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Farida Khelfa:

France’s fashion muse.

  • Fashion
  • Films
  • Issue 47

An audience with France's fashion muse.
Words by Daphnée Denis. Photography by Luc Braquet. Styling by Giulia Querenghi. Set Design by Déborah Sadoun. Hair Styling by Yumiko Hikage. Makeup by Ludivine François. Styling Assistance by Alice Heluin-Afchain.

It was a split-second decision. She was out buying bread and bumped into a friend. Chatting and joking around outside her apartment building, they lost track of time. The next thing she knew, it was too late. Too late to get home unnoticed. Too late to avoid being told off by her parents. So she formed a plan, although you could hardly call it that, to leave everything behind—her family, her home and life as she’d known it in a housing project on the outskirts of Lyon.1 Bread in hand, she hitchhiked her way to a railroad station, hopped on a train and hid away from conductors until the last stop. Farida Khelfa was 16. She had just made it to Paris, and was never to return.

Sitting across from her at her office in the eighth arrondissement of Paris, one of the most upscale neighborhoods in the city, it’s hard to fathom what Khelfa went through back then. Since being a teenage runaway she’s had a thousand lives: party girl, bouncer, model, muse, actor, head of the late couturier Azzedine Alaïa’s design studio, couture director for Jean Paul Gaultier and documentary filmmaker. Yet she seems genuinely bemused when young people approach her to ask for a selfie, or tell her what she means to them as the first model of Algerian descent to make it in the industry, one whose features broke the mold of a white-centric fashion world. “I didn’t realize it meant anything at all, I was just living life as a free woman, and let’s just say I really went for it,” Khelfa says, her laughter filling the room. She’s traded the vintage looks that made her a 1980s style icon for designer clothes: today, a pair of baggy leather trousers and a dark blue knit sweater highlighting her bright red lips, her signature long dark curls now chopped in a bob cut. Hanging over her desk, a colorful painting by Congolese artist JP Mika, whose work she has championed as a collector of African art, provides a fitting caption to the scene. Its title is Le goût de la réussite, meaning “a taste for success.”2 

“When I read what I lived through, I think it’s crazy.”

She tells me of how she spent time with her mother during the last months of her life and was able to ask her about her years in Algeria before the family moved to France—something they’d never discussed before. Understanding how her own story fit within that of previous generations prompted her to start writing it down, perhaps to make sense of it all. “When I read what I lived through, I think it’s crazy, and if it were someone else writing about that life, I would be fascinated by it,” she says. “But I never said to myself, ‘Bloody hell, what a life you’ve had!’ Never.” 

( 1 ) Khelfa grew up in cité des Minguettes, a housing project south of Lyon. After a series of riots erupted there during the 1980s, the area became emblematic of the vast social divides that exist within France.

( 2 ) In a 2019 tour of Khelfa’s Parisian townhouse, Vogue Arabia noted that her collection of contemporary African art, which includes pieces by Chéri Samba, George Lilanga and Moké, was “possibly the foremost in France.”

An uncompromising longing for freedom seems to have guided much of Khelfa’s trajectory. Born in 1960, she was one of 11 children of an Algerian immigrant couple who had fought for their country’s independence from France alongside Algeria’s National Liberation Front before moving the family to Lyon. Describing her parents, Khelfa says, “They were born colonized and remained colonized,” meaning that, in her eyes, they never really overcame the humiliation of French rule.3 

An avid reader from an early age, Khelfa explains that school was one of the places where she found freedom away from her strict household. She believes she would have gone on to study in university had she had “a normal family, whatever that means, if it even exists.” Though she doesn’t go into specifics, she describes her situation growing up as “painful,” and says she decided to leave after her sisters moved out, leaving her, the youngest daughter, alone with her parents. Before the fateful day when an errand to the boulangerie became a one-way ticket to Paris, Khelfa had been carrying her Algerian passport everywhere for months. (France doesn’t automatically grant citizenship to children born to foreign parents on French soil, so she would risk deportation if she was found without papers. She ultimately obtained French citizenship in her 30s.) 

In Paris, Khelfa had planned on staying with one of her sisters, but quickly realized that wasn’t an option. Things could have easily gone awry for a homeless teenager left to fend for herself in the French capital. Instead, that teenager met the coolest crowd in town: “la bande du Palace.” 

