What lies beneath: Celebrating 35 years of fashion by Azzedine Alaïa

An exhibition celebrating 35 years of fashion by Azzedine Alaïa, couture’s rebellious outsider, opened at London’s Design Museum this week. Rachel Marie Walsh discovers the stories behind the designs on a guided tour from curator Mark Wilson.

What lies beneath: Celebrating 35 years of fashion by Azzedine Alaïa

An exhibition celebrating 35 years of fashion by Azzedine Alaïa, couture’s rebellious outsider, opened at London’s Design Museum this week. Rachel Marie Walsh discovers the stories behind the designs on a guided tour from curator Mark Wilson.

Cher Horwitz, the Clueless teen whose wisdom often undermines the film’s title, sewed Azzedine Alaïa’s name in the minds of girls everywhere when she resisted damaging one of his dresses at gunpoint. Alaïa was a “totally important designer”.

He was working on Azzedine Alaïa:The Couturier, his first exhibition at London’s Design Museum, when he died last November. The work is important not just because VIPs from all walks of life — political, royal, artistic — showed up for his shows and wore his clothes. It was not because he courted journalists (he avoided them) or performed like Babe the Pig for a stoic backer (as Marc Jacobs once joked that he felt he did for LVMH’s Bernard Arnault).

Azzedine Alaïa with model Frederique in 1986. Photo: Arthur Elgort

Azzedine Alaïa with model Frederique in 1986. Photo: Arthur Elgort

There is strong evidence that he kept at his discipline, so it kept him. Kept at it obsessively, deadlines and start-times be damned. Few could get away with his work style now, this tiny Tunisian who spent all day in black silk pyjamas and showed all his designs in his apartment, hours after he’d promised. He did not respect Anna Wintour’s taste and compared her unfavourably to Diana Vreeland. He told the world’s most prestigious department stores orders would be ready “when they’re ready,” and cared nothing for whichever season or moment the rest of the world weathered. Some pieces took years and his garments, including the 60 displayed, are impossible to date. “I always feel free,” reads a quote writ-large in the entry-hall. “If I don’t like it I don’t make it.”

But you must serve someone, and if observing Alaïa teaches budding designers anything beyond stubborn perfectionism, it is to cultivate influential friends. Keep women happy and they will keep you, it seems, especially if you persist in making them the world’s most beautiful. He started early. Born to a farming family in 1935, he was taught dressmaking by the midwife who assisted at his birth in Tunis. He supported his studies at the city’s School of Fine Arts by hand-finishing copies of Parisian couture at night with the help of his twin sister.

Photo: Arthur Elgort

Photo: Arthur Elgort

Fascinated by French culture, he emigrated to the fashion capital in 1956. Though he worked briefly for Christian Dior, he really established himself through female connections. He was a confidante and personal dressmaker, first to a Paris-based Tunisian socialite and then to Comtesse Nicole de Blégiers, who gave him a room and enough friends/clients to set up his first Left Bank salon. Now a stylish secret of the city’s wealthy women, he was also exposed to the great and greater of the art world. This fed his passion for sculpture, which informed so many of the exhibited dresses. Exhibition curator Mark Wilson, a contemporary art specialist Alaïa worked with from 1995, said he “joked that was really his sculpture exhibition at The Design Museum”.

A lot of his designs are extremely tight (his first ever dress was reportedly so binding that he had to shove his muse onto her bus home from behind), and a woman’s curves can make any lycra dress look sculpted, but in fact he was a superior draper and cutter who worked around the body. This crystallises when you see the dresses up close. You can examine his ready-to-wear (off-the-rack) stuff in department stores any day and of course it is lovely but standard-sized clothes cannot compare to this couture, which he remade to fit each of the mannequins. Wilson draws my eye to the seaming on a black knit-tricot dress (flattering black was Alaïa’s “happy colour”) marking the shape of the ‘body’ like a sketch. He and Alaïa commissioned six artists with whom he had creative relationships — Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Konstantin Grcic, Marc Newson, Kris Ruhs and the designer’s long-term partner, Christoph von Weyhe — to create giant screens for the space. They showcase variously his design illustrations, blown-up textiles and elements of his showroom. These are interspersed with personal and professional imagery of his fabulous life.

Meals at his atelier-apartment were famous, print-anecdotes described an old-fashioned Paris salon with better food. He cooked himself, and guests included luminaries of film, art and fashion itself. Greta Garbo was a friend and muse, as was Rihanna and all of the original supermodels. Naomi Campbell, who met him at 14, called him ‘Papa’ and lived with him periodically.

Naomi Campbell. Photo: Ellen von Unwerth

Naomi Campbell. Photo: Ellen von Unwerth

His work is part of her life in images. She would take clothes from his atelier to go underage partying at Paris’s hottest clubs, then be told off for wearing them incorrectly when he arrived to take her home. In 2007, when the Met left his clothes out of the Model As Muse exhibition (see Wintour feud), she refused to attend. She and UK Vogue made a video of her personal memories of Alaïa for the exhibition’s homepage.

Making heavy materials malleable and light fabrics look dramatic was something of a speciality. Leather dresses look like slips of things, dense wool became spun-sugar under his hand. Laser-cutting makes lace hang like jacquard and his bias-cuts make silk fit like body-con bands. “He never produced anything that wasn’t great,” says Wilson. “I love how he contrasted the softness of the garments with architectural elements, like studs, to create tension.”

Despite the encouragement of international stylists and editors, Alaïa did not begin producing ready-to-wear for show until 1983. His form-hugging dresses led the press to dub him the ‘King of Cling’. I was hoping to see some shoes, any of those he’s created since the foundation of Maison Alaïa in 1981. Alaïa’s heels are extreme, either (currently) knotted bands of leather attached to spindly stilettos (see Kim Kardashian) or some of the most vertiginous platforms this side of Tokyo. But Alaïa archived everything and Wilson assures me there is plenty more to stock future exhibitions. The body-con dress was definitely Alaïa’s creation. There is near forty-year-old proof here.

Alaïa’s last couture collection showed in July 2017 and featured Naomi Campbell in a dramatic velvet bodice and pleated gown. Several pieces from this collection are on show, along with black-and-white footage of she and the other supermodels running around the Left Bank in his clothes.

Naomi Campbell. Photo: Ellen von Unwerth

Naomi Campbell. Photo: Ellen von Unwerth

It is a little inaccessible, in a way that can be frustrating when you hear fashion described as democratic because it commands such widespread interest. Part of that interest stems from a designer’s willing to engage with the public through mainstream press, film and even parody. None of these were very him.

He did not do high street collaborations or make great spectacles of his shows. He created perfumes but not huge ad campaigns. I do not think fashion is a democratic thing, not without environmental harassment and developing world perspiration making it trickle-down, anyway; not without the nouveau riche overpaying for ready-to-wear or an awful lot of people wearing the old clothes of affluent.

Democratic societies certainly inspire couturiers, this is part of what makes great couture contemporary art. The American socialites whose husbands and fathers bankrolled French fashion-houses after the war maintained their own wardrobes for museum donation and Alaïa’s career is sprung from a similar ether. But for an old-schooler like this, the work reaches far and wide through those he inspires. His collections didn’t have narratives so exhibits are grouped by fabric and detail. “I don’t create a story,” the designer told Interview in 2009, “It’s in the materials.” What he has to pass on is in the clothes.

“He did everything himself, all night long,” confirms Wilson. “I witnessed it. No one works like him anymore but students. And that’s because they can’t afford any help!”

- Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier is open at the Design Museum in Kensington, London, until October 7 2018. www.designmuseum.org.

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