Farida Khelfa has done it all. Born to strict immigrant parents in Lyon in 1960, Farida fled to Paris at 15 in pursuit of its exciting lifestyle. The city of lights was ultimately where she blossomed into the fashion and cultural icon she is today, befriending the likes of Christian Louboutin, photographer Jean-Paul Goude, and designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Khelfa quite literally started out as a gatekeeper of French nightlife, working the door at Les Bains Douches in the 1970s. Since then, she's been a muse (to Azzedine Alaïa, no less), a model, an actress, and a filmmaker - all while remaining a cornerstone of the ever-evolving French culture.
We spoke with Farida to hear more about her amazing life and her undying love for Paris.
Joseph Akel: If you could use one word to define French style, what would it be?
Farida Khelfa: I don’t think there is a “French” style anymore—it’s very many different things to different people.
JA: Growing up, did you always know you wanted to be involved with fashion?
FK: Not really. Fashion was something that came to me when I arrived in Paris, and I embraced it.
JA: You were a muse and intimate confidante of the late Azzedine Alaïa. How would you describe the iconic designer? Why do you think he designed for women so well?
FK: Azzedine Alaïa was himself a very shy person who put all his fantasy into fashion. But beneath that shyness, he also had a strong character.
In terms of understanding women, from a young age, he was surrounded by women in Tunisia—his grandmother, his aunts, and even a midwife who he assisted from the age of seven. Don’t forget also that, for many years, he designed the costumes for the Crazy Horse Saloon during the time of Alain Bernardin. He learned a lot about women from that experience. A woman’s body had no secrets to him. He loved women, and women loved him.
JA: What was Paris like in the '70s, when you were young and working the door at Les Bains Douches? How did you decide who got in and who didn't?!
FK: Paris was the city of liberty. Women were outrageously elegant and chic. I loved Paris right away—Paris loved me.
At Les Bains Douches, there were always celebrities that I didn’t want to let in specifically because they didn’t have the right look. Today, I think it’s the opposite: you only want celebrities. Les Bains Douches was a home for a more underground crowd—artists, musicians. “Famous” was a dirty word at that time. The fewer records you sold, the more you had a chance to get in.
JA: You've worked with many of the great French houses and the creative geniuses behind them. Was there an energy, a spirit, that made them so influential, so inspired?
FK: The '80s was the “African Decade”—we were the new generation, coming from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. I think it was our energy that inspired the designers referred to at that time as Les Nouveaux Créateurs— Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Jean-Paul Goude. Goude, of course, wasn’t a designer, but a great artist who was influenced by L’Afrique!
JA: Paris: what do you love most about it?
FK: I’m pretty much like a tourist in Paris, and I always will be. I like les cafés, les hôtels, la Tour Eiffel, les musées, Notre Dame.
JA: Last question: you've been described as a style icon, a muse, a fashion ambassador. What does that mean to you?
FK: I’m very flattered to be described as a style icon. Coming from an immigrant family, it was always very important to me to dress well. It was a way to be accepted.