AZZEDINE ALAÏA – THE COUTURIER
by Katherine Hislop
Housed in the Design Museum in London, the exhibition Azzedine Alaïa – The Couturier showcases extraordinary pieces by the late, great Tunisian designer. Towering over you, the couture dresses and garments present here are from both a decade gone by (such as Grace Jones’ iconic gown) and his most recent handcrafted (it goes without saying) creations. Despite a 30 year gap between the earliest garment from his heyday in the 80s, and his most recent work, what is striking is the sheer timelessness of his designs, combining ‘tradition and the modernity!’ as Jean-Paul Gaultier so aptly put it.
Azzedine Alaïa enjoyed his role as an outsider in the world of fashion. Always dressed in a uniform of black, he ignored the collection calendar while tirelessly upholding the traditions of haute couture. From his first show in the late 1970s to his final one just before his death, Alaïa’s work has generated excitement and respect. Sensuous, body-hugging forms, described as ‘second-skin dressing’, are Alaïa’s enduring influence. Experimenting with the latest stretch materials and precisely tailored leathers, he worked in the tradition of the great couturiers he admired and studied, Madeleine Vionnet, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Charles James. Alaïa thought with his hands. He gave his ideas form by draping, cutting and pinning fabric directly on to the statuesque models with whom he loved to work. He combined his rigorous technical skills with an understanding of how women want to feel. He once remarked, ‘I make clothes, women make fashion’. Reflecting a consistency of approach and the timelessness of his creations, Alaïa’s most significant works are grouped here to reveal ideas he perfected and remastered over many years. This includes Alaïa’s use of black, his favorite and most widely used color. Restricting the color palette left Alaïa nowhere to hide and enabled him to develop the purist expression of his ideals of form. As Alaïa’s explorations in shape and volume deepened, he remained focused solely on the demands of perfecting his vision, not on market demands. This exhibition and installation, conceived with Alaïa, includes architectural elements by artists who Alaïa admired and befriended, as well as photographs of Maison Alaïa by the artist Richard Wentworth, who documented the fashion house over the past few years*.
While being a fitting tribute to a master of detail and non-conformity, this exhibition was designed and created by Monsieur Alaïa himself as meticulously as his dresses. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the pieces, dwarfing visitors who come to admire his craft, creating veritable Amazonian monuments of these couture garments, designed to empower the women that might wear them. Alaïa’s decision to remove any partition walls that usually section off exhibitions like these, reinforces yet further the incredible scale of the garments on display.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the handmade pieces is the attention to detail, both in the construction of fine fabrics, and in the fit to the model’s silhouette (he famously created a mannequin to Naomi Campbell’s measurements while creating a dress!). As Lady Gaga asserted, ”No one knew a woman’s body like him”, and today other iconic stars like Rihanna, Grace Jones, Tina Turner, and even First Lady Michelle Obama flaunt his work, and the exclusivity of owning an Alaïa only renders this showcase all the more fascinating.
Special thanks to the Design Museum.
* Excerpt from exhibition guide.