The Palace was Paris’ response to New York’s Studio 54. A former music hall, the flamboyant red and gold rococo venue reopened as a nightclub at the end of the 1970s and instantly brought together an unlikely bunch of partygoers—jet-setters, artists, intellectuals and absolute nobodies—all there to surrender to the power of disco music and dance the night away. Model, artist and provocateur Grace Jones performed on the club’s opening night. Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de la Falaise were regulars. So were philosopher Roland Barthes, Prince, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Jean Paul Gaultier and William Burroughs. It was in equal parts decadent and magnetic.

“Everyone went to The Palace, absolutely everyone,” Khelfa recalls. “The most renowned intellectual, the biggest drug dealer, the kid from the projects, they all got in, that’s what made it magical.” Above all, it was an endless party. Almost as soon as she arrived in Paris, Khelfa met Edwige Belmore, a punk icon who would go on to become the bouncer at The Palace, and her roommate Paquita Paquin, a fashion journalist and avid club-goer. They introduced her to the city’s party underworld, and the night creatures evolving in it, “super fun people with fantastic looks.”4 

Most evenings, Khelfa would go out dancing, unsure where she would sleep later. It didn’t matter. She always found a place to crash. When a then-15-year-old Christian Louboutin invited her to sleep over at his mother’s place, she ended up staying with them for months. He would sew her skirts with material from the Marché Saint-Pierre fabric district. The goal was to be stylish, always, even though she couldn’t splurge on clothes. “I was young, everything seemed cool and easy,” she recalls. “I never had any money but I never thought about the fact I had no money. It was freedom. We did what we wanted. We woke up when we wanted. It felt like a Godard film.”5

( 3 ) After 132 years, the French colonization of Algeria ended following the 1954-62 French-Algerian war. In 2021, President Emmanuel Macron established a “memories and truth” commission to review what he had previously called “a crime against humanity” on France’s part.

( 4 ) From the late 1970s through to the early 1980s, The Palace was the focal point for the fashion world. Even the waiters wore Thierry Mugler–designed uniforms.

( 5 ) Khelfa’s husband, Henri Seydoux, is also a longtime friend of Christian Louboutin and the founder of the designer’s eponymous luxury goods company.

It was at The Palace that Khelfa secured an introduction to an up-and-coming designer named Jean Paul Gaultier. One night, a woman who worked with him asked if she might be interested in modeling for one of his shows. Khelfa agreed to meet with him. “He was very shy, he didn’t dare to look me in the eye,” she says of their first encounter. “But I immediately saw that he liked me. He made me try on lots of clothes, and I felt comfortable in them; I knew how to walk even though I’d never done it before.” Khelfa didn’t take modeling too seriously. She was of two minds about it—honored to be picked out from the crowd, but also culturally uncomfortable with the idea of exposing herself. She would hide behind hanging rails to change clothes between turns on the runway, while the other models had no problem stripping in front of everyone. A self-professed “pain in the ass,” Khelfa would only wear clothes she picked out herself and was surprised to find out other girls simply wore what they were told to. She worked with a handful of designers she liked. “The truth is, I was deeply insecure,” she says, adding that finding herself backstage with the likes of Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell was undeniably hard on the ego. “Then, I realized we all felt the same, we all checked each other out.”

In a newscast from 1986, Gaultier introduces Khelfa, by then a close friend: “To me, she embodies beauty,” he says as she clowns around, visibly uncomfortable to hear him complimenting her. “There’s one beauty standard that’s universally recognized, which is Greek beauty, a straight nose, etc., but I believe there’s other forms of beauty, including Farida’s, whose profile is fantastic. She has a beautiful nose, a beautiful mouth and a strong chin. For me, she’s a star,” he continues, as Khelfa grimaces and rolls her eyes, playing with her hair. She may not have fully grasped it then, but for a long time, hers was the only resolutely Arab-looking face to make it into high-end fashion magazines. “I believe she made many Maghrebis and Arabs feel represented in an industry that didn’t see us,” French-Tunisian stylist and fashion commentator Osama Chabbi tells me over email. “[Growing up], Farida’s features felt very familiar to me—she’s the women around me, my mother and aunts. It meant something to my younger self.” When I tell her that supermodel Bella Hadid recently opened up about wishing she’d kept “the nose of her ancestors” instead of getting rhinoplasty, Khelfa sighs: “I’m so impressed by her, but maybe she wouldn’t have had the same career.” 

