There are two kinds of fashion names. There are some, like Chanel and Dior, that are familiar to those with even minimal knowledge of the fashion biz, and then there are those emerging brands that are the province of only the most learned of insiders. That’s where Yigal Azrouël fits.
His designs for both men and women give off rocker, surfer, and casually chic vibes—all at the same time. “I like the off thing,” Azrouël says. “I don’t like perfection. I like the unexpected. It’s much more interesting.” His women’s collection is for a “woman who appreciates fashion, has individual style, is very confident, and doesn’t follow trends.” His men’s line is very personal. “It’s what I wear,” he says. “I think about my closet. It’s about an effortless, cool attitude.” His spring/summer 2010 men’s collection features long, lightweight sailor-striped tops and vertical-striped pants that are made for walks on the beach, as well as buttery leather jackets and vests, and chunky-knit cardigans.
At the release of Azrouël’s current collection at upscale boutique George C. in Toronto, garments on display include a grey dress that looks like it had a run in with a Ginsu knife, artfully sliced along the torso and sewn onto an underlayer by hand. The viscose jerseys are washed in a special milk bath, which renders them so soft that the model comments she feels like she’s wearing nothing at all. A leather jacket hanging nearby features an asymmetric hem that zips off, which shortens it and provides a sleeker line. And on the wool vest next to that, the leather armholes are fused but look imperfect. The layering, draping, and slightly askew aspects are all a part of Azrouël’s signature.
Azrouël has several things going for him, not the least of which are his designs. The tall 37-year-old resembles Andy Garcia circa The Untouchables, with dark-chocolate brown eyes, hair carelessly falling over them, and stubble that looks more sexy than scruffy. Here at George C., he wears a hand-knit green cardigan with a navy and army green Japanese washed cotton tee, a grey scarf—a trademark he is rarely without—and narrow-legged blue moleskin pants from his fall 2008 collection. He appears effortless and cool; the image he cultivates is one part sweet and one part smouldering and mysterious. Personal questions are verboten, perhaps because gossip columnists have found much fodder in the celebrities and socialites often seen draped on his arm.
Unlike many designers, he didn’t always aspire to a life of fashion. Having grown up near the coast in the city of Ashdod, Israel, his main hobby was surfing, which he started when he was six years old.
In 1993, at the age of 20, Azrouël went on a trip to Paris that decided his career path. His mother’s family lived there, and a relative took him to a Dior show. “I remember clearly seeing André Leon Talley [currently the contributing editor at Vogue] walking in, with this big green coat and sunglasses on,” he says. “I didn’t know who he was, but it was interesting to me, seeing all the glamour. I had a dream that one day I would be there. So I went back [to Israel] and started drawing.”
Azrouël launched his womenswear line in 1998, shortly after moving to the United States. (He launched his menswear collection in fall 2007.) While he was living with his sister in Washington, D.C., he created clothes out of garments he bought at second-hand stores, and sold them to his sister’s friends. Since he could not afford to formally study fashion at school, he continued experimenting with design on his own. He eventually moved to New York and lived with four other guys and a dog in a friend’s basement apartment in Queens for a year while he worked on putting together a small collection of black matte jersey pieces (focusing on this material because it drapes well and was affordable). “My early pieces were very off—because I didn’t know patterning—but very interesting,” he says. “This is how it started.” Eventually his line was picked up by stores such as Fred Segal, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Today, Azrouël has two boutiques, one in New York’s Meatpacking District and the other in Water Mill, New York. A footwear collection is in the works, as is another retail space.
Although he may not have formal design training, Azrouël has plenty of fashion experience. He was the youngest of eight children, five of them girls. “They always, always, always inspire me,” he says. “I used to go shopping with them, and as a kid they always asked my opinion. I had an eye. If I didn’t like something, I wasn’t shy to say, ‘That doesn’t look good on you, you shouldn’t wear that.’” Fashion, he says, “is all about personality and the right attitude. It’s not about what you wear, but how you wear it.”