He is called the man who is changing the way women dress, and to that, Azzedine Alaia smiles bashfully and says, "Others have a better eye for that than I."
Others say his super-fitted clothes, sculpted at the midriff and over the derrie re embody the worst in fashion's newest look: a swerve back to sexy and provocative dress, surely inappropriate for the modern woman. Alaia responds philosophically: "It all depends on who is wearing the clothes."
Who is wearing the clothes these days includes some of the most elegant women in Paris, plus such high-visibility bodies elsewhere as Tina Turner, Raquel Welch, Grace Jones, Paloma Picasso, Andre'e Putman and Princess Caroline of Monaco.
And when he is reminded that many find him difficult to get along with, sometimes untruthful, he laughs and says, "I'm me'chant naughty ," which is a far more accurate description.
But all those things made the first public fashion show by this Tunisian-born Paris designer, held at the Palladium in New York Wednesday night, the town's hottest ticket in years. Over 10,000 requests for the 1,500 places at the show, 900 of them standing room -- the most requests, said one of the organizers, in at least 10 years.
Not bad for someone hardly known beyond the inside fashion circles.
Twice a year, while the big name designers show their seasonal wares to thousands under tents in the Tuileries in Paris, Azzedine Alaia presents his small collection to a select group in his house a few metro stops away in the posh, gentrified Marais section. Buyers, press and clients fight for tickets to the informal shows presented four times daily over a week's time.
The clothes, which seem starkly simple, are usually molded over the figure, and while leaving the top of the garment roomy, almost always hug the fanny. Whether made of wool jersey, leather, gabardine, denim or even satin, they are intricately cut to curve into, over and around the lower torso. "He can cut beautifully any material known to man," says Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel.
His recent collections have revived the interest by designers worldwide in wool jersey, in stirrup pants, but mostly in body-conscious clothing.
"Everyone is interested now in the body," he says. "When you looked at the Olympics, you saw beautiful bodies. We are all more conscious of the beauty of our bodies. Everyone is going in for gymnastics, both men and women, and now there are health clubs and gymnastic clubs all over Paris. For me, clothes are part of the body," he says.
Like Greek and Egyptian sculpture, "I put the female form on a high level," he says. "I want to embellish a woman's figure, to bring out the best. I like to see the woman like a goddess."
He explains his focus on the derrie re, quite rightfully, as "something that is very French, very Parisienne." If some see it as tasteless, so be it, he shrugs.
"He is a man who truly loves woman and loves the woman's form," says Joan Kaner, fashion director of Macy's. At the moment when other designers were creating oversized and formless Japanese designer-inspired clothing, Alaia consistently focused on the waistline, the midriff, the derrie re. "He caresses the woman's curves, he doesn't distort them," says Kaner.
Says Gene Pressman, vice president of Barney's: "The clothes are young, innovative and fresh. They are modern, timeless and classic. Any woman who has a decent body can wear them."
Even proper, conservative, successful Washington-types, insists Alaia. "Women of the world are not like before. Today you can be sexy and chic -- it all depends on the woman."
He likes the subject and says more. "You can be a successful businesswoman and look like a goddess . . . in fact it is better when you are both things, when the feminine figure is well turned out, well dressed, the hair well done."
Even in the board room, "it is better if the woman is a bit coquette. To have the energy of the man, but to feel a woman at the same time; to have all the qualities to be president, but to keep the elegance at the same time . . . ," he smiles, without finishing the sentence.
"It is possible to look vulgar in loose clothes. And it is possible to go out in a brassiere and shorts and not be vulgar. Vulgarity depends on the woman, not the clothes," he concludes with a huge grin.
Azzedine Alaia's Yorkshire terrier Pat-a -Pouf jumps into his owner's lap the minute Alaia settles into a chair at Barney's, the New York specialty store that is helping him organize his New York show. The tiny dog barks noisily at anyone who comes near the designer except Cristophe von Weyhe, the German nobleman who is Alaia's close friend and who has offered to translate for the designer, who speaks no English.
Alaia, who is wearing his uniform -- a black cotton Mao suit -- is short, curly haired, and sits boyishly with one foot tucked under him. He makes faces and giggles a lot, perhaps nervously, but shoots back quick answers to questions about his clothes. About himself he is more reticent.
He was born in Tunisia; his father was a wheat farmer. "I have no age," he says, giggling into his fist. "I am the age of pharaohs," he says teasingly, but when asked if he is a perennial 39, he says 29 is closer.
There was no particular interest in clothes in his family. In fact, all he remembers of his mother's clothes is that she only wore the traditional Tunisian long white shawl.
He was raised by a doting grandmother who sent him to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Tunis to study sculpture. He wasn't very good at it, he says, and sees little connection between his sculpture and the sculpted dresses that are his specialty. It was the shapely dresses of Balenciaga, then the star in Paris, and the provocative styles of the girls in art-school class, he says, that encouraged him to pursue a career in fashion.