“I never thought about the fact I had no money. It was freedom. We did what we wanted. It felt like a Godard film.”

Some of Khelfa’s most memorable images were snapped by her former partner, fashion photographer Jean-Paul Goude, whom she met at 22 while working as a bouncer at the nightclub Les Bains Douches. Goude took her picture for the cover of Le Monde illustré—a shot of her profile, her long, dark mane traversing the page in a seemingly endless wave.6 The cover proclaimed her an icon of “le style beur,” which roughly translates as “the Arab style” (the word “beur,” which is now seen as derogatory, felt awkward almost as soon as it was invented, Khelfa says). Goude was the one to introduce Khelfa to perhaps her most meaningful collaborator, Tunisian designer Azzedine Alaïa. His many portraits of the duo capture their long-lasting friendship. 

( 6 ) Almost 30 years after their last photo shoot together, Jean-Paul Goude photographed Khelfa again for the October 2020 cover of Vogue Arabia. “She was fascinating, and she still is fascinating,” Goude said at the time.

Even though she and Alaïa didn’t really talk about it, their shared North African origins gave them an unspoken sense of kinship, says Khelfa. During fittings, he would play the music of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and they would spend evenings watching Abdel Halim Hafez movies. She was more than a muse. It was with him that she decided to go after a role beyond modeling, as head of his design studio. He also gave her the confidence it would later take to pursue documentary filmmaking, she adds. “It was a great friendship, and a great loss too. It was really very hard to lose him.”7

Now, as Khelfa has started writing her story, she realizes just “how insane” it all sounds. The golden age when she made her explosive entrance into the world of fashion may be long gone, but she doesn’t feel nostalgic for the past. The most important thing—her friendships—have stood the test of time. “I’m loyal, and very grateful to the people who were there for me from the start,” she says. Naomi Campbell and Elle Macpherson regularly pop up on her Instagram account. Gaultier and Louboutin are still among her closest friends, and became the subjects of two of her documentaries, when she decided she would be more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. “I’d been offered a TV presenter job, and I didn’t feel up to the task,” she says of getting her first documentary commission. “But the producer who had approached me was also working on a profile of Jean Paul Gaultier, so I told him: ‘That, I can do, I know him well and I’ve never seen something that reflects who he really is.’ On the first day of the shoot, I thought, ‘Am I crazy?’ But actually, it went well.”

Through it all, Khelfa has remained a fixture at fashion shows around the world. Vanity Fair France named her among the 30 most stylish celebrities of 2022 and, in October of the same year, she closed Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief EMERGE runway show in Doha, Qatar, alongside Campbell and Janet Jackson. Still, her craft as a filmmaker is what motivates her now: In 2017, she left her role as muse of the Schiaparelli fashion house to focus on “personal artistic projects” and has made storytelling her main focus since then.

In her latest film, From the Other Side of the Veil, Khelfa celebrates Muslim women in the Middle East, and challenges narratives reducing those wearing head coverings as victims with no agency or ambition—a particularly thorny issue in France, where teenagers can’t attend school wearing a hijab. Forcing women to put on—or, indeed, remove—any items of clothing is “so backward,” she tells me: “And they believe these girls will remove their headscarves just because they are told to. . . . It’s never going to happen.”8 She gives an eye roll and, for a quick moment, I think of the rebellious teenager who left home to live life by her own set of rules. She would know. Freedom has always been her guiding force.

“I’m loyal, and very grateful to the people who were there for me from the start.”

( 7 ) Alaïa died in Paris in 2017, at the age of 82. Khelfa traveled to the village of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, for his funeral.

( 8 ) “Women in the Middle East are just like other women around the world, we’re all fighting for our rights,” Khelfa told AnOther magazine on release of the film. “Seeing them as victims is a colonial point of view.”

( 7 ) Alaïa died in Paris in 2017, at the age of 82. Khelfa traveled to the village of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, for his funeral.

( 8 ) “Women in the Middle East are just like other women around the world, we’re all fighting for our rights,” Khelfa told AnOther magazine on release of the film. “Seeing them as victims is a colonial point of view.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-Seven

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