On Yigal Azrouël’s desk in his seventh-floor studio above New York’s West 39th Street sit a few knickknacks: a pair of beaten-up wooden bowling pins; a scuffed dumbbell; a shoe last the color of sand with cracks running up the heel. “I find things I like and keep them around,” the Israeli-born Azrouël says in his typically clipped way. His English, though quite good, is heavily accented, which may be why he’s inclined to speak in a succinct, almost blunt manner. Dressed in a gray T-shirt and dark jeans, Azrouël motions to the pieces, less objets d’art than flea market finds, and shrugs: “It’s not too perfect, you know? I like that.”
Perfection, it turns out, has never been Azrouël’s intent, something one might sense upon looking at the clothes he designs. His are of the distressed-glamour ilk, from raw-edged, loose-fitting dresses to snug, battered jackets. Necklines are often unfinished and seams exposed, while colors tend to veer into of-the-earth territory (mossy green, putty brown, slate and charcoal). His aversion to flawlessness is evident elsewhere, too: Though his appeal has seemed limited at times to a certain urban (read: thin) sophisticate, Azrouël fits every piece he produces in American sizes two through 12—a rarity in fashion. And while most male designers profess to “love women,” that sentiment rings closer to home for Azrouël, given that his five older sisters and mother, all of whom wear his clothes, span in age from 40 to 75. Pointing out the coltish to curvy range of mannequins in one corner of his studio, Azrouël sighs. “Women work so hard to look good, you know? So I want to work on proportion and length,” he says. “My vision is not about fantasy; it’s about reality. I design for women, and I have my eyes on what I want you to look like.”
It’s a look, in fact, that Azrouël, 36, has been honing since long before he arrived in the United States 12 years ago. The youngest of eight children (the girls, plus twin boys) raised by a sneaker importer and a housewife in the port city of Ashdod, Azrouël recalls a youth spent on the water, surfing and lounging at the beach. Though not the sort to hurry home with a stash of fashion magazines peeking out from under his algebra homework, he did develop a taste for clothes early on. “I would always go shopping with my sisters, get taken to give my opinion on what they were wearing,” he says. Then, as all Israeli citizens are required to do, Azrouël joined the military at age 18 and served in the army for three years. It was a period during which he ruminated on what he might do with the rest of his life and how that thing might get him “out in the world” (surfing, he realized, would not be his meal ticket). There weren’t many options, but there was family: Once discharged, Azrouël booked a flight to Washington, D. C., to bunk there with one of his sisters, her husband and her husband’s mother. “A bit bored,” Azrouël began spending time with the mother-in-law, who just happened to have a sewing machine. He bought jersey fabric (“It was cheap”), and she taught him how to make things. Fortunately, he says, “she was very patient.” Some dresses, some blouses—basic fare, Azrouël is quick to point out—and he was hooked. Off to New York he went, and that’s where things got tricky for a bit.