Photographed by Giselle Go and Philippe Terrien
In Paris, Alexandra Senes welcomes us into her home. Her hair is swept off her face in small, tight braids and her smile is as effusive as ever, despite having just arrived from a red-eye flight. Alexandra is a true nomad, as comfortable in Paris in front of studio lights as she is in Mexico sitting on the floor with a community of female embroiderers. The founding editor-in-chief of the hip French magazine Jalouse, Alexandra has reinvented herself as a designer (with stints in TV and brand consulting in between) through her own line, Kilometre Paris today.
Kilometre itself is as intriguing as its founder. It’s a brand whose provenance was found in a flea market score of a 19th-century French linen workman’s shirt. On a whim, Alexandra decided to buy a stock of it and connected with Mexican embroiderers to help her on a quest to document, on the shirts, yet-to-be-gentrified parts of the world. From the GPS coordinates of “tomorrow’s Ibiza” to the faces of Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio who are funding eco-resorts in Croatia and Belize, from the agri-hoods of Detroit to the “new Jericoacoara” in Brazil, there is no stoned left unturned – or unembroidered – in Alexandra’s Kilometre collections.
In a sense, Kilometre is imbued with an intention to preserve artisanal work in the modern age. Alexandra travels often to India to support khadi makers by using their craft in her collections. Baskets from Morocco, painted plates from Senegal, carpets by weavers in Fez, shirts embroidered in Mexico and India – Kilometre has become a conduit for artisans around the world. We chat with the always exuberant Alexandra at her home.
Tell us about where you’re from, where you’re based, and what you do, Alexandra.
I was born in Africa, I lived there until I was 8 years old. Then I lived in New York, in South of France, and then Paris. I arrived in Paris I was 17. I studied here. I wanted to be a journalist since I was 14 years old. Because I knew [what I wanted to do], I think I managed to become what I wanted. Everything I do is about interviewing people, about meeting people, and I worked for many magazines and newspapers for many years.
I started a magazine called Jalouse. That was 19 years ago. I have no dates in my life but one, which is the birth of my daughter in 1998 and the birth of Jalouse when she was 2 months old. So I have this date and everything is what happened before and everything that happened after. The rest, I don’t care. So Jalouse started 19 years ago and I headed that magazine for 8 years.
Then I started a company 10 years ago called SAS. I was advising brands, doing websites for brands. I did Fashion Week in Pakistan, I worked on a book for the government in Beirut, I worked for Hermes – which is how I met Philippe. I was doing a radio program in Japan from Paris called “Air de Paris” for the Japanese market. I also worked for a big fashion fair in Paris. I loved working for them even though I think it’s tacky – this “fair business” is tacky. Totally not ecological, but I loved working with them because I learned how to work with volume. I was a journalist speaking through text and suddenly I had to speak to a million people, not just through a magazine. Then I went from art direction of a brand to a TV program. I wrote a book. I’m juggling a lot of stuff!
“I found in a flea market a shirt that is a 19th century linen men’s shirt… I embroidered all these shirts with stories, with spots in the world that will be the next Harajuku, the next St. Tropez, the next Aspen.”
And now you have your own fashion line. How did that start?
And now, since two years, I have my own line. I found in a flea market a shirt that is a 19th century linen men’s shirt. It’s typically a French worker shirt outfit, chemise de fer. When I found it, I said to the woman that I loved this shirt. I wore it with heels, with flats, to sleep, outside. To me, they’re like denim. I never wear jeans but I wear workwear a lot. When I said that to her, she said that she had a stock of 400 shirts. So I bought that stock without knowing what I was going to do with it.
I was a teacher in Mexico and I had met communities of embroiderers. From there, I called one of the students to help me find a community of women [to work with] so I’m sure that the money goes directly to them. I started two years ago. I embroidered all these shirts with stories, with spots in the world that will be the next Harajuku, the next St. Tropez, the next Aspen. I think Niseko is the next Aspen. I’m very good with [finding the next big spot]!
So I listed 25 destinations that are for me the next Brooklyn or the next Aoyama. Now I have someone who draws with me and Patrick [Stephan] who designs the shirts. From the old piece, I decided to do a normal production with a Small, Medium, Large. People say I’m a fashion designer and I’m not – I’m a conductor of a fashion company. I conduct [the team] and how to make this fashion-travel story go together. This fashion-travel story is so important. There’s so many fashion brands today, they don’t need me but travel is a bit tacky. Food is super ahead, so is art. Travel is a bit behind so we need to infuse a bit of fashion in the travel world.
Which destinations do you predict will be the next big thing?
In Tokyo, there is Kichijoji. We just did a shirt of Kichijoji because this area in Tokyo is going to be gentrified soon. There’s a place in Brazil called Jericoacoara. Twenty years ago, it was the new Goa. So now, the new Jericoacoara is a place called Atins in the north of Brazil.
There’s a phenomenon that we embroidered – it’s not a place but a phenomenon called “agri-hood,” agricultural neighborhoods. It’s in Detroit. We were looking for a spot in Detroit and there’s a lot of art spaces and I was fed up with celebrating an art space. I thought agri-hood had a real intention, it’s a movement. There’s a French movie called Demain which I always offer to people. They give you one example in the movie [showing solutions to environmental challenges] until you reach the end and there are 80 other examples of people doing it. It’s small, like everyone does it in his own place but it can have a major impact in the world and it’s a super-good example, the agri-hoods of Detroit.
