Exclusive – Glass is invited to Alaïa’s AW16 show at his Paris HQ

WHEN news of the Alaïa EDP was first released in 2015 it was a surprise to realise that there had never yet been an Alaïa perfume, given that fashion and fragrance now seem so symbiotically linked. Anyone expecting that the enduring appeal of Alaïa’s accessory line would result in a fragrance heavy with leather notes was wrong: Alaïa EDP is a soft and tantalising blend of warmth and coolness. Subtle, elegant and understated; every aspect of Alaïa EDP from box colour to bottle cap is a sensuous delight.

Alaïa A/W 2016/17 - imagery courtesy of AlaïaAlaïa AW 16/17. Courtesy of Alaïa

Glass was invited to watch the Alaïa AW16 show at the designer’s Paris HQ. The next day I was to meet Marie Salamagne: the nose who created the Alaïa fragrance to get an insight into the world of Alaïa and the unique way of working that has given us this extraordinary perfume.

Azzedine Alaïa stepped off the Fashion Week carousel years ago. The designer is famous for working at his own pace. Alaïa AW16 was not part of the Paris Fashion Week schedule; the invitation was verbal, no stiff card stickered to represent standing/seating printed with a showtime that even if it ran late, would be adhered to. On the contrary … when I was asked to attend the show date was not yet set, and would not be set until M. Alaïa judged the collection to be complete. We knew which weeks to expect the show would take place in but the actual date was confirmed just days in advance.

Alaïa A/W 2016/17 - imagery courtesy of AlaïaAlaïa AW 16/17. Courtesy of Alaïa

Arriving in Paris, I am advised that the time of the show has been pulled forward, but it’s not far from Gare du Nord to Alaïa’s “factory home” in the 4th arrondissement. M. Alaïa was hosting me in one of his apartments adjoining the boutique, so I dropped off my bags and had a little time to browse the shopfloor, before being ushered through a discreet doorway into the glass-roofed gallery space which is home to every Alaïa show.

The previous day Instagram had shown this room lined with chairs and gift bags for the main show. Today was for buyers – a different ambience, with the collection hanging on clothes rails set against the walls, allowing up-close scrutiny and assessment of hanger appeal before seeing the clothes animated on models. Now round tables lined the catwalk space, on which rested paper and electronic notebooks, and there was a buzz of activity and conversation.

Alaïa A/W 2016/17 - imagery courtesy of AlaïaAlaïa AW 16/17. Courtesy of Alaïa

We were greeted by the vivacious and charming Léa Gandon, Alaïa Parfums Marketing Manager at Beauté Prestige International, anxious that the show time being brought forward meant that I hadn’t had time for lunch. Léa Gandon explained, “M. Alaïa is very concerned to hear that you haven’t eaten. The kitchen is preparing some light dishes for you now.” Disarmed by such avuncular kindness, my pre-show excitement appetite suppressors simply melted away, and I applied myself to the delicious food that came from the Alaïa kitchens with possibly unbecoming vigour.

Alaïa A/W 2016/17 - imagery courtesy of AlaïaAlaïa AW 16/17. Courtesy of Alaïa

Used to the heady, hyper feel of London Fashion Week; the chatter and buzz of squeezing into your place and craning your gaze to catch as many moments of a fast-paced parade of fashion as possible, this buyers’ show was very different, almost ‘50s in feel. Having had time to prowl the rails and see what would be shown, it was with a different sense of excitement that I watched the first models proceed in stately fashion down the room. Not the drama of new, new, new, but instead, “oh, that is that coat … that is how that print works with the body … those shoes, with that dress … superb.”

Alaïa A/W 2016/17 - imagery courtesy of AlaïaAlaïa AW 16/17. Courtesy of Alaïa

The next day, I am to meet Marie Salamagne, the nose who created the Alaïa perfume, and the Beauté Prestige International marketing team to find out more about the process through which Alaïa fragrance is created. In the morning, I ride downstairs in the tiny lift (an encouragement to keep one’s figure if ever there was one) and sidle out of the back door into the courtyard behind the Alaïa kitchen. It’s quite early, but there are already people at work there; the heart of the Alaïa home. We exchange polite, shy good mornings, enjoying the warmth and sunlight, and I am struck anew by the sense of calm and purpose that permeates every part of this beautiful building.

