Tunisian-born couturier Azzedine Alaïa has an extraordinary talent for designing garments that set the trends others will likely follow. A modest man, he refers to himself as a builder, not a designer. “I make clothes, women make fashion”, said the Paris-based designer.
During his more than 40 years in fashion, Alaïa has been the recipient of countless awards and now the Palais Galliera has honored him with an exhibition that celebrates not only his creative genius, but also the opening of the newly restored galleries of the legendary building. The exhibit features 70 iconic pieces that illustrate the whole of its oeuvre. The show will remain on view until January 26 at Palais Galliera and at the Matisse gallery of Paris’ Museum of Modern Art.
“We’ve divided the show up into Azzedine ‘eras,’ with a section of African-inspired macrame, black leather, a series of white dresses that start with a white shirt and wind up with different materials in bas-relief, dresses that wrap around the body, and Alaïa’s most important suits”, explains Olivier Saillard, director of Palais Galliera and curator of the exhibition.
Alaïa was born to a family of wheat farmers in Tunisia and was raised by his grandparents. At the age of 15, he enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in his native country. He moved to Paris in 1957, where he worked as a tailor for Christian Dior. Later he also worked for Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler until the 1970s, when he decided to open his first atelier in his apartment on rue de Bellechasse. From this small atelier, he dressed, privately and discretely and during 20 years, women as elegant as Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, Louise de Vilmorin and Greta Garbo, who used to arrive incognito for her fittings.
Although the designer is celebrated by his peers and adored by the public, he remains reserved and avoids the media. Her rarely gives interviews and shies away from appearing at his fashion shows. Alaïa presents his collections after the end of Paris Fashion Week and prefers to work at his own pace, sometimes bypassing shows for a year. “I only launch a collection when I think I’m ready. A good idea should not depend on the seasons”, says the designer who plays by his own rules, rather than ones created by the fashion industry.
In 1988, Azzedine Alaïa presented, under the artistic direction of Jean-Paul Goude, a spectacular collection that shook the fashion world. He is responsible for discovering super models Stephanie Seymour, Linda Spiring, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Veronica Webb, and Jasmine Le Bon. To this day, they remain his friends, admirers and clients. “We are willing to make whatever schedule changes are necessary, even cancel shows, to work with Azzedine”, says Evengelista.
Alaïa says one should live surrounded by the things and people one adores because that way “we can build a strong identity concordant with our memories”. From one collection to the next, Alaïa’s characteristic style reveals the secrets that rest in his mind. His knowledge of sculpture is evident, but his pieces are also informed by the history of cinema, as well as African and Egyptian art.
The female form is accentuated by pieces that envelop the body and allow women to be comfortable in their own skin. He is one of the few designers who master all aspects behind a single garment. Able to make the pattern, create volumes, cut, sew, and adjust the fabrics, each stich exactly where and how it should be, his creations don’t restrict movement. Instead they allow women to move freely, a trick he learned while designing costumes for the legendary Parisian nightclub, Le Crazy Horse. Victoria Beckham, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Sofia Coppola, Grace Jones and Rihanna are among the women who come to the designer for their special occasions.
Azzedine Alaïa does not follow fashion; he creates it. His single source of inspiration is the female body . Just like a sculptor, he needs to have a model in front to create his incomparable dresses. In a way, he is only truthful when he speaks about himself as a creator. Alaïa is not as interested in design as he is in making pieces that express the natural elegance of women. ■