Hommage to Monsieur Alaia
Having grown up in France in the 1980s, I have vivid memories of Azzedine Alaïa’s work. Alaïa was — and remains — incredibly popular and respected in the French capital. His clothes were in every fashion magazine; his shows included the world’s most famous models; his figure-hugging silhouettes represented femininity, confidence and beauty. He had the power to create strong, elegant women who commanded a room.
Throughout his career, his truly independent approach to fashion, combined with his talent, made him one of the most influential couturiers of modern time.
Alaïa didn’t see his work as collections. He saw it as a lifetime of ideas. You would struggle to look at a singular piece and pinpoint its year of creation. He was known to start making a dress, put it to one side and pick it up many years later.
I remember visiting an exhibition of his work in Paris at Palais Galliera a few years back and being so fascinated by the clothes, their construction, their lightness as if they had been created by an otherworldly wizard.
I do not own any Alaia garment, although I hugely admire his work, his clothes are just not for me. A few of my friends have worked for Mr Alaia or have been his clients. Of course I have heard interesting stories over the years.
I was very privileged to visit the exhibition at the Design Museum in presence of the exhibition’s co-curator, Alice Black. It was a private visit, early morning before the museum opened and it was a peaceful moment.
Mr Alaia was 5 ft 3 (1.6 metres), just like me, but the mannequins wearing his dresses at the Design Museum in London are 6 ft 11 without high heels. Visitors to Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier, are met by a phalanx of seven such Amazons, each dressed in the late designer’s signature leopard print and black.
The exaggerated height of the mannequins amplifies what Alaïa’s clothes have always done, which is to make women look extraordinary. “No other dress can make a woman look and feel as good as an Alaïa dress because it cinches the body perfectly,” as Naomi Campbell put it. Dominated by sixty outfits hung unfettered on these towering transparent bodies, this exhibition is a simple appreciation of the technical brilliance of a designer’s hands-on artistry.
But the clothes have a sensual power that lifts the show above dry academic examination. Invited to admire the engineering of a floor-length black gown with thick gold zips snaking around its hourglass curves, the visitor’s mind is drawn to the effect such a dress would have when it walked into a room.
The exhibition, co-curated by the designer before his sudden death last year, brings to life the fashion world’s best-kept secret. Because it was not intended to be viewed posthumously, the show has a lightness of touch, without the pomp of a retrospective.
Alaïa was a cult figure in the fashion industry but, obsessed with the very highest quality of fit and production, he never sold dresses widely or inexpensively enough to become a household name. The outpouring of emotion on his death, and the recent opening of a London store, has given his name a higher profile than it ever had when he was alive, so this show is perfectly timed to fill in the backstory.
The dresses are gathered by aesthetic theme, rather than chronology. There is a clique of tiny dresses in supple stretch leather, a forbidding trio of dramatic hooded draped gowns including the look worn by Grace Jones in A View To A Kill, and a dancefloor’s worth of grand gowns with the volume Alaïa spun from air in honeycomb knits and miniature plissé pleats that his many imitators could never quite recreate.
The space is divided by metalwork screens, commissioned by Alaïa from designer friends including Marc Newson and Kris Ruhs, which bring to the exhibition space a hint of the 19th-century ironwork which frames the courtyard of Alaïa’s Paris home and headquarters in the Marais, venue for fashion week catwalk shows and impromptu dinners.
Richard Wentworth’s intimate portraits of life in this Rue de la Verrerie space, blown up on the back wall, show a life of chic simplicity and laser-focussed craftsmanship. A dinner table is laid for a generous number of friends and family, but with simple settings of white napkins and tumblers, no flowers or placecards; Alaïa is bent over the setting of a sleeve, a mille-feuille of tape measures and tracing paper and fabric piled all around. A timeline on the opposite wall includes images of his most beloved clients, including Tina Turner and Jessye Norman as well as Jones and Campbell – a reminder that the Tunisian-born designer championed diversity decades before the rest of the fashion industry.
A reportage film made by Ellen von Unwerth during the preparation, staging and aftermath of an Alaïa show in 1990 is a joyful time capsule of pre-Instagram joie de vivre, featuring a baby-faced Campbell sashaying on the catwalk, Helena Christensen reading a book with her hair in rollers, and a cigarette-smoking Christy Turlington drinking beer standing on a zinc-topped Paris bar.
Alice Black, the director of the Design Museum highlights a dress of black broderie anglaise, every millimetre overstitched with shimmering black beads, as her personal standout garment in the show. One of the earliest pieces, from 1981, is singled out by Carla Sozzani, a close collaborator of Alaïa, as her “absolute favourite”. Spliced from black leather and sharply pleated fabric, with bodycon curves set against sharp geometric lines, it is “just perfection”, she said at the launch. “I could look at this dress forever.”
Two strong memories have stayed with me after visiting this exhibition, the first one is what Carlyne Cerf Dudzeele said of him “He is not difficult, he is focused on what he is doing”.
The second one is the gorgeous short movie sequence of him playing like a young child with his gigantic dog.
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier at the Design Museum, London, 10 May to 7 October