Two weeks ago, in the midst of deep grief, I picked up the phone. It was Naomi—yes, that Naomi—my comrade-in-arms in the supermodel game, and my little sister by way of our adopted father, the recently departed French designer Azzedine Alaïa.
“Veronica,” she said, in that throaty British accent that hugs every syllable like a Maserati taking a curve. “Time to go to London to honor Papa.”
By “Papa,” of course, she meant Azzedine, and by “London,” she meant the 2017 British Fashion Awards, which happened on Monday, Dec. 4. And in the brief two weeks between that call and the event, the women who loved Azzedine and whom he loved landed, like a flock of rare birds, in London’s stunning art-deco-inspired Dorchester Hotel to prep for the British Fashion Awards ceremony Monday night.
On Monday afternoon, I jumped off my red-eye from New York and—still wearing my OnePiece onesie—straight into the brilliant hands of makeup legend Pat McGrath. McGrath, who was also honored that night with the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator for her extraordinary work as a makeup artist and entrepreneur of her eponymous makeup line, had volunteered her time for the day, as had 10 other models from Azzedine’s devoted cadre of muses. All of us were there to be photographed for British Vogue, at the behest of Naomi, who is now a contributing editor. The resulting editorial will run in the February issue, in honor of what would have been Azzedine’s 78th birthday.
Stylist Joe McKenna, who made a wonderful film on Azzedine, pulled together an amazing retrospective of Azzedine’s collections for us to wear to the ceremony, and—ever the filmmaker—hit FaceTime on his phone so we could share the moment with people across the globe who were important to the Alaïa family, like members of Azzedine’s staff and, of course, Azzedine’s life partner of 53 years, the painter Christoph von Weyhe. The only thing louder than the blow-dryers was the sound of our laughter, and the only thing tighter than our ponytails were the hugs we were giving one another.
With eyes, lips and cheeks painted for the gods (using McGrath’s Mothership II Subversive eye shadow palette in hues of azure, amethyst and gold), we took our places in front of a seamless black velvet backdrop, ringed with enough lights to light up Yankee Stadium. Photographer Nick Knight, a longtime collaborator of British Vogue’s new editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, gave us a single direction for the photos: to celebrate Azzedine’s life.
Over the next hour, Knight captured us: women who loved the clothes we were wearing as much we did the man who made them—along with many of our careers. Farida Khelfa, the French-Algerian model who was one of Azzedine’s original muses, stunned us all in a vintage 1988 Alaïa evening dress as elegant as a ball gown but as easy as a T-shirt, making it more relevant than ever today in our athleisure era. Atop it was a bad-ass leopard cape from Azzedine’s current collection. Every model was eyeing it, including me.
The new generation, Moroccan-Egyptian model Imaan Hamman, who hails from Holland, and New York-born Dominican Dilone, were respectively gorgeous in a long fitted macramé tank dress and a short black velvet page-boy-inspired tunic dress.
My dress for the evening was a confection of black cotton layers cut with origami precision, held together by a single string threaded through a complex hidden tunnel of seams, finally closing with a discreet bow. Laughing and hugging one another and wiping away the inevitable tears, we wrapped the set and piled into the four Mercedes vans waiting to take us to the ceremony at the world-famous Royal Albert Hall.
And what an incredible site that was! The staircase had to be 50 feet wide and three stories high, with a red carpet draping downstairs from the venue on high all the way to the street below. P!nk was making her entrance with designer Stella McCartney as Team Azzedine stopped to pose for the thick throng of paparazzi stationed outside.
Inside the hall, we crowded into Naomi’s dressing room, reminiscing about the times Azzedine played tricks on us, scaring us half to death, and the many times we felt he’d saved our lives by teaching us how to handle a life situation—or literally, like when Naomi was attacked by thieves in Paris in 2012. Azzedine put his 5-foot-4, 72-year-old self between her and harm’s way.
We played the songs that reminded us of him: Tina Turner—he designed her costumes and learned all of her dance routines (he could dance his ass off)—and “Addicted to Love,” by Robert Palmer, one of the sexiest videos in the ’80s, featuring a girl “band” dressed in Alaïa. He didn’t even know the video was happening until we caught it on MTV while we were working late one night in his studio.
Our Champagne giggles and couture karaoke fest were interrupted by the stage manager knocking at the door. Waiting in the wings, we listened to designer Virgil Abloh accepting the award for Off-White as Urban Luxe Brand of the year. Naomi turned to me as we were waiting and said, “You know no other black designer has ever won a BFA before?!” A mixture of pride and relief at Abloh’s victory quickly gave way to disgust flashing across her gorgeous face. “Should I say something about that?” she asked.
“Say ‘congratulations,’” I answered. We both nodded, knowing that this moment was about Azzedine. And we would keep pushing our way into the industry for ourselves and others every day, just as he had done for us.
We stepped onstage 10 strong, passing mics from one to another, remembering our Azzedine to the audience that included Model of the Year Adwoa Aboah, Donatella Versace and FKA Twigs. You could have heard a pin drop in the concert hall. We said our piece and exited stage left to resounding applause, reaching the greenroom just in time to watch Pat McGrath accept her award on the monitor backstage.
The ceremony over, with everyone still on a high from all the many wins for black Britons that night, it was time to party. Naomi’s mom, Valerie, had a 66th birthday to celebrate, wearing a tux that showed off her tight, slender figure and drop-dead-gorgeous diamond Bulgari snake necklace over a black satin pointed-collar shirt. Like mother like daughter, Naomi’s mom was letting you have it on the fashion tip.
We rolled to Cipriani in the heart of Mayfair for a celebration dinner. Candles blown out and most of us booked on 6 a.m. flights, the desire for sleep couldn’t overwhelm the desire to make the most of our time with friends. So we hit the club at Chitwhins Firehouse, where Edward Enninful was hosting the after-party for Off-White. He welcomed us all with open arms from his corner perch with fellow Brit model Jourdan Dunn and songwriter Gerry Deveaux. Behind the DJ booth, menswear designer Ozwald Boateng danced with Marpessa Hennink, global director of haute couture at Dolce & Gabbana.
We toasted Naomi for reuniting us and putting the Azzedine tribute together. “You want to stay a little longer?” I asked, the clock already pushing 2:15.
“Why not?” she answered, a big smile spreading across her face. “I’m going home to New York tomorrow, and my 17 pieces of luggage are already packed.”
Like all of us there, I’m sure her bags were packed full of Alaïa, each article of clothing a symbol of a beautiful life spent together.