I think the new Azzedine Alaïa exhibition at the Design Museum could have the same impact on fashion students that Sensation at the Royal Academy had on arts students in 1997. Azzedine, who died last November, isn’t particularly well known in England – he was very much Paris-based – so it should be a revelation for young people who haven’t seen his work.
I first became aware of Azzedine in 1981 or 82, when I was working as a fashion editor for British Vogue. We were tipped off about an interesting designer in Paris and a few of us from the magazine went to see his show. It was at his apartment in the 7th arrondissement and the catwalk was just the parquet floor with little chairs lined up on either side. I remember we were kept waiting a long time. Suddenly, there was this loud clap and the American model Janice Dickinson appeared, followed by 10 or 20 of the most beautiful women in the world.
We thought, who is this designer who can get these unbelievable models to walk through his apartment like this? New York was the centre of the fashion industry at the time and models of that calibre simply didn’t bother coming to Paris, but here they were, dressed up and looking incredible.
We were right up close so we could see the cut, the fabric, the attention to detail. We hadn’t really seen anything like it before. It was a completely new look, very tailored and fitted and very sexy – but sexy is not quite the right word. The outfits were incredibly empowering.
I met Azzedine soon afterwards. He was a funny, cheeky person and an absolute control freak. However famous he got, he always noticed every minute detail. You’d put something down in the wrong place and he’d ask you to pick it up. Then you’d put it on the rail and he’d say: “Not like that!” It was like your granny who couldn’t bear to let you do the washing-up.
He was extremely generous. I think it’s relevant that he was from Tunisia, where hospitality is very important. He fed his staff every day. There was a chef in the building making delicious food – a salad to start, then some meat and vegetables and always a little pudding afterwards – and everyone who worked there, whether they swept the floor or cut the clothes, would sit down to eat with Azzedine. If there were guests, be it a pop star or a supermodel, they’d all be sitting at the same table. Every so often, there would be a member of staff who wanted to go out for lunch rather than eating with the group. Azzedine didn’t like that. It was like it was a betrayal. He thought, if I’m providing this most wonderful lunch, you should stay and eat it with us.
In 1986, I left Vogue and went to work for him for a couple of years. He wanted to record his collections and he asked me if I could organise and style the photographs, which were eventually published by Steidl in a book called Alaïa.
While I was styling for the photographs, I was also helping with the shows and giving him feedback, because he quite liked to bounce ideas off people. I don’t want to claim that I did more than I did, because he was the absolute king of it all, but white shirts became more of a thing when I was there – I always wore white shirts. He would make the final decision, but you could nudge him slightly in one way or the other.
We had a very funny time together. We’d set off on these bonkers trips, to America or around Europe, with suitcases of clothes to photograph. Azzedine didn’t speak English, so I’d always be interpreting for him or ordering breakfast. You needed to be his nanny – he was like an unruly child. Take him to America and he was terrified of the customs men, because he was tiny and they were towering great brutes. He really needed somebody with him all the time so that he didn’t get hopelessly lost.
Azzedine did things differently to other designers. For one, he did everything himself – all the cutting, all the fitting, all the choosing – and did not delegate to anybody. When you work like that, you get a level of finish that is a realm above everything else.
When I worked there, he even did the mise au point himself; after the models wear the clothes on the catwalk, all the patterns have to be altered for a more average human figure. There are technicians who specialise in it, but Azzedine wanted to make sure that the clothes in the shop fitted perfectly. It’s no wonder that he was often late for shows and sometimes ended up skipping a season altogether.
He was always working. He’d come downstairs around 10am and work all day, stopping for lunch and dinner. After dinner, he’d go back upstairs and work in front of a huge TV, which he kept on to keep himself awake. Most nights, he’d work until 2am or 3am. It seemed to me that he was always at his table, working on the patterns, cuttings, fittings, then running up to the atelier to give them more instructions. I don’t like making comparisons to other designers, but for me only Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons was as perfectionist and nitpicking as him.
He was designing for women’s bodies, rather than an abstract idea of them, but people’s characters were just as important. He loved a feisty woman, a woman with opinions, and the clothes would accentuate their characters. I remember him saying, of the journalist Rula Jebreal: “Oh she’s really great because she’s working for the Palestinian cause, she’s helping Palestinian women and look, I’ve designed her party dress.” He felt he was empowering women through his clothes.
Azzedine was involved in the planning of the Design Museum exhibition before he died. The plan is for garments from across his career, along with architectural interventions by artists and designers such as Mark Newson and Tatiana Trouvé.
The curator, Mark Wilson, has an opportunity here to get across some important messages. Fashion right now is about clothes that you throw together. You wear jeans that you might have customised yourself, with a sports top that you spent hundreds of pounds on, and you throw it all together with a bit of your own originality and that’s a look. Azzedine’s clothes, on the other hand, are about the full outfit. I think people will see them and think: “Aren’t we getting a bit bored with throwing together these looks that are not quite as clever as we think they are?” This was somebody who knew how to create an outfit that makes you, as a woman, feel incredible from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.
Most designers out there are more like stylists. They ask: “What’s the mood?” and try to respond to it. And fashion students, because they’re closer to the ground and not constrained by business plans, are looking to trailblaze new moods. But as soon as they’ve got there, there’s someone snapping at their heels. It must be a nightmare, always trying to be ahead of the pack. I think what this exhibition will show is that, actually, you don’t have to do that. Azzedine never did that. He couldn’t give a damn what other people said was the new mood. So I think it would be an incredible relief for students to think, actually, fashion isn’t about the latest thing, it’s not about being ahead of the pack. By not being ahead of the pack, you can be above the pack.
I think this exhibition might say to fashion students and young designers: decide what you want to do and really concentrate on that. Learn all the skills. Aim for perfection.
When I worked with Azzedine, I learned that attention to detail is absolutely key. It’s really helpful in architecture, where there are so many choices to be made. You have to be able to make decisions, cut out the noise, prioritise, and it helps hugely to have been taught that very early on.
But he always said he had so much more to learn, that he hadn’t achieved what he set out to achieve. Right up to the end, he never felt that he’d finished what he needed to finish. There was always more he wanted to do and higher things that he wanted to achieve. For Azzedine, there could always be more perfection.
Sophie Hicks was talking to Killian Fox
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier is at the Design Museum, London W8, 10 May-7 October