Saturday, October 27, 2007

Farida Khelfa: Paris Fashion’s Accidental Muse…

Farida Khelfa is an intriguing anomaly within the fashion world. When one considers the significant growing pains Europe is experiencing in integrating its large immigrant populations, as well as the current heated debate concerning a lack of racial diversity on the fashion runways, it’s a wonder someone like Khelfa can even exist in the industry. Especially within the upper echelons of French fashion, an enclave that is notoriously hard to crack. Add to this the spate of riots in its immigrant suburbs and the recent inauguration of a controversial Museum of Immigration, (at which the French president was conspicuously absent), and it becomes abundantly clear that France has some ways to go in acknowledging its diverse population. But Farida Khelfa has defied those odds, maintaining the stature of a respected style icon in a notoriously fickle business for over 20 years. Her story serves as a reminder that immigrants and their children can be important contributors to a nation’s culture and patrimony, enhancing and enriching it with their own experiences.

The irony isn’t lost on anyone when one considers that Khelfa, the daughter of Algerian immigrants, is routinely held up as an example of French elegance and savoir-faire. Loulou de la Falaise calls her one of the chicest woman in the world, while Jean Paul Goude has credited her with opening his eyes to a new definition of beauty. But whatever professional titles she has garnered over the past two decades (model, singer, actress, or even the directrice of a couture salon), the title that best befits Farida Khelfa is that of Muse.

It is a somewhat peculiar title considering this statuesque mother of two was never a willing muse, eager to place herself in front of the camera. In fact nothing in Farida’s early years could have foreshadowed her life in fashion. She neither came from a privileged background nor desired to be a part of it. It is also somewhat astonishing that this second generation French-Arab never considered herself beautiful. But what she did have, and didn’t realize at the time, was a strong physical presence that came alive when she walked into a room.

In the early Eighties, having survived a difficult childhood growing up outside of Paris in the rough immigrant suburb of Minguettes, the site of recent riots, this streetwise gamine had only one thing on her mind and that was to get out of the suburbs and move to Paris. The difficulties she faced in adolescence forced her to become self-reliant and helped form her character at an early age. Those who knew her from those early years, remember a somewhat guarded and headstrong young woman who never hesitated to put her foot down and speak her mind. She was at times referred to as being difficult and temperamental, when in reality she was a shy and secretive individual. But the passing of time, a busy career and motherhood seem to have mellowed her considerably, although she rarely gives interviews today.

Upon her arrival in Paris, her imposing six-foot figure and gruff demeanor got her a job working the door of the Bains Douches, the fabled Paris nightclub that was a haunt of both designers and supermodels alike during the 80’s. It was there that she caught the eye of Jean Paul Gaude, the art director who would go on to create memorable ad campaigns for Chanel Number 5 and Coco. At the time Gaude, who had always been attracted to strong woman, had recently divorced and cut all professional ties with the singer Grace Jones whose career he helped shape. Upon seeing Farida, he was immediately taken by the young woman with the "curly black hair combed dramatically to one side, like an actress from the 1950’s." Seated on a high stool at its door, she ruled over the mob outside waiting for her to decide who would be permitted to go in. According to Gaude, "She gave herself no limits and could, without a blink, turn away Mick Jagger because he was too drunk or David Bowie if she didn’t like what he was wearing." Falling under the spell of this unconventional beauty, she went on to became his muse and proceeded to spend a good part of the decade collaborating with him on creative projects and advertising campaigns.

Although she eventually gained enough confidence to consider herself beautiful, as Gaude makes clear, the road to that realization was a gradual one. "She was the literary type, a cerebral person who liked to read more than anything else, including philosophy." Gaude said. "But she harbored self-doubt and did not like herself. So much so, that I once actually caught her insulting her own reflection in the mirror." But despite this the Paris fashion world embraced her, holding her up as an example of the New Style. Gaude saw her as the "incarnation of a new movement, it was because she possessed a real political awareness, came from a modest background and spoke the authentic language of the ghetto from which she had recently emerged." During this period both Gaude and Farida became the toast of the fashion and advertising industry, attending a string of parties from Paris to New York, where Khelfa’s unique sense of style attracted many admirers.

One of the earliest projects they worked on together helped launch Farida’s modeling career. At the time Gaude had just been hired as artistic director for a new supplemental magazine to accompany the French newspaper Le Monde, and he set about designing the first issue around Farida and the new world she exposed him too.

During that period France was just beginning to explore other ethnic cultures living within its midst, especially its large North African immigrant population. To celebrate this phenomenon Gaude decided to dedicate the first issue as a showcase of French-North African culture from the Paris suburbs. He called it Le Style Beur (Beur being a slang term for Arab) and placed Farida on the cover, causing an immediate sensation.
Shortly afterwards Gaude introduced Farida to the diminutive Tunisian fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa, who fell in love with her, and hired her on the spot as a model and muse at his atelier. With her height and curves she resembled one of the designer’s sketches and was the perfect canvas for his slender body conscious creations. Thus Khelfa became the first woman of Algerian decent to have a successful modeling career, walking the catwalks for other designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier. It was with the later that she went on to establish a long standing professional relationship, becoming an integral part of his creative team, and eventually being appointed as directrice of his Couture studio, until 2004 when she decided to resume an acting career begun in the mid-Eighties (recently staring alongside the French actress Arielle Dombasle in the film Gradiva). Countless advertising campaigns also followed, including one for Jean Desprez’s perfume Sheherazade. She still maintains a close friendship with both Alaïa and Gaultier, continuing to inspire them.

Today in her early forties, Khelfa is often cited as embodying the epitome of French chic. She counts several designers as close friends and can be found seated in their front rows during Paris fashion week. Never prey to the vagaries of fashion trends, over the years she’s developed a casual sense of elegance that most woman seem to spend hours trying to emulate. When asked to point out a key element in her wardrobe that she can never do without, Khelfa enthuses about her collection of pants, "because I have tons of pairs and feel comfortable in them." But she is quick to add that you probably won’t be seeing her in a mini skirt and "girly dresses" any time soon because "they don't suit." "Knowing what works on you is key to achieving your look," she says.

Trying to define this elusive Parisian style, her friend the shoe designer Christian Louboutin pointed out that, "describing a 20-year-old as chic is rare here. It’s usually a word you’d use for Parisian women in their thirties and upwards. From an early age, the French girl’s ideal is to resemble Catherine Deneuve." Louboutin explained. "There lies a key difference between France and Anglo-Saxon countries," he continues. "The French woman’s aim is to look chic – not hip, which implies youth." Khelfa herself seemed to echo that very thought when she said that, "A French woman is unapologetic about whatever she chooses to wear and adapts clothes to her body, not vice-versa."

This seems quite an apt statement from a woman whose trajectory in life has been anything but conventional, and a style icon who will continue to inspire others as she begins a new chapter in her life.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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