Azzedine Alaïa – The Last Couturier

On October 3rd, 2017, together with Nowfashion's Contributing Editor Jing Zhang, I was invited to attend a dinner at Monsieur Alaïa's Parisian headquarters. The first time I had the honor to be invited to lunch at his place was on the occasion of his much lauded retrospective curated by his long-time friend Olivier Saillard. This is not just an article; it is first and foremost a love letter to a man who was undoubtedly the greatest Couturier of his generation. 

Azzedine Alaïa – picture by Valerio Mezzanotti for MFF Magazine.

It is quite impressive how much devotion one designer can aspire. “We do whatever we can to change our dates, or cancel other shows, because we all love Azzedine,” stated top model Linda Evangelista, back in the late 80s. The Tunis-born and Paris-based womenswear designer has been undoubtedly the supermodels' favorite, since his breakthrough in the the early 1980s. Even at the opening of his latest retrospective, his eponymous exhibition at Paris' newly opened Galliera Museum, Naomi Campbell would follow his every step. What only few people know, is that Campbell was actually discovered by Alaïa, and used to adopt his last name, jokingly, pretending to be his daughter.

Looking at Alaïa's career nowadays, it seems like nothing has changed – his body-sculpting dresses, timeless style, and excellent craftsmanship are lauded more than ever. In July 2017, Azzedine Alaïa's latest showcased his last and much acclaimed Fall 2017 Haute Couture collection at his fully packed Parisian headquarters. At 7 rue de Moussy, in the middle of the lively Le Marais district in Paris, invited guests arrived at Azzedine Alaïa's headquarters, which served both as studio and apartment to the designer, in order to see his show, the first one in 6 years. No particular announcement was made, no press notes were released, and even the presentation was off-schedule. Needless to say, Azzedine Alaïa has the luxury of swimming against the tide. 

So, how did Azzedine Alaïa, the so-called King of Cling, manage to maintain an unshaken success and respected position as a fashion designer, throughout the past decades, without any type of obvious communication and commercial strategy? "You have to live surrounded by the things and people you love,” explained the designer when we had lunch for the first time. “This is the only way to keep your memories alive, and to forge yourself a strong identity," he added.
And it is indeed impressive, how strong the 'Alaïa DNA' is. One can hardly categorize his collections – their look is quiet sophisticated, and yet timeless, which makes it very hard to attribute them to a particular decade of style. “He approaches his clothes like a sculptor or an architect or a writer, and he often says, 'I make clothes; women make fashion,'” confirmed Olivier Saillard, Musée Galliera Director, and curator of the retrospective. 

Thus, Alaïa's signature style seamlessly developed itself, from one collection to another, always staying true to the elements that made his artisanal take on fashion famous – his zipped dresses, his African inspired patterns, and above all, his second-skin resembling, figure-hugging fabric treatments – without ever following a particular trend or business obligation. 

"I am not 'anti-fashion.' My world is rather in parallel, than anti,” continued Monsieur Alaïa, when asked about his willingness to stay far away from the madding fashion crowds. "The excitement over ready-to-wear fashion has become accustomed to an inhuman pace. There are too many collections. Nobody, even the designers, can follow up anymore," he continued. "That's why we work at our own pace. I'd rather supervise my collections by myself, because I want the job to be done right. I like to work on each piece, even if it takes a long time. We are a small team of twenty people in the studio, but the advantage of creating with a small team is not having to spread your creations all over. If a designer delegates too many responsibilities to somebody else, he loses his own soul."

If fashion itself has never been an inspiration to Alaïa, women definitely were. "It is with women that you learn fashion," he insisted. "I only talk to men, when I can't avoid it anymore," he added, jokingly. From the streets to the catwalk, Azzedine Alaïa has been constantly attributing his designs to strong-minded women. From the early 70s on, unofficial ambassadors, like top model Stephanie Seymour-Brant, and actresses Arletty and Greta Garbo, would queue only to get into his small studio, on rue de Bellechasse, and buy a made-to-measure dress. Seymour-Brant herself confirmed the jet-set's obsession with Azzedine Alaïa. "It was like a secret club. Only the lucky few had Alaïa in their closets." One of the lucky few back then happened to be a buyer of Bergdorf Goodman, who helped Alaïa show his first collection, in 1982, in New York, where Naomi Coampbell also made her modeling debut. 

Following his first ready-to-wear show, the designer slowly but firmly developed his retail activities. In 1983, Alaïa opened a boutique in Beverly Hills, Neiman Marcus bought his collection for San Francisco, Les Créateurs followed in Geneva, not to mention Browns and Joseph in London. Madonna, Grace Jones, Yves Saint-Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, and Audrey Hepburn – the jet-set of the 80s – became his regular clients. In 1985, Alaïa was honoured with two Oscars of Fashion, discerned by the French Ministry of Culture. Four years later, he was commissioned to create the famous tricolor dress, worn by opera singer Jessye Norman, at the Bicentennial Parade of the French Revolution, directed by Jean-Paul Goude, on Place de la Concorde in Paris. Then, almost two decades later, in 2007, he was able to buy back the share that he sold to Prada Group earlier, which was another step that confirmed his achievement and independence as a couturier. 

More recently, the designer signed a contract with the luxury goods holding company, Richemont – even so, the creative and artistic direction of his eponymous brand was to remain in his hands. Alaïa has continued to dress influential women, such as Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni. How does it feel when the most powerful women are at someone’s feet? "It's great to meet such personalities. But to be honest, I don't really care if my dresses are worn by Michelle and Carla, or rather by a poor woman. Every customer is valuable; there is no hierarchy."

The same humble concept was applied to his last restrospective at Musée Galliera in 2014: no hierarchy was allowed in the way his creations were exhibited and displayed. Together with set designer, Martin Szekely, Alaïa and Olivier Saillard exhibited a selection of seventy iconic designs. From the designer's iconic zipper dresses, and his silky cape gowns, made famous by Grace Jones, over to his reputed rayon striped long dress, called 'Houpette,' this exhibition retraces Alaïa's unique career. A career that has always been successful, due to his immense creativity, dedication, and humility – and his name will certainly continue to be THE reference, even after his death. "I wake up every morning, curious about what I will learn today, and never regretting anything at all," he concluded before saying goodbye and adding that I "should come back for lunch soon". Rest in peace, Monsieur Alaïa.