Naomi Campbell was just 16-years-old and in Paris for he first time working as a model when her wallet was stolen. She wound up meeting Azzedine Alaïa later that day. The late designer would not only change her career and help turn her into one of the era's defining supermodels, but also become a father figure to the model. Alaïa wouldn't just let Campbell stay with him, but one more than once occasion he had to get up in the middle of the night to bring Campbell back from a nightclub after she snuck out. The luminaries of the fashion may regard themselves as one big dysfunctional family, but there were few relationships closer in the industry than that between Campbell and Alaïa. Indeed, here may be no better to way to remember the man Campbell came to call "Papa," who died Saturday at 82, than through the model's own words.
"I first met Azzedine when I was 16," Campbell told The Independent in 1998. "It was my first day working in Paris and somebody had stolen all my money. I didn't know anyone in the city and didn't know how I was going to eat."
Amanda Cazalet, the model who defined androgyny at the time and would later be hand chosen to smooch Madonna in her infamous "Justify My Love" video, decided to bring Campbell along with her to meet the designer.
"I immediately thought that he was very sweet, normal and humble person, because he was cooking the dinner in the kitchen himself. He also served the food himself. I didn't say one word, because I didn't speak French."
"Of course, I didn’t know who he was," she wrote in The Guardian last year. "He was very giving and suggested I stay with him instead of at a hotel. He spoke to my mum on the phone in French, and the next day I moved into his house on Rue du Parc-Royal."
She would stay with Alaïa every time she was in Paris from then on, and would serve as the designer's fit model staying up late at night as he created his fashion (unlike many modern designers, Alaïa was famous for forgoing drawings and instead created his looks on models and mannequins himself with scissors and thread in hand). Indeed, she still had a room in the home to this day.
The relationship would actually morph into something of a father-daughter dynamic, right down to the designer trying to keep the then-teen home at night.
"She would escape through the window to go out clubbing with other girls," Alaïa told The Independent. "So I put her in the room above mine to keep an eye on her."
“I used to sneak out at night to go to Les Bains Douche with Grace Jones and Iman,” Campbell told AnOther in 2016. “I’d have to put my stuff downstairs by the door but the dogs would always start barking when I left so he would wake up and know I wasn’t at home. Then Papa would arrive. He’d get a call and they’d tell him, 'Your daughter is here.' So he’d come down and look at me and if I’d put the outfit on wrong he’d fix it and then say, ‘Now you’re going home!’ I’d say, ‘No! Please Papa, can I stay?’ I remember one time Prince was going to come and play live, but he was like, ‘No. Home.’”
Curbing nightclubbing wasn't the only fatherly duty Alaïa would have to do. There was also the mater of Campbell's telephone habit.
"At night, I really had to keep an eye on her because she would not stop calling people," he told The Independent. "She would crawl out of her bed, pick up the telephone, get back into bed with it and pull the covers over her head. I used to scream, 'Naomi! Stop phoning abroad.' Her calls were always to New York or London and she'd stay on the phone for hours. When she went, I was left with huge telephone bills."
At the time, the young Campbell was not quite the fashion superstar she'd go on to become, but Alaïa obviously saw something special in her.
"At the beginning, nobody wanted her to model for shows," Alaïa said. "We went to New York together to see the model agencies. I remember that Elite did not want to take her. So I went to see the owner and said to him, 'Listen. She is my daughter, so you have to take her on and look after her. I don't want her to be left all on her own in New York.'"
"I didn't know how to do runway when I started modeling, but he believed in me," said Campbell in her Independent interview. "That brought attention from other designers, and is kind of how I became known—because other designers heard of this little girl Azzedine was working with."
Born on the African continent in Tunisia, Alaïa was always a steadfast believer in diversity. In addition to Campbell, he also took model Veronica Webb under his wing (“Did he start my career?,” Veronica Webb once told Vanity Fair. “Are you kidding? Myself, Naomi, Stephanie—he taught us how to use our forks, how to walk, how to take rejection, how to present ourselves. He treated us all like flesh-and-blood children.”) When Campbell opened a 1991 show for the designer, she was quickly followed by Australian bombshell Elle MacPherson, Franco-Algerian model Gurmit Kaur, and the Punjabi model Farida Khelfa.
In fact, Campbell wrote in The Guardian that former First Lady Michelle Obama confided in her that she had always been a fan of Alaïa. The one time she wore an Alaïa dress in public however, she was criticized because he wasn't an American designer. "I defended Michelle by saying Azzedine had always used models of color, so why shouldn’t she wear his clothes?" she wrote. "There was one American designer who openly criticized her and I remember thinking: when did he ever put a woman of color in his campaigns? Besides, she wears Alaïa very well."
Campbell remained an evangelist for Alaïa throughout her career, and in an interview with Nick Knight, explained the reverence other designers had for him ("Gianni Versace only used to invite one designer to his show, and that was Azzedine Alaïa.") and his kindness to other designers ("Vivienne [Westwood] didn't have a place to do her fashion show in Paris, and Papa gave her his house and his studio and said 'do it").
"All women should get to wear Alaïa, because it does something to you," she told Knight. "I don't know what, but it just does, and everyone in a different way."
It's fitting then that when Alaïa, who notoriously worked at this own pace and often well off the fashion calendar, showed his first couture collection in Paris in six years this past July, it was Campbell who both opened and closed the show. He made her a star. He was her surrogate father. She was the last model to wear his creations on the runway during his lifetime.