In south of France, it’s Le Parc de l’Atelier in Arles. There is a woman called Maja Hoffman who invested in this city. All the painters went through Arles, Christian Lacroix loves Arles, Eric Bergere just opened a shop recently there. I think Arles is going to be totally modified in 10 years. There’s Frank Gehry – Maja Hoffman asked him to do a museum of photography. It’s almost ugly, but this is why I love this kind of project because it [provokes] the city and changes the energy and the perspective.
There’s a place more authentic called Kastellorizo, an island in Greece. It will never be developed because they have water problems but a lot of yachts go there because [the water is] super-deep. So you have all these famous people coming and they leave after. You only have two hotels on the island so it’s low-key and super Greek so that’s a good destination.
“There’s a phenomenon that we embroidered – it’s not a place but a phenomenon called ‘agri-hood.’ It’s in Detroit… I thought agri-hood had a real intention, it’s a movement. There’s a French movie called Demain which I always offer to people. They give you one example in the movie [showing solutions to environmental challenges] until you reach the end and there are 80 other examples of people doing it… It can have a major impact in the world and it’s a super-good example, the agri-hoods of Detroit.”
With these disparate influences, what would you say is the common thread to your collections?
We’re allowed to embroider a museum or ski slope. Travel gives the homogeneity to the collections. The spine is travel. The collection is made of two parts. There’s the vintage part – it always comes from the destination and the vintage piece. My mother bought 6 shirts this summer, it’s so difficult to find them now. We found a blouse de travail, we’ve been embroidering on that. We found these Japanese aprons and these mariniere shirts.
The second part is the ‘inspired’ collection – inspired by the old, and we always have the original piece in the collection. [For the inspired pieces,] it’s made of khadi, which is a handwoven cotton that Gandhi started spinning in India to fight for liberty. Today it’s only [rural] people who have had khadi for all their life.
Khadi is super-luxe and super-rich – it’s full of defaults which is nice because it’s not perfect and handmade. I recently went to the village in Calcutta. When I heard the chok-chok-chok of the feet of this old man who was 80 years old – he had been spinning 70 years on his loom on the same khadi that he would repair every five years – I almost cried. I can’t go back to normal cotton because feeling this village work, I see the process. I immediately see the dish of the kid, I know where [the money] goes. It’s more joyful than paying a big factory. As a journalist and as a traveler, I get more from that. They give me more with emotion – the damdam! – the sensation! I’m full when I come back from a work trip. I get so much from it.
With all your travels, where do you feel most at home?
I’m Parisienne because I’ve been living in Paris more than elsewhere but I feel like I’m from all over the world – a lot of people say that – because I have a foot in Lyon, in Beirut, in Tokyo, in New York. I’m always traveling. To give you an example, I was at a party last week in Brussels. The house was next to the airport and a friend said, “Oh, it’s because it’s next to an airport that you’re here!” Everyone knows I’m always on planes, trains, buses. I’m really comfortable everywhere and I have no jetlag.
“I recently went to the village in Calcutta. When I heard the chok-chok-chok of the feet of this old man who was 80 years old – he had been spinning 70 years on his loom on the same khadi that he would repair every five years – I almost cried. I can’t go back to normal cotton because feeling this village work, I see the process… I know where [the money] goes. It’s more joyful than paying a big factory… They give me more with emotion, the damdam!”
Constant traveling can wreak havoc on the skin. Do you have remedies for that and jetlag?
I put a good face oil and day cream. It’s the only thing I put and I think that helps. For jetlag, I never eat on planes so when I arrive I’m so hungry that I need the meal of the country. So my body adjusts. I try not to go to bed before 8 PM and I push my body so very quickly I adapt. I never ask how many hours on a plane and I never look at my watch either. So for me, it’s teleportation. I’m teleported to a place and I don’t know how long it took. It’s a bit of a mental trick!
Do you have specific beauty indulgences?
For me, I love the smell of the day cream – it’s super-important. I don’t wear perfume because I need to smell the others. I can recognize some of my friends from the perfume they wear. The perfume I love – it’s because of the name – is Bal d’Afrique because I was born in Africa. It’s Byredo and when I discovered the hand cream, ahhh! I became crazy with the hand cream so I bought the perfume. So sometimes I wear it – once every fifteen days I’ll put some. But I put it like I wear jewelry, sometimes I change. I could have ten perfumes, I think!
[I take] cold showers. A bath is like a treat because it’s ecologically not good so [I take one] only when I’m at a hotel even though I have one here, I never use it. I put salts, read a book, stay an hour. But it’s like once every six months.
What gives you inspiration?
Since I was a kid, it’s meeting people. It’s interviewing people. Now it’s speaking to embroiderers, meeting a buyer from Korea or Lyon. I get my inspiration from all these meetings, it’s my fuel. The ‘others’ is my fuel. When I see all these famous people go to St Barths, I know why they go. They go because they’re recognized by other people and they feel comfortable. And for me, it’s the opposite. I need to be uncomfortable and I need to be in a place where no one knows me. I was editor-in-chief of a magazine, I did TV programs, and I hate being recognized. For me, being lost in translation is the best fuel. I like starting things from scratch.
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