In 1988, I got invited to a party thrown by the model agency that represented Linda Spierings, a well-known model who is friends with Azzedine Alaïa. I still had my own boutique for which I’d designed a collection enriched with embroidery of Arabic writing that season. To be sure nothing offending would appear in embroidery on the clothes, I’d copied words of a Marlboro advertisement (these were the days before internet…..).
The collection was a success and the night of the party I was wearing one of the embroidered jackets. Azzedine was dancing with Linda, when we bumped into each other at the dance floor. He looked at my jacket and got a huge smile on his face…. I didn’t dare to ask him what I had embroidered on the jacket, but because of his smile, I knew it was ok.
Azzedine & Linda Spierings
Embroidered jacket, 1988. Ph. Carel Fonteyne
He dares to speak his mind
Azzedine Alaïa has earned an unusual degree of autonomy within the fashion industry. He shows when he wants and when he is ready — not when there’s a fashion week on the schedule. He does the same with his seasonal deliveries. He doesn’t advertise, and doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about editorial mentions, either. For this congenial contrarianism, Alaïa has earned the admiration of many an influential fashion critic.
So here’s his unvarnished take on Anna Wintour: “She runs the business (Vogue US) very well, but not the fashion part. When I see how she is dressed, I don’t believe in her tastes one second. I can say it loudly! She hasn’t photographed my work in years even if I am a best seller in the U.S. and I have 140 square meters at Barneys. American women love me; I don’t need her support at all. Anna Wintour doesn’t deal with pictures; she is just doing PR and business, and she scares everybody. But when she sees me, she is the scared one. [Laughs.] Other people think like me, but don’t say it because they are afraid that Vogue won’t photograph them. Anyway, who will remember Anna Wintour in the history of fashion? No one. Take Diana Vreeland, she is remembered because she was so chic. What she did with the magazine was great.”
Anna Wintour & Karl Lagerfeld
In 2009, Wintour presided over an exhibition at the Met that celebrated “The Model As Muse,” and Alaïa, who is well-known for his enduring friendships with (particularly) the 90s supermodels, was excluded. (Naomi Campbell refused to attend the Met Ball in protest.) At the time, Alaïa said of Wintour, “she behaves like a dictator and everyone is terrified of her…but I’m not scared of her or anyone.”
Alaïa also isn’t such a big fan of Karl Lagerfeld. In the same new interview, he says: “I don’t like his fashion, his spirit, his attitude. It’s too much caricature. Karl Lagerfeld never touched a pair of scissors in his life. That doesn’t mean that he’s not great, but he’s part of another system. He has capacity. One day he does photography, the next he does advertisements for Coca-Cola. I would rather die than see my face in a car advertisement. We don’t do the same work.”
Born June 7, 1939 in Tunisia, Azzedine Alaïa’s family were wheat farmers. His glamorous twin sister inspired in him an early love for couture and it was whilst assisting the famous midwife Madame Pinot, a close friend of the family, that Alaïa learnt about fashion. Madame Pinot enrolled him at the École des Beaux-Arts to study sculpture where he discovered what was to be his lifelong inspiration, the beauty and symmetry of the human form.
In 1957 the young Alaïa moved to France and began work at Dior as a tailleur but due to ill feeling centered on the Algerian war his tenure was limited to 5 days. He soon met Madame Simone Zehrfuss and Louise de Vilmorin who introduced him to the cream of Parisian society and were pivotal in him gaining his illustrious list of private clients. Alaïa worked under the patronage of the Comtesse de Blégiers, producing gowns exclusively for her for 5 years. He then moved to Guy Laroche to learn tailoring and after this he worked alongside his friend Thierry Mugler.
Azzedine & Naomi Campbell
In the late 1970s Alaïa settled in his famously small apartment on the Rue de Bellechasse. From here he ran his tiny atelier as a secret word of mouth concern, dressing the world’s jet set from Marie-Hélène de Rothschild to Greta Garbo, who used to come incognito for her fittings.
He produced his first ready-to-wear collection in 1980 and moved to larger premises on rue du Parc-Royal in the Marais district. When interior designer Andrée Putman was walking down Madison Avenue with one of the first Alaïa leather coats, she was stopped by a Bergdorf Goodman buyer who asked her what she was wearing, which began a turn of events that lead to his designs being sold in New York and in Beverly Hills.
