A fixture at the famous French club Le Palace, Farida Khelfa spent her formative years surrounded by Parisian nightlife and fashion. The model’s catwalk career was launched by Jean Paul Gaultier, she played muse to designer Azzedine Alaïa and photographer Jean-Paul Goude, and forged a life-long friendship with Christian Louboutin. Now also an actress and documentary filmmaker, the creative continues to be a cultural force to be reckoned with.
Here, L’OFFICIEL speaks with the style icon about taking the Paris nightlife scene by storm in the ‘80s, and the passions and friendships that grew from the magnificent decade.
L’OFFICIEL: Can you tell us about when you first arrived in Paris?
FARIDA KHELFA: I didn’t know where to go. I wandered everywhere, but I soon met Le Palace’s crew in Les Halles. It was the trendiest neighborhood, with ‘50s vintage shops…it was where everything happened.
L’O: You talk about Le Palace as a place of initiation for you. What did you discover there?
FK: Homosexuality. I had a lot of gay friends when I was very young but it was taboo; nobody would say anything. At Le Palace no one hid. Everybody was so nice to me and I felt safe with them. They welcomed me with open arms. Fabrice Emaer let us in even though we had no money. We weren’t there for that! He understood that letting us in would attract the Parisian golden youth. I loved the lack of judgment and the anonymity, something that’s just not possible today. We were allowed to be whoever we wanted.
L’O: You lived here and there, from Pierre & Gilles’ studio to the apartment of the Le Palace bouncer, Edwige. Were you scared of anything?
FK: No, but I knew how to recognize danger. I always had a pair of jeans ready on the floor next to my bed, in case I had to run away.
L’O: What were your days and nights like?
FK: There were no days! Only nights. Most of the time I would wake up around 4 p.m., or Edwige and I would leave the club early in the morning and go to ground beef at the butcher shop.
FK: Yes. They appreciated my unexpected style. I dressed how I wanted: Very tight Levis or stirrup pants, a black turtleneck, and some rocker shoes from the ‘50s. It was all very masculine, unless I was wearing my red high heels that Christian [Louboutin] brought me from London. These close friends are the ones who made me discover fashion and brought me to the catwalk, even though I wasn’t really interested in the big brands at the time.
L’O: You were the “Queen of the Door” at Les Bains Douches. Did it sharpen your style sense?
FK: A lot, since I was judging people only on that. Usually the ones with great style have no money so I was only letting in people who weren’t buying drinks...the rich ones were badly dressed and that was not acceptable. A bad pair of earrings could kill a look.
L’O: What did you consider to be great style?
FK: Nobody was buying expensive brands because they couldn’t afford it. It forced you to use your imagination—that’s how people stood out.
L’O: The first time you walked the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier he let you choose your clothes. What do you remember of working with him?
FK: I remember the first time I met Jean Paul. It was in Trinité, a neighborhood in Paris. He had dark hair and was very shy. I came to do a fitting even though I didn’t have the body of a model: I was voluptuous and curvy. I had large breasts and never thought I could fit in those clothes, but I did! I also walked pretty early for Mugler. Both were visionaries.
L’O: In 1982 you met your partner for several years, the photographer Jean-Paul Goude, who was 20 years older than you. Was he the one who influenced your passion for images?
FK: I loved what Jean-Paul did with Grace Jones. It was the first time we could see a black woman with almost a crewcut, dressed in a suit jacket with nothing underneath. Her skin was so beautiful. Jean-Paul taught me to appreciate so many things, like the Bauhaus, Stravinsky, the Russian ballets. I was very into literature, but he brought images into my life. I still appreciate visuals today because of him.
L’O: You worked with a lot of singular designers. What did they share that made them so influential, inspired, and respected?
FK: Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaïa, Thierry Mugler, and Christian Lacroix all created their own fashion houses. They had strong personalities. That’s the game changer. Today most designers have to follow and respect a brand’s history when they become creative director. It’s more of a challenge to lead.
FK: I’m very loyal in friendship and love. It’s really hard for me to make friends. It takes time, so I do everything to keep them. I try to avoid conflicts. They are good people, so over the years I’m rarely disappointed.
L’O: Do you prefer acting or directing? You’ve done both.
FK: I love the freedom of acting. But I also feel freedom whenI make documentaries. When you start one, you never know where the story will end up, and most of the time it’s somewhere unexpected. I’ve made documentaries on Jean Paul Gaultier, then about Tunisian youth during the Arab Spring, and most recently one about women in the Middle East.
L’O: You were Azzedine Alaïa’s studio director from 1996 to 2003, then couture director for Jean Paul Gaultier. Is it easy to work with friends?
FK: Not at all. I discourage people from working with friends. I prefer to keep my friends rather than work with them.
L’O: You are widely known as a muse and style icon. What does that mean to you?
FK: Nothing really, I’m very flattered about it but I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about it. I say thank you but it doesn’t define me.
L’O: So how do you define yourself?
FK: As a woman of the 21st century. Especially as a mother who is trying to be herself, without any bitter feelings. I try to stay positive.