Having grown up in a style-starved part of the Midwest, I relied heavily on pop culture to educate me on what was what in the world of fashion. And though I saw Clueless at the movie theater when it came out in 1995, it would be quite some time before I understood the gravitas of Cher Horowitz’s plea to her mugger that he not make her lie down in the parking lot because she was wearing “an Alaïa.” (His reply: “An a-what-a?”)
“It’s like, a totally important designer!”
Fast-forward 20 years, and I found myself having my own Alaïa moment: a private dinner at his house — a compound, really — in the Marais district of Paris. The occasion was the launch of his signature perfume, a sparkling, skin-like floral (more on that in a few). For an established designer, one known for being a surrogate father to many of the most super supermodels (Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb, and Stephanie Seymour all lived in Alaïa’s home when they were starting out), this moment is coming pretty late in his career. Most of his peers have had fragrances for decades. But Alaïa has long staked his reputation on not doing what’s expected: He doesn’t show during Fashion Week, he retains complete control over his work, and he waited 35 years to launch a signature scent.
At his home in Paris, along with a carefully selected list of glittery friends, and other editor types like myself, I got to be a tourist in his world. It was more than a little surreal, jet lag notwithstanding; I imagine this must be what it feels like to be friends with someone like Beyoncé or Larry Ellison — people whose talent and success affords them freedom beyond that of we regular folk. Alaïa does what he wants, with whom he wants, when he wants. To mark the debut of his perfume, he chose to have a three-hour dinner at his home, with a menu he selected and entertainment he enjoys. And we left that night filled with foods I couldn’t ID and wine that never stopped flowing — without either seeing the fragrance or smelling it. It was a far remove from the many splashy fragrance events I’ve attended over the years, during which editors are treated to high-tech presentations or scent-filled rooms, or some other fanciful marketing experiences designed to make you feel like there is nothing more important in that moment than The Fragrance. Long/short: This is just not the way these things normally go.
All this might make it seem like the perfume, the whole reason for my being at Alaïa’s house in the first place, was an afterthought. But that’s not true. In fact, its origin story extends all the way back to the designer’s childhood in Tunisia and begins with a scent memory: He wanted the fragrance to smell like “cold water falling on hot chalk,” the way it did when his grandmother would splash the walls of their home with water to cool it off on extremely hot days. To achieve this, he worked with perfumer Marie Salamagne, herself something of an unexpected choice — not only because she’s young and female (in an industry traditionally dominated by men), but because she’s not yet known for creating any blockbuster scents.
“He wanted to offer abstraction,” Salamagne told me. “What was important was that first sensation of freshness.” She used something unusual to create that feeling: pink pepper. “It can be almost citrusy. It makes a fragrance more sparkling — we use it to create vibration in a scent.” The result is a fragrance that in many ways feels like it’s been around for a while, though not in a bad way — in the sense that it has a comforting construction: musky and a little sweaty, with the softness of peony and violet, and the sparkle and freshness of the pepper. It took Salamagne around 700 tries to create that illusion of familiarity. “It’s not the most I’ve ever done, but it was not feeling like an effort.” Besides, she laughs, “There’s not one normal thing in perfumery.” Nor, it turns out, in the world of Alaïa. Who, I expect, would not want it any other way. Alaïa Fragrance, $115, available in September at Saks Fifth Avenue.