He was small in stature, but he was an exalted giant in the world of fashion. Azzedine Alaïa was the wizard who fashioned wearable works of art for the likes of Greta Garbo, Grace Jones, Michelle Obama, Tina Turner, Lady Gaga and the Crazy Horse girls. And an exhibition, Azzedine Alaïa : The Couturier, co-curated by Alaïa before he died in November last year, has opened at the Design Museum. It’s a thrilling display of 60 rare and iconic pieces from the early 1980s to 2017, and it will be sure to please lovers of fashion, architecture, design and art.
Azzedine Alaïa was more than a fashion designer. He was a sculptor, a master craftsman who would drape and cut his creations directly onto his models. He tooled the zipped dress, the bandage dress, the corset belt, the stretch body and perforated leather. His designs are considered timeless: to own an Alaïa dress is to own an heirloom.
“My obsession is to make women beautiful. When you create with that in mind, things can’t go out of fashion.”
And whilst Versace gets the credit for inventing the supermodel, fashion critic Suzy Menkes explains that Alaïa was way ahead of him: models would cancel bookings for the chance to walk for the Tunisian tailor. Superstars of the 1990s would consider it an homage to model his clothes in intimate shows: Naomi Campbell, Yasmin Le Bon, Christy Turlington, Janice Dickinson and Claudia Schiffer would strut at the drop of a hat.
When Naomi Campbell was sixteen years old and had just arrived in Paris, a thief stole her passport and wallet. She was introduced to Alaïa that day who immediately took her under his wing. He called Campbell’s mother, promising to look after her. She moved in with him, becoming a surrogate daughter, and henceforward referred to Alaïa as ‘Papa.’
Grace Jones’s May Day, my favourite Bond villain from A View to a Kill, was dressed by Alaïa. The designer was great friends with Jones: she once carried the diminutive designer on-stage to collect an award.
In 1979, Alain Bernardin, founder of the Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse, asked Alaïa to create 23 costumes for the dancers. This is where the designer would learn how to work with the “fesse,” or the female backside. He would go on to create costumes for Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro, and for Angelin Prelijocaj’s ballet, Les Nuits.
Catch me if you can… Specially commissioned architectural screens by Alaïa’s closest friends line the exhibition space, and photographs by Richard Wentworth capture the detail and texture of Azzedine Alaïa’s production.
Fifty shades of black. Alaïa loved black, living in his trademark attire of dark Chinese pyjamas. “I like black, because for me it is a very happy colour.”
The iconic bandage dresses. I imagine that if Alaïa had only had cling film and packing tape as his tools, he would somehow still have managed to forge a thing of beauty. I have no idea how you could get into (or out) of one of these beauties, but boy would I like to own one.
Azzedine Alaïa : The Couturier is at The Design Museum is on from 10 May to 07 October 2018.
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