Alaïa A/W 2016/17 - imagery courtesy of AlaïaAlaïa AW 16/17. Courtesy of Alaïa

Bags packed and keys left in the door, it’s time for the appointment with Marie Salamagne. Meeting on the pavement outside the restaurant, I notice that the BPI team are all looking grounded, secure and self-confident in punched Alaïa brogues. Being accustomed to seeing Azzedine Alaïa’s iconic pieces in the fantasy world of red carpet shots and fashion editorial, it is wonderful to see them worn in everyday life by purposeful, busy, working women: successful, fulfilled, adult. There is nothing juvenile about the flip of a skater skirt, no adolescent frailty in the neat waists encircled by the eyelet belt. And those brogues? Something of a uniform, they all agree, perfect for work.

Alaïa A/W 2016/17 - imagery courtesy of AlaïaAlaïa AW 16/17. Courtesy of Alaïa

Marie, I understand that you met M. Alaïa many years ago when he was first thinking about doing a fragrance, and you put something together on spec that sat in a drawer for a while until the fragrance idea was revisited?
Marie Salamagne: Yes, that is exactly what happened. I met him something like ten years ago. He had a crush on this note, that was an accord at the time, very simple, but we already had this bare skin note, this freshness. So there was this contrast between the watery, very fresh note on top, and the more musky skin note. I don’t know what happened, but he was not ready. I think M. Alaïa has to be very confident with people he works with, so if he didn’t find the right people it would dissuade him. He would wait for the right person. And he found them with Beauté Prestige International.

This accord, from eight years ago, he said “please, go and find the girl who created that”and they came back to me. And of course, I still had the formula and I remembered M. Alaïa, as you can imagine. So we met again, and he said “That’s exactly as I remembered it, and what I’m looking for…” and that was the starting point.

You’re very young for a nose …
MS: I had a baby nose when I first began working on this (laughs) I was very young. And I think maybe that’s why I did that very creative accord because when you’re young and you start to work you have no restrictions. You can try totally crazy things sometimes.

He had never done a perfume before, and of course, the first one is very emblematic for him. So you can imagine how heavy it was on my shoulders. Thank God I was sharing that with Léa (laughs). But [the committee] has a fantastic atmosphere. M. Alaïa would give me all his confidence, but he was keeping me in the right frame.

The phrase “design by committee” usually has a very negative connotation – but your creative committee has created something very special. You meet every month?
Léa Gandon: Yes, every month. It’s very new for us as well, because usually only the marketing comes and presents to the creator. But with us, everyone is here, so you have Marie, the nose for the fragrance side; Martin Szekely, the designer of the bottle; then of course you have M. Alaïa; Carla Sozzani is definitely there. Caroline Fabre Bazin, his Studio Director, and a representative of the Richmond group, who own Alaïa. And then from time to time we have a guest, for example the photographer Paolo Roversi, and the musician Nicolas Godin, who does all the music for the shows and our films as well. So each time we are at least seven, and then we can have other guests. M. Alaïa said that every month, everyone is allowed to share what they think [on every aspect].

We present him with new products, new strategies and sometimes he will say “Oh yes, very nice” and then the next time he comes back and says: “I thought about it … and we have to do it better. It’s not finished yet.” At one point, we changed everything that could be changed. It’s his way.

MS: It’s surprising at the beginning, but then you get used to it. It’s totally new to work that way in our industry, and he understood that sitting around the table, we could be inspired from one to another. The way that M. Alaïa and Carla were working: so precise in their choosing of the colours … sometimes you had ten different colours on the table. Blacks. My eye couldn’t even tell what was different from one to another, and I could see them picking the exact same colour. They’d make decisions in the month before and say “OK, we’ve thought about it, it’s not perfect enough. We have to redo it.” I think it pushed me also in my work. I wanted to make the perfect formula, the most balanced I could, because they really deserved that. I wanted to attain that perfection when I was looking at them.

LG: For M. Alaïa, it’s like a family, there’s no boundaries between life and work. Normally, when you have a meeting like that it’s at 2 or 3, but it’s set at 11 or 11:30 or 6:00, and that’s so that you stay for lunch or dinner. A couple of times when it was really late, when it’s the end of the day, in the middle of the committee he says “OK, now stop, we’ll have a drink and then we’ll think better.”

