The art of being Azzedine Alaia, darling decorator of style insiders

A stunning display at the Design Museum presents the master couturiers own vision although sadly he wont see it. By Kate Finnigan

When Azzedine Alaia, the Tunisian master couturier, died of a heart attack in Paris last November, aged 82, the Design Museum in London was seven months into preparing a big demonstrate dedicated to his run. It was to be the first style exhibition in the museum’s new building in Kensington and the choice of Alaia had been carefully attained.” The museum has very special architecture ,” says Alice Black, co-director.” What Azzedine Alaia generated over his career is also striking statue. We felt that his work against the backdrop of the museum would be amazing .”

Black had come to know the tiny and charismatic designer over the previous few months. The team had been working closely with Alaia himself, a human known for his perfectionism and hands-on approach.” Azzedine was the heart and soul of his label. For a while I wondered if the exhibition could still go ahead ,” says Black.” But because he had really wanted it, everyone took it on themselves to make it happen. It was his theory, his idea, so we hadn’t been left to second guess .”

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier, curated by Alaia’s long-term collaborator and friend, Mark Wilson of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, opens this Thursday. The museum has defied the temptation to turn it into a retrospective and has bided with the designer’s original vision for it to be a study of technique and craft, with more than 60 examples of couture pieces. It is the first-ever UK show dedicated to Alaia, who is less well known here than in his adopted France. But those who know style revere Alaia almost like no other. The industry loves a secret and there has been a cult surrounding Alaia for five decades, inspired not only by his unique- although much-imitated- style but by his longing for perfectionism( a dress could take five weeks or five years ), his refusal to be dictated to by commercialism and his personal style of business, largely conducted in his atelier-cum-apartment in the Marais around a kitchen table, where Alaia served guests with his own cuisine.

Turning heads: Azzedine Alaia with Tina Turner, Paris, 1989. Photo:( c) Peter Lindbergh( Courtesy Peter Lindbergh, Paris)

The Alaia aesthetic is so powerful that, to those who know it, merely uttering the name will summon up a vision- a living, exhaling woman, her form enhanced by textiles that sculpt and mould, clinch and cling.” He’s the master of cut and fit, a sculptor,” says Wilson.” He didn’t do depicts that somebody else translated. He designed everything directly on to the body. That’s how he made things .” In both his couture and ready-to-wear collects his materials were Lycra bandages, smooth velvet, stretch wool and leather- lots of it, moulded or cut like lace by laser or riveted with silver eyelets. Wilson is presenting the couture garments, choice with Alaia, in themed clusters- velvet, African-inspired, bandage gowns.” You get to see everything in 360 degrees and the groupings mean the viewer gets a better understanding of the craft and the technique ,” says Wilson, who has now curated six Alaia reveals.” If you looked at these pieces separately, you would ensure less how each of them is very special in its own way. You can really ensure the cuts and seaming and building, which in other exhibitions you might not be able to appreciate .”

Alaia find the exhibition as an installation and asked artists to stimulate screens as a backdrop to his run.” I came up with the idea and Azzedine selected the artists, who include Marc Newson, Tatiana Trouve and the Bouroullec friends. Wrapping around the walls is a collection of pictures taken by Richard Wentworth, who expended two years documenting Maison Alaia.

” I stimulate clothes; girls attain manner ,” the designer said. For Black, the magic of the Alaia look is that it is timeless.” They are garments that you look fantastic in today, much as you would have done 20 years ago, or will do in 20 years’ period ,” she says.” It’s that workmanship, the perfection. In the exhibition you do ensure patterns and attires that he’s been working on and reworking throughout his career, but in parallel you assure very interesting fluctuations of cloth. He’s always bringing innovation in there- the laser-cutting or working with a glass powder that gives fabric an iridescence. There’s innovation as well as a respect of a certain tradition .”

When Michael Jackson made the 1992 video for In the Closet– directed by Herb Ritts, co-starring Naomi Campbell and with a voiceover by Princess Stephanie of Monaco- Alaia Campbell’s barely there clothes, white crop top and flippy skirt. This was the glitzy stratosphere he occupied. The designer was stimulated more famous by a line in the 1995 film Clueless when Alicia Silverstone’s fashion-obsessed Cher is robbed at gunpoint and refuses to are going to the ground with the immortal words:” You don’t understand, this is an Alaia !”

But Alaia himself was not a flashy person. The term most used about him is “humble”. He was kind and empathetic, a friend and guide to many people, including Mark Wilson who knew him for 22 years.” Oh, he was a sweetheart. I loved him ,” says Wilson.” We were family. He was my favourite artist and he also opened his home to me .” He was a father figure for Naomi Campbell, who knew him as Papa, and moved into his apartment in Paris when she was 16. The model made a compassionate speech about him at the British Fashion Awards after his death last year:” Back in the day, our fridges weren’t stuffed with food: we bought what we eat on a daily basis and if there was one egg left in his fridge, Papa would offer it to me to make an omelette .”

Born in Tunis, the child of wheat farmers, he studied statue before transfer, self-taught, to fashion. He moved to Paris in 1957 and got a job at Christian Dior, but was rejected after five days for not having the correct newspapers. After working with Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler he set up on his own, but it wasn’t until 1979 that he opened his own atelier, where he garmented Greta Garbo and Marie-Helene de Rothschild.

He is perhaps most recognised for dressing the supermodels who bestrode the 1980 s and 90 s- Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell- as well as the awesome frames of Grace Jones and Stephanie Seymour. The height of these women and his lack of it often demonstrated irresistible to photographers; images of the 5ft 3in Alaia, towered over by some 6ft super-beauty, possess something of the fairytale. But his clothes were not only for Amazons. The Kardashian sisters, with their curves and gloss, was like they were conceived to wear Alaia and are followers. So, too, is his friend the gallerist Carla Sozzani, as was her late sister Franca, who was editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue . Pale blonde Italian waifs, they slipped their slim frames into wide-tiered skirts with flat black shoes so that the architecture of the dresses sway around them like kinetic sculpture.

” He was at the service of women ,” says Black.” Some have been his couture clients for a lifetime- once “youre starting” wearing Alaia you only never stop. But even with his ready-to-wear he set so much attention into the structure. They don’t crumple and don’t fall the wrong way. A plenty of the women we’ve talked to mention this feeling of empowerment they have while wearing his clothes. When you feel so beautiful, you feel confident and you can go out and take on the world .”

The museum will exhibit a few dress in the public foyer, alongside photography, as a taster for a wider audience. With a new flagship three-storey Alaia store recently opened on London’s New Bond Street, this is perhaps the biggest year ever for the once tiny label. Alaia may have left us, but his legend will endure.

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier is at The Design Museum from 10 May to 7 October ( )

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