He began by turning hems for a local dressmaker. He recalls that one day, on his usual walk to school past the palace of a rich family, two elderly women from the palace, intrigued with his appearance, called to him from a balcony and idly invited him in. They discovered he was more interested in sewing than sculpting and introduced him to a Tunisian friend with a connection to the house of Dior in Paris.
He moved to Paris in 1967 and got a job with Dior soon after Yves Saint Laurent had started as Dior's assistant, but never met Dior or Saint Laurent. He lasted only five days -- he doesn't know why.
To survive in Paris he got a job as an au pair with a rich and social family, looking after children, cooking Tunisian dishes and sewing for the woman of the house and her friends.
One of those friends offered him a maid's room and lots of time off to make clothes. Alaia accepted and soon was given even larger space and began to take in private clients. His following grew until he could afford a small apartment on the rue Belle Chasse on the Left Bank, where he lived until last year. There, in the best couturier tradition, he designed, made and fitted clothes, working all the time except when he slept, literally, under his work table. From two clients in particular, Louise de Vilmorin, Andre' Malraux's last mistress, and the actress Arletty, Alaia was exposed to vastly different intellectual and social worlds in Paris.
His designs were the well-kept secret of such clients as Rosine Ce'sar, wife of the sculptor, until Ce'sar one day introduced him to editors of the French magazine Elle. A short time afterward one of Alaia's coats was featured in the magazine. It propelled Alaia, who was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his not-so-young, but very rich, clientele, to look for a new way to do business. "I didn't want to dress them anymore . . . Fashion had slipped away from them. It was being made by younger people in the street," he said.
In 1982 he created a collection of 12 pieces that so impressed Dawn Mello, now president of Bergdorf Goodman, that she asked him to expand the group into a collection to debut at Bergdorf's. "I was a nervous wreck," Mello remembers. "Until the show I hadn't seen the added clothes. He finished and fitted and pressed them himself in the store before the show." Mello's instincts were exactly right. Alaia's clothes broke all the store's records for sales by a new designer.
It was Bergdorf's who instigated Alaia's return to New York this week to present his fall collection, which was hailed in serious fashion magazines such as Details as a "landmark collection." But by the time the show took place, disagreements over his costly special requirements for the show led him to sever all relationships with the store. "Bergdorf's should have spent less money on sending me flowers and be more willing to pay for the show," Alaia complained. "It is not possible to do such a show on a budget. If they wanted me to help pay for the show, I wanted to pay for the whole thing and do it totally my way."
The crowd began arriving at the Palladium more than an hour before the show. It was a presentation on a grand scale, produced by Jean-Paul Goude, who is best known for creating Grace Jones' look. There was a staircase built into the huge disco, one worthy of a Hollywood set. In fact, it was a sensible way to show these clothes to their best advantage. Goude had 52 models climbing up and down the steps, rehearsing to special music, for almost three hours.
The crowd, as requested on the invitation, wore black dress, many of the short, tight variety, proof that the Alaia message had already reached them. It didn't seem to bother anyone that such clothes made it difficult to navigate the bleachers set up for the evening.
And the crowd was a real New York mix of fashion folk and celebrities, including Joan Rivers, Simon Le Bon, rock duo Ashford and Simpson, John de Lorean, photographer Francesco Scavullo, designers Giorgio Sant'Angelo, Pauline Trigere, Koos Van den Akker, Willi Smith, Mark Jacob and many more. ("He makes me want to go home and rethink the T-shirt," said Smith after the show.)
But the important thing was the clothes. Alaia opened the show with peplum jackets in wool and leather, paired with stirrup trousers or short, tight skirts; there were ski looks with fitted jackets and stretch pants which, when paired with short mink jackets, looked remarkably like 1930s Hollywood. The crowd cheered as the models, in coats with fitted waists and full skirts, spun to reveal body suits and tights underneath. And then there were the remarkable reversible mink coats -- mink-on-mink.
In place of the gauntlet gloves he favored in previous seasons, he presented dresses with long, skinny sleeves that covered the back of the hands. "There is something very pretty and coquettish just to see the fingertips peeking out," explained Alaia before the show.
The audience also loved the Alaia sweaters, always cut full at the top, sometimes fitted over the hips or waist-length, or sometimes boxy and shy of the waist. And best of all were his signature wool jerseys, from the knee to micro-mini.
He successfully translated the same shapes into lighter-weight jersey for evening in black or jewel tones. One version was slashed and tied at the side and appeared to incorporate a mask in the design. What was far less successful was an extensive group of chiffons and satins, many of them added just for the New York show.
The show benefited greatly from the extensive sound system and elaborate lighting of the Palladium.
More than 3,000 additional guests were invited to salute Alaia at a party in his honor after the show. And if the designer had any doubt as to his influence on current fashion, he had only to look around