#pfw, Alaia, Alva Chinn, Azzedine, Azzedine Alaia, Betty Lago, Eric Sartori, Gail Elliott, Grace Jones, Janice Dickinson, Julie Wolfe, Linda Spierings, Lynn Koester, Marie Rucki, Marpessa, Marpessa Hennink, Olympus, Paris, Paris Fashion Week, rue Payenne, Sophie Theallet, Stephanie Seymour, Studio Berçot, Supermodels, Suzy Menkes, Tara Shannon, Yasmin le Bon, Zuleika, Zuleika Ponsen
I always try to find the most creative titles for my posts, and yet this one is quite different. It is so simple because, as for the times it portrays Fashion Week was different then, and it was well, simpler.
It was about 1984, 1985. I was a student at Studio Berçot which was back then probably the best fashion school in the world. It was definitely the most creative and our school director, Marie Rucki had close ties with absolutely everyone in the Industry.
Each fashion week she would dispatch her students to various designers to give a hand. Our jobs were very simple: dressing the models, ironing the clothes, sewing buttons, cooking potatoes as I did once for Claude Montana at 3 am, pick up the dry-cleanings: Fashion gofers. The pay was next to nothing but it was all chalked up to « experience » and we all knew how lucky we were to have the jobs.
The first time I was sent to Azzedine Alaïa’ atelier rue du Parc Royal, I was, as always, carrying my camera. A beat-up Olympus I had received for my 18th birthday that I had already dragged everywhere for a whole year in New York. I had taken so many pictures with it that it had become a natural extension of my arm. I could not afford film so I was always cautious before I took any picture to make sure it was worth it.
I could focus and calculate the light faster than my current digital camera ever could. Sadly, a skill I lost. So, naturally it was with me inside the cabine. I was a dresser and I was quick so as long as my « girl » was all done and ready to go, Azzedine let me snap the pictures.
No one was allowed backstage in the « cabine ». No one that was not essential to the show. So, that meant Patapouf and his master Azzedine, the assistants Eric and Sylvie, Alaia’s beloved models – and us, the dressers. A couple of hairdressers. Basta.
Marpessa Hennink was one of the hottest girls and it was great fun to see her regularly walk in with the most recent copies of ELLE or Vogue, her face on it, and laughing with the girls at each other’s pages in the magazines.
The models, Azzedine’s famed girls were all more beautiful one than the next and all different. Brazilians, American, Irish, Dutch, Somalian, German, Japanese, French… some unknown, walking for the first time in Paris, others absolute superstars outside his house, some like Tatjana Patitz, Yasmin Le Bon or Stephanie Seymour would become the first « Supermodels » that dominated the late 80s and 90s. Many girls were very young and doing their first catwalks in the Maison of Alaïa.
Most would decline to partake in the rest of Paris Fashion Week madness to feel at home twice a year Chez Azzedine. His schedule was cleverly designed not to allow the girls to work elsewhere… 3 shows a day: 10am, 3pm and 5pm if memory serves, so in fact they were stuck rue du Parc Royal.
We ate together and between shows they slept on the tables, smoked (lots of) cigarettes, laughed together, read books, called their family, basically hung out ‘en famille’.
Janice Dickinson, the mercurial self-proclaimed « first Supermodel » was towards the end of her legendary career as a cover girl. Since she rebounded in the US on TV and writing books about her life and the beginning of the supermodels era. Janice was one of the most generous and most fun model ever, posing for me every time I pointed my camera in her direction.
My favorite, my own « muse » was Linda Spierings. She was THE hottest model in the world – Special bookings only at Elite New York. When Lina Evangelista started her career, her first name card was « Evangelista » because the name ‘Linda’ was synonymous with Spierings. Linda was Dutch and mildly interested in fashion, so she would only work with a very short list of photographers like Richard Avedon, Paolo Roversi, Irving Penn, or Peter Lindberg and saw Azzedine’s house as a great « break in the rush » of her huge modelling career.
Zuleika Ponsen was Azzedine in-house muse. She was his fitting model and smoked all day, it seemed that she had always been there. She was later discarded but most of the collection from Azzedine’s prime were modeled on her first.
Tatjana Patitz incredibly beautiful.
She was young, a bit shy, incredibly sweet, polite, easy to laugh and once on picture – boom – a different girl would appear. Almost feral, incredibly beautiful, a « femme fatale ». She was in the game-changing George Michael video « Freedom » and had a huge career in the 90s, then little by little she mostly retired from the limelight.
It was thirty years ago – I still can’t believe it has been that long – so, in those far far away times there were no cell phones, no internet, no twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and all of today’s insane means of sharing everything LIVE in the fashion world from every angle.
The cabine was a sacred, private « bubble » where the girls laughed, joked and got ready, usually doing their own makeup, before going on stage « do their thing » seduce the audience, dazzle the crowds and run back as fast as possible so the dressers could jump on them, quickly tear the shoes, rip – carefully – the dresses off, kick the fur coats away and immediately dress them again in completely new outfits. Each model had about 6 to 8 « passages » if I remember correctly. It was madness in the tiny cabine and we were all sweating and concentrating on our job. Great fun!
It was all a labor of Love. If the dressers were paid absolute peanuts, the models actually worked for free. They did it for a generous clothing allowance that Azzedine gave them. Basically they had free access to the store and could take whatever they wanted. This is how Alaïa in the 80s became known as the « models uniform ». They would resume their career, traveling from London to Bombay to New York looking smoking hot, elegant, timeless and send scores of women running to the stores to emulate their looks. These girls were superstars.
They still are. Most of his girls are still superstars, and not for nothing. Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista came after my time in Azzedine Alaïa Studio, but Marpessa, Linda, Gail Elliott, Stephanie, Katoucha, Elle, Yasmin, Alva, Caroline, all of them were different, all of them exceptional.
Today Fashion is quite the Circus as per Suzy Menkes famous comment, back then it was quite different. Azzedine Alaïa was simply the hottest designer in the planet, yet the shows were the absolute opposite of a circus. They were held three times a day for about a week for friends, journalists, top clients, artists in the smallest venue possible: the floor of the boutique that was cleared and filled with chairs and a tiny podium. The « cabine » was a tent erected outside in the black marbled courtyard. The second day I was there, a storm exploded over Paris and I while I was frantically wrapping with plastic bags the massive electrical plugs that were getting wet on the edge of the courtyard, getting soaked, Azzedine noticed me and started requesting me for all the shows. Once I graduated I was hired for the Studio, then as I spoke English for the boutique. So, for a short while, in the mid- eighties, I became a part of his « family ».
I snapped pictures at every show. I had no money, so I was very cautious and would only pressed the button when « it was worth » it, and the extraordinary thing is that although I have lost or misplaced many books the ones I did find recently are filled with beautiful images. I snapped and snapped and the models always looked extraordinary.
I learned many, many things working for the greatest fashion designer in Paris. I learned about hard work and I learned to listen to and anticipate clients needs. I learned that all that matter is the woman that will wear the clothes and feel empowered by them, but I also learned that if you are working with the most beautiful girls in the world, dressed in the most extraordinary clothes, lit to perfection, it is simply impossible to NOT take exceptional images.
It was another time. It was loads of hard work and loads of fun.
Thank you to all the girls and of course, merci Azzedine.
Of course, I have hundreds more pictures… I will now think about what I should do with them.
The french version of this blog is published on my blog in Le Monde: Swinging Pekin.
The Chinese version will be in Vogue China.