So everything stops and we have vodka – un petit coup, non?, because it’s the committee and everything has to go on … I went a few weeks ago to a shoot for a new fragrance with Paolo Roversi and same thing. He’d been shooting from the beginning of the day and at lunch he had big tables for everyone and at 6:30 he said “Now we have to stop, it’s vodka time.” So it seems now that everyone around M. Alaïa drinks vodka at 6:30. (laughter)

There’s a very close relationship between the fragrance and the fashion house, which is really nice – and not typical.
LG: M. Alaïa has surrounded himself with people that he really likes, so there are people from his family, and then there are people that he has known for the last twenty years or since he started. Martin, Paolo; they are such big stars –

MS: But they’re so simple, accessible  –

LG: Yes.

MS: It’s thanks to M. Alaïa …

LG: I think so. He’s quite incredible because he says out loud what he thinks. He’s out of the system, he does things his own way, and nowadays there are so few designers that can – because of course, you have stock options; all that – for him, he doesn’t care you know? His way of seeing things and doing fashion – it’s so contrary to what’s happening now. Fashion is now really, really fast: see this, buy it now. M. Alaïa is really against this and he does more a slow fashion, slow motion thing.

So what we saw in the show yesterday will go into production and only then become available?
LG: Yes, the usual path, except that we can tell you: Alaïa: never on time. (laughter) Shops make their waiting list and what’s more desirable than waiting for something you really want to have? So that’s still the Alaïa way.

Was it always decided that Alaïa wouldn’t go with a “face” to front the fragrance? For it’s not as though Azzedine Alaïa is not on the closest terms with some of the most famous faces in the world.

LG: For him, the fragrance – as with the clothes – doesn’t speak to one person, but to all women. He didn’t want a face because people will only project on to this person. It was an issue at the beginning, but then we understood the point.

Marketing through celebrities is so wide-spread that it’s unusual now for brands to show that confidence in their customer’s imagination  – hmmm … using the word ‘brand’ for Alaïa doesn’t feel right.
LG: No, Alaïa is him. We rarely talk about “the brand”. We talk about him, because he is the one who embodies the brand.

For him, this fragrance had to be timeless. Which is a huge challenge. Because for him there will always be one – this one – that for him is like Chanel No. 5: the fragrance that will be the reference. He said the first one has to be “the myth” – like the skater dress, as timeless as that. And that’s why it’s not at all in line with trends. It’s not what we’re smelling or what we’re seeing in the market because for him, this one goes through time.

MS: We stick to the philosophy of couture for the fragrances. M. Alaïa has always presented the same shapes, but with new colours, new materials … you can say “Ah, it’s Alaïa”, but very different at the same time, because he’s using a new pattern … So in fragrance, we always work with Eau De Parfum, which is our signature, but we will work around colours. The new one is Eau De Parfum blanche, because the colours for Alaïa are black – the first one launched – and white, and in the future we will be working on the other iconic colours of Azzedine Alaïa.

Was it a different way of working for you Marie?
MS: Very. I realised how much pressure we can carry doing things the regular way. And how productive it can be to work in a different way, taking time, sure, but having such a different result. It was not only a project for me, it’s really a human adventure. I met fantastic people. I think M. Alaïa is such a sage. Everybody around him has this something special and you can feel it. At the end of the two years, next to him and the other people he brought around the table, I had a different vision. Of people, of my own work, of perfume, of what I can do in the future.

So it’s been a truly transforming experience for you?

MS: Totally. And I think it will be unique.


I was a fan of the original Alaïa EDP before visiting the house of Alaïa, but now, every time I wear this beautiful scent I am reminded of those two days in Paris. It inspires me to try to live in a way that is a little more Alaïa: to take the time I need for myself, rather than always accept external pressures; to encourage myself to pursue that one great goal, rather than several lesser ones; and – occasionally – to have un petit coup de vodka at 6.30pm.

The second Alaïa EDP is set to launch later this year, and I find myself trying to guess what it will be like – even though I am sure, having met with Marie and the BPI marketing team that any guess will be very wide of the mark. The only certainty is that this unique creative committee will find delightful ways to surprise, whilst still being unmistakably, irresistibly Alaïa.

by Rachel McCormack

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Glass Online beauty writer

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