”

Carla Sozzani: But that’s how it should be. We had to do whatever it took to make everything beautiful.

Azzedine Alaïa: We had paintings by Julian Schnabel because he’s a friend, almost family. It was funny -he wanted to speak French with me, since I don’t speak English. It’s terrible, I don’t even try. With Julian I was embarrassed. He’d speak in English and I’d answer in French. Luckily his wife Jacqueline speaks our language, so we always managed to communicate. I like lively people like the Schanbels and Bruce Webber. I often say to myself in the morning, “Who am I going to meet today, what am I going to learn?” I want so much. But I take it one day at a time.

Lise Sarfati: What about photography ?

Azzedine Alaïa: I’m interested in it, of course. I started on my first collection when I was ten. Photo machine pictures. My grandfather, who was a cop, worked in the identity card service, and on Friday, when there was no school, he took care of me. We went to the movies, a theater where they were playing Egyptian films with Oum Kalsoum, Hollywood epics like Ben Hur and Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice. I loved it! Otherwise, I’d go to work with him, at the ID cards office where he worked with Madame Angel. She had a steel basket, like for a head of lettuce, and sorted the three photos people had to supply her with. They were very thick, and you had to cut off one layer with a box knife. She’d stamp the first photo and it would come out looking like a wafer. I thought it was like a waffle iron. I was fascinated. She’d attach the second picture to the file folder, and the third one was in case the first one got torn. Otherwise, she’d throw it back in the basket. I took all the pictures that ended up in the basket. After awhile, I had nearly everyone in Tunis. I’d sort the pictures into shoeboxes: blondes, brunettes, black men, moustaches or beards, long or short hair, curly or straight; and when it was a blonde woman, oh boy! My favorites were the Sicilian girls in communion dresses, with ringlets.

Lise Sarfati: You loved uniforms.

Azzedine Alaïa: No, but for instance I found the Sisters of Zion very sexy when they walked with the swaying of the cross, and their sandals, where you could see their feet tanned up to the ankle like a sock.

Carla Sozzani: I went to nuns’ school, where you had to wear a uniform, until I was eighteen and a half. A blue dress, white apron and very thick flesh-colored stockings. That’s another reason, Lise, that I like your Immaculate series.

Azzedine Alaïa: I loved it too.

Lise Sarfati: Characters, bodies, clothing: three elements with which I could stage a kind of No theater. What about you, Azzedine ?

Azzedine Alaïa: I’ve worn the same kind of suit since I was fourteen. I have three hundred of them – the same thing that I change all the same. The blue Chinese suits I used to find at the flea market in Tunis and then dye. My whole life I’ve never had anything but three suits and an overcoat. At the age of sixteen, for the fine arts school prom, I went to a Sicilian tailor who made me a jacket and tie. When I came to Paris, people told me I had to have a town suit and an overcoat. My overcoat was camelhair, Italian-style, the only one I’ve ever owned. The jacket was short with two small slits because I’m short.

Lise Sarfati: How horrible !

Azzedine Alaïa: What do you mean, horrible? I’m telling you, my jacket was great. I’ll always remember it. It was Italian! The shoulders fell a little, broad, with two rows of buttons. Cut very tight, English-style, because Italians are thin. Good Mediterraneans that they are, their backsides move all by themselves when they walk their walk. The last suit I had made for me in Paris took me a year to pay for! What a nightmare – hounds-tooth check! Nowadays I don’t own any ties or dress shirts. I wear a black t-shirt and jacket, that’s all.

Lise Sarfati: I don’t really know that world at all, but on the other hand, listening to you I feel like I understand what fashion is: a wrapping that doesn’t get to the bottom of things, a golden shell. You seem to be against all that. Where do you aesthetics come from ?

Azzedine Alaïa: From a whole cultural blend. Tunisia was really very mixed. I had a fantastic childhood, rich and poor at the same time. Now when I spend my nights sewing I don’t mind at all. Everything depends on your education. Mine made me appreciate freedom. My grandmother was a totally liberated woman, even freer than women in Europe. There was never a key in her door – everyone came and went.

Lise Sarfati: I read a book called Eve’s House in Heaven, where it explained that the beams in the houses built by the first humans represented their upright position. That’s why I wanted the home to be the axis of my photographic work.

Azzedine Alaïa: I feel good no matter what city I’m in; I’ve never felt like a foreigner in any country. I moved to Paris for reasons that have to do with my childhood and its after-effects. In Tunisia I grew up with French people, Jews, Italians, the whole Med. No one was racist – I learned that word when I came to Paris. My uncle was a Tunisian Jew, and Madame Pineau, the midwife who assisted my birth, was a French woman from Trouville. She lived in the toughest neighborhood in Tunis. When my uncle the cop offered to protect her, she replied, “I helped all these kids be born – do you think they’d do anything to me?” Madame Pineau was like a second mother to me. I used to go over to her house, watch women give birth, help her boil water – she’d hand me the babies right out of their mothers’ bellies! I was only ten and already I knew it all. There were no taboos in my life. She was open-minded, but didn’t feel like she had to talk about it. Sometimes it’s stupid to explain too much. I had a friend who, when he was forty, wanted to come out to his parents. Did his mother and father really not know he was gay? My parents never asked me a single question and yet my father’s education was a tough one. There was an enormous sense of discretion among us. Everyone wanted to avoid conflict by not offending the others.