In the 1980s when most of the fashion world was embracing sharp shouldered power dressing and baggy androgyny Alaïa introduced the world to the ‘body’ and to his own skin-tight mini skirts and dresses. Truly a showcase for the perfect human form, his ‘bodycon’ look sat alongside the more masculine power suits of the decade. Alaïa was voted Best Designer of the Year and Best collection of the Year at the Oscars de la Mode by the French Ministry of Culture in 1984 in a memorable event where Jamaican singer Grace Jones carried him in her arms on stage.
Azzedine & Grace Jones
As Suzy Menkes said in 1991 “If there were any justice in this (fashion) world, Azzedine Alaïa would be a worldwide household name, instead of a cult hero. It is 10 years since the small, shy, Tunisian-born designer launched the body-conscious stretch looks that have defined the way an entire generation dresses and become the fashion revolution of the last decade”.
During the mid 1990s, following the death of his sister, Alaïa virtually disappeared from the fashion scene but continued to cater for private clients and his RTW collections enjoyed continuing commercial success. He presented his collections in the heart of the Marais where he had brought together his workshop, showroom and Azzedine Alaïa shop. His return to the limelight in 2000 saw a departure from his super sexy 80s heyday and his new look was described as “much more sober, almost Amish in comparison”.
Catherine Lardeur, the former editor and chief of French Marie Claire in the 1980s, who also helped to launch Jean-Paul Gaultier’s career, stated in an interview to Crowd Magazine that ” Fashion is dead. Designers nowadays do not create anything, they only make clothes so people and the press would talk about them. The real money for designers lie within perfumes and handbags. It is all about image. Alaïa remains the king. He is smart enough to not only care about having people talk about him. He only holds fashion shows when he has something to show, on his own time frame. Even when Prada owned him (2000-2007), he remained free and did what he wanted to do.”
Azzedine Alaïa & Tina Turner
Alaïa’s lack of interest in self promotion is legendary. He never learnt English and even at the height of his fame he was known to show his collection up to three weeks late, long after the international fashion pack had moved on from Paris. Without a thought for producing show stopping outfits or the next ‘it’ bag he is revered for his independence and discreet luxury.
A tireless craftsman Alaïa is famous for his extensive research into new materials and new ways of cutting and shaping them. He cuts many patterns himself and often finishes garments by hand. Alaïa drapes directly onto the body, ensuring the perfect fit. It has been said that once a girl has worn an Alaïa anything else seemed simply ‘too big’. There is always a fit model present in his atelier, available 24 hours a day, a role once filled by a young Naomi Campbell.
Owing much to Madame Vionnet, the great tailleur of the 1920s famed for her introduction of bias cut dresses, Alaïa uses the same lingerie inspired sewing techniques along with seaming and stitching usually reserved for corsetry. Combined with malleable elastic fabrics this allows for maximum body control and sex appeal in his clothes. He avoids vulgarity by utilizing a range of muted colours and expert tailoring, lace is backed with skin coloured fabric to give the illusion of exposure. Alaïa’s garments are created using old tailoring techniques yet he has always taken full advantage of developments in fabric construction embracing modern fabrics such as lycra, jersey and viscose.
Azzedine Alaïa was named Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur by the French government in 2008.
In 2011 Alaïa was asked to become the head of Dior after John Galliano’s departure. He expressed himself to be flattered but not interested in the role.
Exhibition autumn 2013
Photos by Peter Lindbergh featuring Lindsey Wixson, 2013
Palais Galliera, Museum of Fashion in Paris, Autumn 2013
Designed for the reopening of the Galliera Museum, the exhibition provides the first retrospective in Paris dedicated to couturier Azzedine Alaïa. After studying at the School of Fine Arts in Tunis, Alaïa arrived in Paris during the 1950s and quickly became a noble artisan himself, perfecting Parisian elegance. He mastered his craft by remaining close to his clients, whom he seduced with custom-made garments in the great tradition of Chic. In the 60s and 70s, he developed wardrobes for famous personalities such as Louise de Vilmorin, Arletty and Greta Garbo.
He followed a creative method that allowed him to free himself from dictates and rules, confirming his talent as a visionary. He was recognised by the media in the 1980s as his work stood out as particularly noteworthy during that decade. A true plastic surgeon who only used his scissors on chiffon and leather, Alaïa sculpted a new body. By inventing novel morphologies for clothes through the simple play of seams, Alaïa became the couturier of a timeless body of work. His influence on contemporary fashion and all generations of creators and couturiers is fundamental.