The big news for wealthy fashion connoisseurs in September may have been that Azzedine Alaïa opened a three-story boutique in an 18th-century mansion at 5 Rue de Marignan, Paris.
The store with its main floor dedicated to accessories and two upper floors for ready-to-wear, is a sort of futuristic art gallery-like space decorated with special features by interior designers such as Marc Newson, Martin Szekely, and Pierre Paulin; architect Charlotte Perriand, artist Kris Ruhs and painter Christoph von Weyhe.
Yet the relevant news for ordinary fashion fans, design students and artists, is that the Tunisian-born couturier is currently enjoying a retrospective at Palais Galliera and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Very simply entitled "Alaïa" and curated by Olivier Saillard, the exhibition features 70 garments, with a few additional designs on display at the Matisse Room in the Musée d’Art Moderne.
The garments - one-off evening dresses and pieces designed for iconic models - are juxtaposed to Henri Matisse and Daniel Buren's paintings to show the affinity between an artist's work and Alaïa's approach to form, volume and materials.
The designs are divided in different sections that tackle various themes: there are creations characterised by zippers criss-crossing the body, pieces that focus on the designer's dialogue with the human form, and a section celebrating his knitwear skills and his collaboration with Italian yarn manufacturer Lineapiù.
Alaïa may have perforated leather and sculpted crocodile skin or metal; he may have layered mousseline, wrapped stretch rayon bands around the body, moulded yarns for his micro-knit dresses and added raffia fringes and shell decorations to his pieces, but his aim remains the same - creating a perfect structure and body-shaping curve-hugging designs that embrace and compress the female silhouette.
Though in his creations he was always inspired by personalities such as Arletty or Louise de Vilmorin, he learnt this particular skill of cutting designs that frame the bare skin in the '70s while making costumes for the dancers at the Crazy Horse cabaret.
As he developed his collections it became clear that he favoured technique over trend and and timeless garments to transitory designs that vanish in a few months' time. The pieces on display prove that his main focus remains the body of the wearer and not the garment per se.
In a famous quote, Alaïa stated indeed: "A woman is like an actress: always on stage. She has to be beautiful and feel good. Her clothes should be a part of her, she should feel them on her body. I prefer people to notice the woman and not her clothes. Her face, her body, her hands - the clothes she wears should dress her, underscore her qualities and make her beautiful."
Born in Tunisia Alaïa moved to Paris at 18 where he lasted only five days at Dior, then became the housekeeper and tailor for the Comtesse de Blégiers and eventually worked for two seasons at Guy Laroche.
Encouraged by Thierry Mugler he presented his first signature collection in 1979 adopting a new approach to leather, making it more fragile, light and sensual. He had his big break when editors Nicole Crassat, Brigitte Langevin and Carlyne Cerf were photographed by Bill Cunningham in 1980 wearing his clothes.
His sensually body-clinging designs were favoured by many celebrities: Tina Turner wears Alaïa on the cover of "Private Dancer", and so do the models in the video of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and Grace Jones in John Glen's film A View to a Kill (1985).
The designer - who received in 1985 the French Ministry of Culture Designer of the Year Award - also appeared in William Klein's documentary “Mode in France” (1984) and in more recent years in Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007; the designer worked in collaboration with Schnabel for the decorations of his boutiques in the late '80s and on the Tati brand in the early '90s).
The Palais Galliera event is the first one dedicated to Alaïa since the 2011 retrospective at the Groninger Museum that travelled to Dusseldorf this year.
Alaïa would actually deserve even more exhibitions as he can be considered as the perfect synthesis of classic Parisian couture with modern fashion. He indeed borrowed the outline from the 1930s and the streamlined lines from the 1950s, combining in his work Madeleine Vionnet's techniques, Madame Grès's draped motifs and Balenciaga's rigid tailoring, with a cinematic touch added (the silver beads trapped in the black top layer of a design included in the exhibition were inspired by the opening scene with the snow globe in Citizen Kane).
Yet there are other reasons why Alaïa would deserve more exhibitions: behind the beauty and the elegance, the perfect body architectures and the wisely and cleverly chosen yarns, there are quite a few lessons to learn, especially for young designers.
The first one is that to create something genuinely timeless - and Alaïa did it (as his quote states: "I have erased the dates, not the memories") - you have to firmly keep in mind the research aspect and get to know your materials; the second is that you don't have to abide to the fashion rules that other people impose over you because it is still possible to carve your own niche in a fashion scene suffering from bulimia, and drop out of the official fashion calendar, presenting a collection when it's ready and not when everybody tells you it should be ready (Alaïa dropped out of the official fashion week in the '90s...).
A man who doesn't court editors and retailers, who is not afraid of making his own rules, or of criticising Karl Lagerfeld's caricature-like attitude and Anna Wintour's lack of taste, Monsieur Alaïa remains a fiercely independent fashion force in a system gone awry.
“Alaïa” is at Palais Galliera and at the Musée de la Mode, Paris, until 26th January 2014.
All images from the personal Archives of Monsieur Alaïa
1. Alaïa, Bustier Dress, Molded leather bustier with taffeta skirt, Couture F/W 2003 © Patrick Demarchelier
2. Alaïa, Long dress with stretch rayon strips, S/S 1990, © Ilvio Gallo, 1996
3. Alaïa, Long dress with stretch rayon strips, S/S 1990, © Ilvio Gallo, 1996
4. Alaïa, Long dress, around 1996, © Ilvio Gallo, 1996
5. Alaïa, White silk jersey short draped dress, S/S 1991, © Ilvio Gallo, 1996
6. Alaïa, Black wool jersey short dress with silvered metal zipper wrapped around it, boat neck and pointed sleeves, F/W 1981, © Ilvio Gallo, 1996
7. Alaïa, Short outfit in leather and metallic fishnet, S/S 2010, © Peter Lindbergh pour Alaïa, 2013
8. Alaïa, Python and black chiffon dress, S/S 2010, © Peter Lindbergh pour Alaïa, 2013
9. Alaïa, Long dress, F/W 2012, © Peter Lindbergh pour Alaïa, 2013
10. Alaïa, Wool jersey long dress with silvered metal zipper wrapped around it, Couture F/W 2003, © Peter Lindbergh pour Alaïa, 2013
11. Alaïa, Long sheath dress with fluffy stretch rayon strips, a design known as “Powder Puff”, S/S 1994, © Paolo Roversi, 2013
12. Alaïa, Black wool fabric jacket with crocodile skin applique, Couture F/W 2003 © Paolo Roversi, 2013
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