When Azzedine Alaïa, the Tunisian master couturier, died of a heart attack in Paris last November, aged 82, the Design Museum in London was seven months into preparing a big show dedicated to his work. It was to be the first fashion exhibition in the museum’s new building in Kensington and the choice of Alaïa had been carefully made. “The museum has very special architecture,” says Alice Black, co-director. “What Azzedine Alaïa created over his career is also striking sculpture. We felt that his work against the backdrop of the museum would be amazing.”
Black had come to know the tiny and charismatic designer over the previous few months. The team had been working closely with Alaïa himself, a man known for his perfectionism and hands-on approach. “Azzedine was the heart and soul of his label. For a while I wondered if the exhibition could still go ahead,” says Black. “But because he had really wanted it, everyone took it on themselves to make it happen. It was his concept, his idea, so we hadn’t been left to second guess.”
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier, curated by Alaïa’s long-term collaborator and friend, Mark Wilson of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, opens this Thursday. The museum has resisted the temptation to turn it into a retrospective and has stayed with the designer’s original vision for it to be a study of technique and craft, with more than 60 examples of couture pieces. It is the first-ever UK show dedicated to Alaïa, who is less well known here than in his adopted France. But those who know fashion revere Alaïa almost like no other. The industry loves a secret and there has been a cult surrounding Alaïa for five decades, inspired not only by his unique – although much-imitated – style but by his desire for perfectionism (a dress could take five weeks or five years), his refusal to be dictated to by commercialism and his personal style of business, largely conducted in his atelier-cum-apartment in the Marais around a kitchen table, where Alaïa served guests with his own cuisine.
The Alaïa aesthetic is so powerful that, to those who know it, merely uttering the name will summon up a vision – a living, breathing woman, her form enhanced by fabrics that sculpt and mould, clinch and cling. “He’s the master of cut and fit, a sculptor, ” says Wilson. “He didn’t do drawings that somebody else translated. He designed everything directly on to the body. That’s how he made things.” In both his couture and ready-to-wear collections his materials were Lycra bandages, smooth velvet, stretch wool and leather – lots of it, moulded or cut like lace by laser or riveted with silver eyelets. Wilson is showing the couture garments, chosen with Alaïa, in themed clusters – velvet, African-inspired, bandage dresses. “You get to see everything in 360 degrees and the groupings mean the viewer gets a better understanding of the craft and the technique,” says Wilson, who has now curated six Alaïa shows. “If you looked at these pieces separately, you would see less how each of them is very special in its own way. You can really see the cuts and seaming and construction, which in other exhibitions you might not be able to appreciate.”
Alaïa saw the exhibition as an installation and asked artists to make screens as a backdrop to his work. “I came up with the idea and Azzedine selected the artists, who include Marc Newson, Tatiana Trouvé and the Bouroullec brothers. Wrapping around the walls is a series of pictures taken by Richard Wentworth, who spent two years documenting Maison Alaïa.
“I make clothes; women make fashion,” the designer said. For Black, the magic of the Alaïa look is that it is timeless. “They are garments that you look fantastic in today, much as you would have done 20 years ago, or will do in 20 years’ time,” she says. “It’s that craftsmanship, the perfection. In the exhibition you do see patterns and dresses that he’s been working on and reworking throughout his career, but in parallel you see very interesting variations of fabric. He’s always bringing innovation in there – the laser-cutting or working with a glass powder that gives fabric an iridescence. There’s innovation as well as a respect of a certain tradition.”
When Michael Jackson made the 1992 video for In the Closet – directed by Herb Ritts, co-starring Naomi Campbell and with a voiceover by Princess Stéphanie of Monaco – Alaïa provided Campbell’s barely there clothes, white crop top and flippy skirt. This was the glitzy stratosphere he inhabited. The designer was made more famous by a line in the 1995 film Clueless when Alicia Silverstone’s fashion-obsessed Cher is robbed at gunpoint and refuses to get to the ground with the immortal words: “You don’t understand, this is an Alaïa!”
But Alaïa himself was not a flashy person. The word most used about him is “humble”. He was kind and empathetic, a friend and guide to many people, including Mark Wilson who knew him for 22 years. “Oh, he was a sweetheart. I loved him,” says Wilson. “We were family. He was my favourite artist and he also opened his home to me.” He was a father figure for Naomi Campbell, who knew him as Papa, and moved into his apartment in Paris when she was 16. The model made a compassionate speech about him at the British Fashion Awards after his death last year: “Back in the day, our fridges weren’t stuffed with food: we bought what we ate on a daily basis and if there was one egg left in his fridge, Papa would offer it to me to make an omelette.”
Born in Tunis, the child of wheat farmers, he studied sculpture before transferring, self-taught, to fashion. He moved to Paris in 1957 and got a job at Christian Dior, but was dismissed after five days for not having the correct papers. After working with Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler he set up on his own, but it wasn’t until 1979 that he opened his own atelier, where he dressed Greta Garbo and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild.
He is perhaps most recognised for dressing the supermodels who bestrode the 1980s and 90s – Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell – as well as the awesome frames of Grace Jones and Stephanie Seymour. The height of these women and his lack of it often proved irresistible to photographers; images of the 5ft 3in Alaïa, towered over by some 6ft super-beauty, possess something of the fairytale. But his clothes were not only for Amazons. The Kardashian sisters, with their curves and gloss, look like they were conceived to wear Alaïa and are devotees. So, too, is his friend the gallerist Carla Sozzani, as was her late sister Franca, who was editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue. Pale blonde Italian waifs, they slipped their slim frames into wide-tiered skirts with flat black shoes so that the architecture of the dresses swung around them like kinetic sculpture.
“He was at the service of women,” says Black. “Some have been his couture clients for a lifetime – once you start wearing Alaïa you just never stop. But even with his ready-to-wear he put so much attention into the structure. They don’t crumple and don’t fall the wrong way. A lot of the women we’ve talked to mention this feeling of empowerment they have while wearing his clothes. When you feel so beautiful, you feel confident and you can go out and take on the world.”
The museum will exhibit a few dresses in the public foyer, alongside photography, as a taster for a wider audience. With a new flagship three-storey Alaïa store recently opened on London’s New Bond Street, this is perhaps the biggest year ever for the once tiny label. Alaïa may have left us, but his legend will endure.
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier is at The Design Museum from 10 May to 7 October (designmuseum.org)