I met Alex Rotin through a mutual friend in Paris when we gathered at Ama, the exact venue where he presented his Spring/ Summer 2019 collection in October of last year. Alex is a fashion designer and is lovingly known amongst friends as the “Fashion Buddha.” This is a fitting moniker as Alex mixes not only cultures and patterns in his clothing, but also interweaves his philosophy and spiritual approach into his practice.
Here, Alex shares his thoughts on style versus fashion, expressing oneself freely through clothing, and traveling creatively—without borders or limits. He also touches on the magic of working for Chanel’s haute couture collection between working on his own eponymous fashion label, and the influence the (late) great Karl Lagerfeld has had on him.
When did you know you wanted to be a fashion designer?
I was six years old. Ever since I was young I’ve wanted to create a different world because I feel very different. As a mixed person, I am always uncomfortable with the way people see me. I drew a lot as a child. In the old country (French Guiana) we have carnival. I liked the idea of costuming yourself so I drew a lot of costumes for carnival. It was like a bubble; I felt protected.
I came to Paris for my studies when I was 17. After my baccalauréat (the exam required to graduate from high school in France), I studied design and pattern making for three years. I am a styliste módiliste (fashion designer) and I’m specialized in menswear, because I like the idea of doing things for both men and women. I really live for this, but I don’t have the same vision as when I was 20—I was skinnier and more fashionable then. I changed, and my vision changed at the same time. I don’t think fashion is only for young people but after [one’s youth] it’s more about style than fashion.
You don’t follow what’s fashionable; you follow your style and vision. You use fashion differently. And I like to do clothing that you can hold on to for 10, 20 years because it’s your style; it’s not just something you take and then let go of.
You describe yourself as a mixed person and your last collection (Spring/Summer 2019) is also a mix of things.
Yes, the last collection English Masala talks about the bridge we create between two or three cultures. Today a lot of people are mixed in the head but they don’t know it. So I like to show something they can understand but refuse because it’s a bit complex or different. I like to not shock, but to propose another way to mix things. And with the idea of masala, you can mix anything but the taste is good.
I try to choose different color combinations to have another cultural vision of color. Every culture has its way of using color; the mix of color of the Indian will not be the way of the Japanese. Choosing the colors of the collections is like doing a painting; it helps me create the collections’ different products. It’s like playing. If you have fun with what you do, I think (and hope) people will feel it.
There is a dress in this collection that can also be worn as a tunic and it has a print of food on it…
Yes, and I put the word ‘soul’ on it because I like the possibility of different interpretations. If you understand the spiritual side, you will see this is talking about how you can feed your soul. But if you don’t see that, you can see it’s inspired by hip-hop. At the same time, I made it in viscose for a more sophisticated feeling than sportswear, with a lace word [appliqué]. This idea is a bit ‘80s. It is your vision interpreted—how you use the clothes.
I like when you don’t say something directly but people feel it. It’s like the tee shirt with the word ‘love.’ I didn’t tell people I cropped the word because love is not complete for me (it’s like you have just 80 or 90 percent of the reality of love) but I had two people tell me that. I was happy! If you understand what I want to express: good. If you don’t, it’s not a problem. It’s really a question of style. If you like it, you like it—that’s enough for me.
Fashion is yet another way to express ourselves, so we don’t have to write it. It’s my way of expressing myself so I like to put messages sometimes. I don’t usually use words but this time, it was important. I like to critique the way we use clothing, because it talks about our identity. Why don’t we use it to talk about our vision, or about the way we feel? When you have a word like ‘smile,’ home,’ or ‘punk’—how do you use it? Where do you put it on yourself; why does that mean something for you?
So it’s open to interpretation.
Completely. It’s also a way to link yourself with others. Most people don’t dress differently because they want to be accepted. When you choose to have your own vision, you become more singular but that also helps you communicate who you really are.
Life is short; why don’t you take the right to dress like you want to? At the beginning of the 19th century, we didn’t have the choice; fashion was socially [mandated]. Now that we’ve let go of that aspect of fashion—even if we have subcultures—why aren’t we free in that way?
It’s about your own spirit; you choose to be who you want to be. It’s not a big deal if you make a mistake or if it’s not the perfect taste like everything in the Parisian style is. In fact] fashion can die because of too much good taste. If you are too unsure of what’s good, you don’t try something different. I like the Parisian style (because I’m French) but I like to push it. For me, Paris is also a city of mixing: you have influences from everywhere. You have to have a vision of something new. It’s important to create bridges between cultures. I’m not for globalization, but I like the idea that everywhere you are, you feel that you are the same—that we are all the same.
Fashion is not something you impose; it is something you propose. It’s a good way to do this simply and without any violence. You are free to try other things. You never know if it will work or not. I like fashion because every six months you have to rebuild something; nothing is sure. I think life is always a challenge, that’s why I’m happy to do this job.
Does your experience at Chanel influence your own work?
I’ve been working for Chanel in production for seven years. I work for haute couture. I like to do really special things for people who have the culture and taste to buy such expensive things because that helps people live. The traditions, the embroideries, and all are very expensive in our countries. You have to pay for it at the price.
For my creative vision, it’s completely different because I do that job [in production] too. When I was young, my mom and dad worked in an automotive repair garage. My mom always liked to look at fashion. I understand how much you like to dream when you do a job that isn’t fashionable. You always have to be careful of the way you dress because you cannot wear things that aren’t easy. But for the weekend, you also like to have things that are special and sophisticated. When you go out at night, you also want to dress up.
