Azzedine Alaïa, the Tunisian-born French fashion designer, was one of the most influential talents the world of fashion will ever know, and one of the closest people in my life. Heartbreakingly, last week he died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 77.
I met Azzedine on a casting call, shortly after I arrived in Paris as a 19-year-old model. I was scared as hell, dead broke, and couldn’t walk in heels or speak French. The man who would become both my father figure and mentor corrected all that in short order, as he and his partner of 53 years, painter Christoph von Wyeth (who is like a father to me as well), swept me up into their magical world, centered on the design studio in their home. The workshop buzzed 24 hours a day with creative energy, filled with the brightest stars and most brilliant minds of our time; a menagerie of furry animals; and, above all, the love and laughter of his staff and friends. It became a place I will always think of as home.
Azzedine came to Paris from Tunis, Tunisia, in the 1960s after the Algerian War. He found work for a French countess’s family as the live-in au pair by night, while by day he worked in the workshop of the Christian Dior as a cutter and pattern-maker, toiling scissors-to-scissors with two other assistants who would also become fashion icons: Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent.
Azzedine perfected his craft into a career by hands-on engagement with the oft-overlooked details of design—cutting, sewing and patternmaking—seven days a week, often for 18 hours at a clip. He would eventually rise to prominence by dressing women as diverse as Grace Jones, Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga in tightly sculpted dresses that would not only inspire envy but also influence how fashion was manufactured and marketed from the ’80s onward. Notably, Azzedine never advertised—ever. He never had to; women told other women to buy his clothes.
I was both introduced to and saw the world through Azzedine’s eyes, because so much of the world—from heads of state to bricklayers—at some point or another sat at his large kitchen table. He loved to cook, and served meals to his entire staff and guests almost daily.
As one of his muses, Azzedine dressed me almost every single day. I, in turn, became a walking mannequin for his clothes, which both reflected his brilliant interior life and his technical virtuosity. I loved being alone with Azzedine in his studio, where he would drape and fit garments on me into the wee hours of the night.
He was a master of construction and could take scissors to a pelt of leather and work it as easily as if it were a ball of yarn. The prototypes for each garment he made were never handed off to an assistant but came entirely from his own hand; it was not uncommon that 300 hours might go into fitting a single coat.
Azzedine’s clothes are so exquisitely crafted because there was never a limit in his mind to how long it should take to finish working on a piece, or when he should be obligated to show a collection to the public. He would often show weeks after the official fashion week had ended, compelling magazine editors and buyers to either stay in Paris or return at their own expense.
His insistence that fashion was a true art form—and a truly personal one at that—won him extensive solo exhibitions at major museums, the last one being a retrospective at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. But as coveted and spectacular as Azzedine’s clothes are, he used to tell me he made his dresses not be to seen, saying, “When a woman wears my dress, you should not notice it but wonder why she looks so beautiful and, later, notice the dress.”
In those countless hours we spent together, since we didn’t initially share a language, he taught me to speak French and how to walk in high heels, make money from modeling, and deal with rejection at work and racism in all its forms. “Veronica,” he would say, with his glittering eyes and penetrating gaze, “if someone is racist—it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.”
He stood only 5 feet 4 inches, but Azzedine saw the world as a cloth meant to be cut to fit the way he moved through it. He was like the great writer James Baldwin profiled in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro: He couldn’t understand what could be so wrong with a person that they need to debase another person in order to hold their own head up high.
The forceful delivery of his words left no doubt as to his meaning, and the only thing equal to his considerable will was his sense of humor. Azzedine—or Didine, as those who loved him called him—made himself untouchable by both the whims of fashion and the tides of anti-Arab sentiment, solely through the strength of his character and the deeply artistic quality of his work.
I will forever revere and respect Azzedine not only as an artist but as a loyal friend and father figure to myself and models Naomi Campbell and Stephanie Seymour. In my heart, he has no equal; he saw us all through our teenage years and early years in the fashion industry, and helped us navigate our lives as women with frank advice. He picked us up and never judged us when we were down.
But the one thing Azzedine never did was stop. Ever. Over the last few years, when we spoke on the phone, New York to Paris, he’d often wonder aloud how much time he had left for all the ideas he had that he wanted to execute. In the last four years alone, he opened two new boutiques, in London and Paris, and showed several collections to glowing critical reviews.
To the very end, Azzedine designed clothes with a particular vocabulary, with every laser cut, slash and peekaboo a balancing act—every seam speaking ever louder and more confidently of its master’s hands. Because his work grew stronger at every turn, that made him seem—not only to me but in the lexicon of fashion—eternal.
Azzedine used to say to me, “Fabric is so important. Most of us spend more time being held and caressed by the clothes that we wear than by the people who we love.”
Thank you, Azzedine. I will always be dressed in love by you.