12/05/2023 Sophie Theallet Interview: From Azzedine Alaïa To New York
Sophie Theallet Interview: From Azzedine Alaïa To New York
We are very pleased to announce that internationally renowned fashion designer Sophie Theallet joins the Amis du Fonds de Dotation Méditerranée, with whom she shares the same philosophy. To celebrate this new member, the Fonds de dotation traces back her story.
When she turned eighteen, Sophie Theallet passed the exam to attend Berçot studio. During her second year of study at Berçot, she won the National Young Designers Prize (Prix National des Jeunes Créateurs) and received her diploma. Immediately after graduating she was hired as designer assistant at Jean Paul Gaultier and worked there for three years. Soon after she became the right hand woman of Azzedine Alaïa, a major Franco-Tunisian couturier and the first chairman of Maison Mode Méditerranée. At his side for around ten years, she worked on collections with great enthusiasm and dedication. She then moved to New York and began working as a freelance designer and consultant. Sophie ended up launching her successful eponymous brand “Sophie Theallet ” in 2007. In 2009, her talent was unanimously recognized by the American fashion industry. Theallet won the CVFF, the prestigious prize awarded by the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) and the American fashion magazine Vogue. She was among the first designers to promote diversity and inclusivity in her fashion shows in New York. Last but not least, she also dressed American First Lady Michelle Obama as well as numerous American and international celebrities.
A conversation between Sophie Theallet and Maryline Bellieud-Vigouroux, Chairwoman of Fonds de Dotation Maison Mode Méditerranée.
Can you give us some insights about Azzedina Alaïa’s work and his cultural impact?
In my opinion Azzedine Alaïa’s work links past and future in the field of contemporary fashion. Rather than forgetting the past, he learned deeply from it. Sir Alaïa literally dismantled great couturiers’ clothes in order to unravel their secrets and figure out their technical mastery from which he developed his unique skills and artistry. For me Azzedine was a true couturier in the most noble sense of the term. He was able to sculpt the woman’s body. He created each piece of clothing with his own hands. There was no distinction between the man and his art. Azzedine understood his art as a calling. He was inspired by everything: fine art, architecture… even food or cuisine was an integral part of his life. He didn’t learn from books or from school, but from life’s experiences. A fully accomplished autodidact. Later, museums approached him. For that matter, you, Maryline, were the first one to welcome him in the museum world, by offering him to take part in the Fashion Museum of Marseille at the right time. Only a woman he loved could make him accept such an offer. Alaïa’s success comes from his mastery of materials: he was able to tame materials and fashion them to his wishes. His open-mindedness and his curiosity were his strength. He always surrounded himself with young and creative spirits, always looking for something new. He liked to learn from each and every one, and was interested in everything. He also enjoyed spending time with the petites mains, the seamstresses behind the scenes, in his atelier or in factories in Italy. Everybody loved him! He also really appreciated craftsmanship, not only in fashion but in all crafts. Time didn’t have a hold on him. When he worked, nothing mattered to him. In fact three hours of sleep were truly enough for him!
After spending ten years working closely with Azzedine Alaïa, were you able to cut the apron strings?
No. These are strings you never cut. When I moved to New York to launch my brand after ten years of work at his side, we kept calling each other two to three times a week.
On my hand, I never found anywhere this technical mastery, this impeccable way of mounting and finishing clothes. He trained my eye to the millimeter! I am always aware of the slightest flaw, and it still drives me crazy today! Also when I set up my own atelier in New York, I found it really complicated to find qualified people. Once, when Azzedine traveled to New York, I remember sharing with him my frustration about the lack of knowhow. He told me: “give me your drawings, and as soon as I’m back in Paris I’ll send you a toile which you’ll use as your starting point, but don’t tell anyone! It’s our secret!” I couldn’t believe it! He set up a sewing machine, got down to work and showed my seamstress how to sew and stitch, how to hem on mousseline fabric. He was very generous. Obviously when I received the toile, made with his own bare hands, it was perfect. To this day, I have kept it and it’s part of my most prestigious “Fashion Trophies”. I feel nostalgic when I think about these moments we shared and spent together, in the midst of the night, working silently or listening to Oum Kalsoum. It was magical. Sometimes almost mystical.