So I always had this idea to do clothing that is easy and affordable because for me creation is for everyone, and even more for people who don’t have the luck to wear luxury or haute couture clothing. We all have something important inside of us. Sometimes when you don’t have a lot of money you pay more attention to what you wear because it means something to you. Sometimes it’s something you worked hard to have. For me, that gives it more importance. I think you have to give everyone the chance to wear it, as they want to.
Le coup de cœre is when you fall for something. People can buy my clothing because it’s not so expensive that they aren’t able to afford it. I have this social vision because for me, fashion is not something serious. It is a bit silly sometimes. It’s not superficial, in French we say it’s frivole. This idea of something light.
It is not haute couture?
It’s ready-to-wear with a sense of couture; there is a sophisticated side but a sportswear attitude at the same time. I like when your clothing becomes a second skin. It’s important to feel good in your clothing—then it’s easier for you to connect with people. When you go dancing, everything has to be easy. We live in a century where everything can be put in your bag, so I do a lot of stretch and knitwear. Women want to be sophisticated but comfortable too. We don’t have the same life as we did 50 years ago.
You design clothing that can truly be used, like the kimono with pockets.
The idea is to keep the sophisticated or poetic aspect of clothing, but make it functional. Women don’t want to carry purses all the time. Having pockets for men is normal—I don’t understand why it’s not for women. I always try to put pockets in the pieces.
You have a men’s wear background. Have you shifted towards women’s wear with the idea that your label is unisex?
I like that men’s wear is functional. I like to keep the functional side of a man’s shirt and mix something in. At the same time I think there is nothing sexier than a woman wearing men’s clothing, like a shirt as a dress. It is still men’s clothing or women’s but if you want to use it, you can. You know, the kimono is for everyone. In Europe it’s more for women, but in Asia everyone wears the kimono. So it depends on you. You wear what you want to express with your clothing, and for me there is no gender, in fact. It’s really a question of freedom.
Sometimes you want to be more feminine but sometimes you want to be more masculine in the way you dress because that gives another vision of your statement. It’s important to support the idea that you can be who you want to be. Because we are less free for so many things, it’s important that we can be free in our style and the vision we give of ourselves to others.
I agree. And it’s a visual communication, so we can express this to complete strangers.
And have fun with it! When you’re sad, you dress in simple things because you don’t want other people to see you. But when you’re happy, sometimes you also want to show it. Clothing can be really good for that.
You mentioned that you mix your fabrics. Do you travel to source your fabric?
Yes, I like that idea [of mixing fabrics]. I’m half Chinese, half black—half Creole—from French Guiana. It looks like two different cultures, which are antinomic (or contradictory).
The fabric I buy is also a link to my own story: the travel I do to attain it. Like the Silk Road, you buy things from other countries because you want to use them differently—that inspires you. I like the idea of traveling to take something different. It’s like creating a poetic vision of your spirit; it’s like taking a trip in your head at the same time.
I always dream. I’m not in reality when I’m creating because I’m completely free. Sometimes people think I am a fool. But I like that, because I don’t have any boundaries in my head.
Where do you travel for your fabrics?
Amsterdam, London, Copenhagen, and Belgium. All these fabrics tell me their stories: I never forget the people who draw the prints and choose the colors of the print. I don’t know who they are but they talk to me through the fabric, and I can feel the pleasure they took in making it, also.
Are you currently working for the house of Chanel?
Yes, I work three and a half months for them, then I work for myself and then I go back again. I’m a buyer for the fabric and furniture. I always link with the studio and the atelier. I find it very interesting because haute couture is really special, the fabric and everything. At the same time, I have my freedom to do my own thing—it’s perfect.
Do you travel for that, or do people come to Paris?
No, I don’t travel. The thing I’m happy about is that I can go to the fittings so I am now able to see how Karl works. It is truly amazing.
I was seventeen the first time I talked to him, and to this young designer he said, ‘You have to draw; you have to do what you think.’ He was really kind, and I will never forget that. After six years of never going to the studio, now I am able to see how he works. It’s 23 years after we met; it’s like a circle. I admire the way he is. He looks untouchable, but in fact he is very human—more human than most of the people I’ve met in that business. I like those kinds of characters, because of the sense of freedom. He is completely free in his mind.
He can project one thing but be something else. It’s also that mixing and contradiction.
Yes. We are all paradoxical in fact—we just have to accept it. It’s not a problem; it’s just a question of understanding ourselves. I really loved this last Chanel collection (Spring/Summer 2019)—amazing. You see how free he is in his head. He had an idea you cannot even imagine.
How did you meet him when you were 17?
I asked for an invitation and had the luck to attend a Chloe show. At that moment he was the art director there. When you’re 17 you have less fear. You don’t ask yourself if you have the right or not to do it, you just do it. I was really amazed by his behavior. He told his bodyguard to give me the address when I asked him if it was possible to make a presentation.
I showed him my drawings and he said, ‘Okay, you have to draw all the time.’ I was really happy. You’re 17, you don’t even go to school for fashion, and you have the luck to meet someone like him. I’m 41 and even though I work for Chanel, I never had the chance to tell him that [story]. I’d be so happy to thank him because those people gave you the energy to do what you’re doing. It’s a bit like having a mentor. Even if they don’t know it, they help you.