As designer Yigal Azrouel watches a long-haired blonde strut down his in-studio catwalk wearing a tight black leather and wool skirt, he says the one thing women everywhere would die to hear. The swarthy Israeli heartthrob is in the middle of casting models for Friday’s show of his 2010 Spring collection. When asked what kind of woman inspires him, he stands up, crosses the path of the girl’s clacking patent leather Manolos to take down a picture of 18-year-old Ranya Mordanova, a model with hollow angular features and closely cropped bangs. “It’s not about being pretty,” he says, “She’s kind of funny. There are a lot of beautiful models, but how do you find something more interesting?”
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Mordanova’s pageboy haircut is a far cry from the unlikely women who have catapulted Azrouel from near-obscurity to a household name. In February, his PR team invited Ashley Alexandra Dupre, the prostitute who infamously serviced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, to sit prominently in the front row of his last fashion show, and most recently he was accused of having an affair with Billy Joel’s 27-year-old ex-wife, Katie Lee. He says he never invited Dupre, and declines to address the Katie Lee rumors, saying only, “This is big bullshit.” Still, there’s no denying that the two women, who look more Jersey fly and apple pie, respectively, than “funny” or “interesting,” have given him more visibility than any single design.
It also helps when you’re one of the few straight men in fashion. Though he first launched his line nearly 10 years ago, attention around his brand exploded in 2009. After two years of sketching dresses during training breaks in the Israeli Defense Forces, Azrouel’s trajectory could be a real-life fashion version of Adam Sandler’s character in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, a spoof about a hunky Israeli soldier who leaves his country to become a hairdresser in America.
“This is big bullshit,” Azrouel says of the rumors of his affair with 27-year-old Katie Lee Joel.
But he brushes past his stint in the IDF, and instead prefers to reminisce about his early aimlessness, an attitude that seems to be part of his charming schtick. Azrouel, 36, first arrived in New York in 1998 with only $500. “I was into like, art and like, drawing,” lingering over his a’s. “I was kind of looking for a job and I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was like buying vintage pieces and constructing them and selling them to my sister’s friends,” he adds. Within two years he met a wealthy female backer who would help him launch a small collection that over the years gained traction. “For me, it was very spontaneous,” he says. “I was not really planning to be a designer. People helped me a lot and slowly, slowly, I got the store.” He opened his first store in 2003 in prime Meatpacking District real estate, and the following year joined the CFDA. Some say Azrouel has yet to become a real insider. Vogue rarely pictures his designs and he hasn’t received editor Anna Wintour’s blessing. “He’s not in the same league as Proenza Schouler or Zac Posen,” quipped one fashion editor.
But once Azrouel started making the rounds to society events, he attracted a following of editors and It Girls, if not for his fashion at least for his face. He and fellow Israelis Valery Joseph, his former roommate and owner of the eponymous salons, and his nephew, designer Dror Benshetrit, soon became hits on the cocktail circuit. Azrouel then started having intimate Shabbat dinner parties at his Chelsea home, cooking Middle Eastern food and endearing himself to many female artists, stylists, and society fixtures. Socialite Fabiola Beracasa, who used to live in his building and regularly attended, coos, “Just look at him! He’s handsome, he’s talented, he’s straight.” She thinks women also fall for him because they “project that he’s sensitive because he’s a designer. He’s a beacon.” Jewelry designer Zani Gugelmann has also been to his events. “He’s just so non-judgmental, which makes people feel very comfortable around him,” she says.
“Just look at him! He’s handsome, he’s talented, he’s straight!” said socialite Fabiola Beracasa, a regular at Azrouel’s intimate Shabbat dinner parties.
In person, Azrouel speaks slowly and quietly, with the easy confidence of someone who thinks you’re hanging on every word. His wavy black hair falls effortlessly around his forehead and his five o’clock shadow adds an air of mystery. In jeans and a plain white T-shirt, he describes his style as minimalist. His sentences are, too. When asked what inspired this season’s collection of form-fitting graphic silhouettes, he says, squinting, “Everything is inspired. I’m inspired when I travel.” Were there any trends he’s seized upon this year? “I’m not somebody who follows a trend,” he answers with laid-back dismissiveness. “I drape a lot. I just drape it on and let it be.”
Azrouel had been up that day since 6 a.m., and draping for the past four hours. He’d gone for an 8-mile run down the West Side Highway as part of a training regimen for the New York Marathon. “You start the day so beautifully,” he says of his run. As he starts describing how he makes his post-exercise smoothie, pausing and smiling between each ingredient—“papaya…banana…orange juice…ginger…mint and honey”—it is clear how he attracts his female following. He continues to fan the fantasy. After work, he says, he’ll come home or see a show. “I was in Israel last week and I bought myself a guitar,” he says. “I play the guitar and I sing for myself.”
Alexandra Wolfe is a former contributing editor to Conde Nast Portfolio. She has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, The New York Observer, and The Wall Street Journal, where she wrote design and lifestyle features for the Weekend Journal section. She is working on a book called American Coddle , about America's culture of entitlement.