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Roland Mouret on Paris in the early Eighties

Roland Mouret on modelling for Yamamoto and singing in Alaïa’s kitchen

December/January 2018

I left the Pyrenees when I was very young, in the early 1980s, and came to Paris. I am a butcher’s son, but my plan was to be in the fashion world. Soon I found out that fashion school was not for me. I tried it for three months, then quit. I tried almost every job there was going. I was a stylist, I did art direction, I worked for French Glamour, but it was my time as an accidental model that first introduced me to Yohji Yamamoto – and it was all thanks to my hair.

It was at a time when I had grown my hair very long – I wanted to look wild – and I used to go clubbing a lot. One late night I was sitting on the bonnet of a car on the Champs-Elysées with a group of friends when one of them recommended I go and see Marc Ascoli*, who was doing a casting the next day for one of Yamamoto’s earliest shows. So of course I went. Ascoli asked me to walk with my chin up, with my body held in a certain way – and then he cast me in a show.

Alongside Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garçons, Yamamoto had recently arrived in Paris. For us French, it was like an invasion. We were living through very bourgeois times – fashion then was very bright and colourful and decadent. But this was not the world of Saint Laurent or Chanel: it was a new world that was austere and exotic. There was a strength and a rigour to it that was romantic in a way that French fashion was not.

Roland Mouret is a designer known for his understanding of the female form.  “Dresses”, he says, “are for undressing.”

All Yamamoto’s staff wore black. All the looks in the show were black too. When it was my time to walk I remembered I tried to be different: I crossed my hands behind my back as I walked, like a very proper school teacher. It was so long ago I don’t remember much else, except maybe for the adrenalin, and having the chance, very respectfully, to say “bonjour” to Yohji. But that moment really affected me in two ways. To have the feeling that you were part of something new – it was brilliant. This was the first time I understood you could treat black as a colour, and explore variations of creativity within the boundaries of a uniform. So not only did I start to wear a variation of Yamamoto’s uniform that I could afford – Chinese Mao suits bought from the flea market, and plain black shoes – but it left me with an impression that became fundamental when, eventually, I became a designer myself.

As that designer, I often say I am the bastard child of two people. The first is Yohji, and the second is Azzedine Alaïa.

Azzedine presented some of his first collections in his kitchen in Place des Vosges, and used to hold regular dinners there too. In fact he still does. Occasionally, I was invited. It was not at all snob. It was convivial, a salon, with no pretension. I remember teaching him a dirty old song in Pyrenean patois – it was very rude – and everyone at the table sang it late into the night.

You have to remember that Paris, even more so then than today, could seem very closed. Coming there from the countryside, with my strong provincial accent and my working-class background, I was in many ways a peasant. So I had a fear that my background might stop me from progressing in this bourgeois world.

Alaïa instantly disproved that fear. Here was a man from a place even more distant than me – Tunisia, where his parents were farmers – who was creating work that was purely about serving the body with invention and technique. This was not someone who became famous because he had connections, or looked or spoke in a certain way. He was a completely new persona who worked his way to where he wanted to be. And he was a designer who was the epitome of creativity. His work is so good that it doesn’t matter who he is.

Roland Mouret was talking to Luke Leitch

* Ascoli was the PR and “gatekeeper” to Yamamoto who helped the designer build his career in Paris and his international reputation.

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