Design, set, match: Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Nouvel

Azzedine Alaïa is a couturier who was born in Tunisia but has lived most of his life in Paris. Having made clothes for more than 40 years, he is one of the most respected fashion designers working today and is often cited as one of the top 10 most influential designers ever. This September, the Musée Galliera in Paris will reopen after four years of renovation with France’s first Alaïa retrospective.

Jean Nouvel is a French architect whose many architectural awards include the Pritzker Prize, which he won in 2008. His designs include the Arab World Institute (Paris, 1987), One New Change (London, 2010) as well as the forthcoming Tower Verre, which will integrate the extension of the MoMA galleries in New York.

Alaïa and Nouvel, both based in Paris, have been friends for more than 30 years but are only now collaborating for the first time, on a production of The Marriage of Figaro, to be staged by the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA. Nouvel has designed the set and Alaïa the costumes for the production.

. . .

How we met

JN: The first time we met was through our mutual friend Jean-Louis Froment. At that time he was the curator and director of the Centre of Contemporary Visual Arts in Bordeaux [CAPC], one of the first contemporary art galleries in France. It must have been 30 years ago.

AA: [laughing] That’s crazy! A long time ago. It was the first time there was a fashion show in a museum. Jean-Louis was the one who organised the fashion show.

JN: And we remained friends after our initial meeting. Your workshop has been close to my house for many, many years. You invite me to see your collections, often you invite me to your kitchen for a little society. You are a wonderful host. You are also a collector of design.

AA: Yes, I have your furniture at home and in my hotel [3 Rooms-5 rue du Moussy, Paris]. Among my favourite pieces are several of your tables and your Graduate shelves. I love architecture and your work really moves me.

JN: You are an architect also. Every time I am surprised by the texture, the geometric lines, the structure of your collections. I think you are the most architectural of the designers today.

Working together

JN: I had an invitation from the LA Phil to do the set design of The Marriage of Figaro and I had a choice of partner. Immediately I called you. We are both influenced by the culture of the Mediterranean and, by chance, this opera takes place in Seville. I did not hesitate.

AA: I have never designed opera costumes before but I accepted because of you. I knew it would be really easy to work together.

JN: This project for me is about the spaces, not really the design of furniture or props. I wanted to work mainly with colour, lighting and texture. I wanted to do it only with fabrics. We have carpets, blankets on the beds, fabric hanging from the balconies of the concert hall. We could not be concerned with the design of a chair or a bed. It needed to be abstract. We discussed all this. It was a complete collaboration. The costumes either work together with the set or contrast with it.

AA: Earlier this year I designed ballet costumes [for Angelin Preljocaj’s ballet, One Thousand and One Nights, in Aix-en-Provence]. Designing for opera is very different. With ballet, the clothes are more linked to the movement. With this project, first I studied the singers – their face, their bodies, everything. And you made me a model of the set. It was easier for me to be able to position models of the characters on this so I could work really visually. Creating the men’s costumes was the most complicated part. It was my first time designing menswear.

New ideas, new challenges

JN: This production is not being performed in an historical setting, like a lot of opera productions. I proposed that we work with Seville as the location but not in a literal sense. It’s more like a memory of something. It’s Seville as seen by you, and you have designed something completely contemporary. The main challenge for me was how to construct the stage. We chose to put the orchestra in the middle with the performers moving around them.

AA: My main problem was the design of the men’s costumes. Also it was very hard that two cast members were unable to attend the fittings. Even with the singers that were able to come to Paris, we only had two days to take their measurements and do the fittings. We did the first one, then the ateliers worked through the night. The performers stayed at the 3 Rooms suites before returning the next day. It was very intense. We made about 30 costumes in all.

Inspired exchange

One of Alaïa’s costume designs for 'The Marriage of Figaro'

AA: Working on a production like this is very interesting. For me, it is like couture. It has to be done for each person, completely on the body of the performer. To take inspiration from the person you’re designing for.

JN: For me it is tiring but restful. I think for you, it’s the same, no?

AA: [laughing] Yes. To do something different.

JN: It’s a good excuse to spend time together, to exchange ideas.

AA: To explore, to move off the usual tracks of our career.

JN: Sets are not my speciality. I wanted to do this because it was an opportunity to collaborate.

AA: Normally we are busy with our jobs but in this case we were obliged to meet. This is why we did it. We worked on it for a long time, about two years. And we are happy to see it come together at last.

JN: Let’s see how we feel after the premiere.

‘The Marriage of Figaro’ is the second in a Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy being staged by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The trilogy began last year with ‘Don Giovanni’ (Frank Gehry, architect; Rodarte, costume design), and concludes next year with ‘Così fan tutte’ (Zaha Hadid and Hussein Chalayan).

‘Alaïa, esposition’ opens at Paris’s Musée Galliera in September

Read about Jean Nouvel's new National Art Museum of China

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