Once you launched your brand “Sophie Theallet” in New York in 2007, you stood up for diversity and inclusivity – well before it became a burning social issue.
Absolutely. Simply because, when I arrived in New York, I began looking closely at people in the streets. I discovered an extraordinary cultural, ethnic and racial intermingling, a bit like in Marseille! But when I was attending New York Fashion shows, it was not like that. I hence wanted right away to represent what I saw. My first fashion show was a tribute to Black women, from the darkest to the lightest skin tones, since they were underrepresented in fashion and on the runway, although very present in my everyday life.
Then, large women, the ones that looked like me. Alongside the Cuban-American designer Isabelle Toledo, we were among the first ones to collaborate with a brand specialized for “Round Women”. Isabelle was in charge of the ready-to-wear and I, lingerie. I also asked them to walk for my fashion shows, which helped a lot in changing the way they were perceived by the fashion world and gave them a better representation in magazines and by designers who followed in these footsteps.
Then, there was the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund Prize, awarded by the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) and Vogue. Did this American recognition give a new boost to your career?
I had no intention of participating in a competition, whatever it was. At that time I already felt that I was not a “young” designer, since I was already in my thirties. But a magazine editor strongly insisted, making me understand that if I wanted to make it in the US, there was no way around it. I truly thank her for her advice, because I eventually won the Prize. Which makes me the first French designer to have won a CFDA prize. Anna Wintour, who was the jury president, immediately supported my creation after that. Before winning the CFDA award, I was already dressing Mrs Obama, which greatly contributed to making the name Sophie Theallet known in the US. The award only made this name more notorious.
Can you go back and tell us more about the time you met Michelle Obama?
Unbeknownst to me, Michelle Obama bought Sophie Theallet dresses at Ikram, a luxury boutique in Chicago. One day while surfing on the web I came across a photo of her wearing one of my dresses: I was astonished and honored! Then, personal orders followed up. Later I was part of the designers invited to the White House to meet her. When my name was announced, she came to me and affectionately put her hands around my face, and told me how happy she was to meet me. I couldn’t believe it and asked myself how she knew my name, because … I was not by far the only one to dress her! I was in wonder. Azzedine, who also dressed Michelle, was very proud of me and did congratulate me. Michelle Obama truly changed the way Stateswomen dress, and she strongly supported independent designers.
You also dressed numerous Hollywood actresses.
Indeed. Sharon Stone, Jessica Alba, Lupita Nyong’o, Meg Ryan, Jane Fonda, Kim Kardashian, … the list is long! I dressed many celebrities on the red carpet. Because there is a strong tradition of “Red Carpet” in the US. It helped a lot for an independent brand such as mine to be covered by the press and gain recognition.
Then you left the US for Montréal, Canada
I don’t like to stand still, and I prefer moving when it’s time to leave. In New York, I began feeling “fed up,” and it didn’t please me. So, rather than being frustrated and losing inspiration, I decided to leave and to start on a new adventure. I have to say that at that time the political atmosphere with the election of Trump helped me to make this decision! Furthermore, I had written an open letter saying that I would never work with this administration; it led to a tsunami of insults and bad vibes, sometimes very unsettling ones…
Last but not least, how Mediterranean do you feel?
Méditerranée has always been a part of my life. I’m originally from the South West of France. As a kid, I was always immersed in a world where cultures mix! As a little girl, I spent holidays on the Mediterranean coast. Later, I began traveling by car through Morocco. I also worked a few months in Morocco, where I designed uniforms for the Tichka Hotel in Marrakech. And then, obviously, the day I met Azzedine, with whom I found again this typical Mediterranean familial aspect. Azzedine truly held Méditerranée in his heart….
Today, from Montreal, Sophie Theallet established with her partner her brand: Room 502. A storeroom of main styles, ethically made and only sold online.
We launched “Room 502” to make a woman’s life and shopping easier, by offering her the Essentials wardrobe. Designers’ clothes, exceptionally well cut, in noble fabrics, sold at highly-competitive prices. Each design is wisely chosen among Sophie Theallet “best-sellers,” the fashion must-haves, everyday uniforms. For example, we have the model “Anna” designed from a look we made for Anna Wintour…