There’s a hushed, reverential silence as Parisians slowly wander around the displays of sculpted gowns, studying every stitch and detail as if in awe of the mastery. These 41 dresses present just a snapshot of Azzedine Alaïa’s work over 40 years, and are being showcased in a special exhibition at Alaïa’s atelier in Le Marais, the site of his last couture show in July 2017.
The exhibition, which takes its title from one of Alaïa’s famous quotes, “I am not a designer, I am a couturier”, is one of two this year devoted to the Tunisian designer, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack last November, leaving the industry in shock.
The second exhibition, Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier, will open at London’s Design Museum in May. This exhibit had already been in the works when the legendary designer passed away, so he was heavily involved in its planning. It will explore the career and creative process of this notorious perfectionist, who cut all his own patterns and was known to work on a single garment for years before sharing it with the world. It will showcase more than 60 examples of Alaïa’s works until October 7.
The museum has decided to not change its approach, or replace it with a retrospective, but instead, to stay true to the designer’s vision for the exhibition, while adding some more biographical details and photography elements. “We want to give a sense of how a man like Azzedine Alaïa creates, because he stands apart from many fashion designers today,” explains Alice Black, co-director of the Design Museum. Alaïa stands as one of the most influential designers of his generation, famed for introducing the body-conscious silhouette.
The Paris exhibition opened during haute couture week in January, giving the designer a presence during the collections, and will run until June 10. It has been curated by Olivier Saillard, the former director of Paris’s Palais Galliera, who worked closely with Alaïa to produce the first retrospective of his work in 2013 at the Galliera, so is familiar with the designer’s dresses.
Tightly edited to black or white (with the exception of one red gown), each iconic dress is set out on individual, pearly-hued podiums lining the atelier – Saillard says he wanted the exhibition to look like a string of pearls. Devoid of any captions, you wander around the space with a leaflet featuring each dress and simply the year and season of the design, nothing more.
It makes for a contemplative experience. What is particularly striking is the timelessness of the designs – each dress could be sitting front row at the shows that week, whether it’s a white Grecian-draped mini-dress from 1981 or a body-hugging black dress from 2003 that unravels with a circular zip. In the centre of the exhibition is the dress that Naomi Campbell wore on the runway of Alaïa’s last show in last July.
The designer once said: “My obsession is to make women beautiful. When you create with that in mind, things can’t go out of fashion.” Timelessness was one of his mantras, but he also had an obsession with defining womanly curves. He would strip away all ornaments and colours on his dresses to leave only the actual construction of the garment, and its relationship to the body, on display. He would literally sculpt the body. To do that, he had to strike a relationship with the client, explains Black. “He was making not just for the physical person, but for the kind of woman she wanted to be.” Dresses, the foundation of the two exhibitions, “are the absolute creation that the couturier never ceased to perfect throughout his career and are the expression and avowal of his desire for eternity”, says Saillard.
Alaïa always worked in pure black, using it like a sculptor to carve the body. Colour would dilute the effect, he believed. He also favoured chalk and plaster whites because they reminded him of his student years at the Beaux-Arts in Tunis. He used animal print because of the powerful, animalistic sensuality it gave models and customers such as Campbell, Grace Jones and Yasmin Le Bon, who remembers wanting “something [to wear] that had attitude and was sexy and had an edge to it. I will never forget the first time I put an Azzedine Alaïa outfit on,” she said at the British Fashion Awards tribute last December. “That was it, it was a done deal. His clothes were sexy, they were cool, they made you feel incredibly confident. They supported us and empowered us in every way possible.”
The diminutive and publicity-shy designer became something of a father figure to his models. Campbell forged a particularly close friendship with him, moving into his house as a 16-year-old model and even calling him papa. “He was the most generous, kind, compassionate and humble man I have ever known, with a mischievous humour and glint in his eye; he filled my life with joy and light,” reveals the supermodel.
American model Stephanie Seymour shared a similar experience: “He was also my papa; he clothed me, he fed me, he protected me, he walked me down the aisle. He did poke pins into me every once in a while, but I am sure I deserved it. He taught me how to dance and he taught me about love, loyalty and emotion.”
Azzedine Alaïa was born into a farming family in Tunisia in 1940, but his parents split when he was young, and he moved to Tunis with his mother and sister. He entered the École des Beaux-Arts at 15 with plans to be a sculptor, but in an effort to make some pocket money, he learnt to sew from his sister, and started making clothes. He found work with a local dressmaker and discovered his passion for clothes. He arrived in Paris in the late 1950s and worked briefly at Dior before moving to Guy Laroche, where he learnt tailoring. In the mid-1960s, he ventured out on his own, supported by a coterie of well-connected clients.
He dressed Tina Turner for the cover of her album Private Dancer, as well as Madonna, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama and Brigitte Macron, among others. He worked to his own schedule, not participating in fashion weeks unless he had something he wanted to present. He then assiduously kept every design he ever made, offering a superb archive for the two exhibitions to draw from. “He made the first cut of which dresses would feature at the Design Museum, with co-curator Mark Wilson from the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. We were in full swing with preparations when, sadly, he passed away,” says Black.
Alaïa was familiar with the new location of the Design Museum in Kensington, Black adds. “He loved the architecture – the light and the oak – and so, asking him was like pushing an open door,” she says. He was an avid collector of vintage designer fashion and also furniture, so the set includes screens created by the designers he admired, including Marc Newson, Konstantin Grcic and Kris Ruhs, among others. The clothes, then, will be in conversation with their surroundings.
The exhibition coincides with the opening of a new Azzedine Alaïa boutique in London. And the Association Azzedine Alaïa will hold further exhibitions from his archives and collections, in both Paris and the Tunisian town Sidi Bou Said, where he was laid to rest. A ready-to-wear collection will be presented in Paris this month, marking a new era for the maison. It will be shaped by the many talented people who have long been part of the Alaïa family, some of whom worked with him closely for 30 years. Continuing to work from his ateliers and his archives, this family will keep alive Alaïa’s vision of style and timeless beauty.
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