Azzedine Alaia: the Couturier opened in London’s Design Museum this week. It commemorates the incredible career of a designer who, during his lifetime, was recognised as a master couturier who redefined fashion.
Unique in the world of fashion, Alaïa used his own hands to give his creations form, shaping and moulding fabric as others would use marble or clay - he studied sculpture at the School of Fine Art in Tunis and always considered his clothing in sculptural terms. The mastery with which he invented and deployed stretch fabrics to sculpt and shape the female body earned him the nickname the ‘King of Cling’ in the 1980s.
Other signatures of Alaïa’s work include his use of lace and perforated fabrics, especially broderie anglaise and punched or laser-cut leather. He embedded pattern into the very fabric of his garments, and with complicated and intricate layering made it an integral part of their structure.
Known to favour black above all colours, even personally, Alaïa’s designs also avoided surface embellishment such as embroidery or applied decoration.
The grouping of garments spans 11 themes, from "Sculptural Tension" and "Wrapped Forms" to "Black Silhouettes" and "Timelessness", illustrating Alaïa’s overarching trajectory and consistency in style. Each theme showcases technically complex garments that fuse cutting-edge technology with techniques that date back to the 19th century.
Ignoring the fashion calendar, Alaïa followed his own singular vision within the industry, defining a new silhouette for the modern woman in the process.
“There is an evolution, but fashion hasn’t changed so much. The body is the most important thing”
The exhibition was conceived and co-curated by Alaïa and his longterm collaborator Mark Wilson, chief curator of the Groninger Museum. It features images from Richard Wentworth taken at Maison Alaïa that depict the precise dedication behind each and every seam.
Alaïa held strong friendships with all kinds of practitioners working in other creative disciplines: artists, dancers, musicians and designers were all regulars at Maison Alaïa, sharing meals and ideas over legendary get-togethers. Here, his work is shown against a backdrop of specially commissioned screens from five leading designers. Made from metal and glass, they intersect Alaïa’s work to create new artistic dialogues and expressions in the space.
Subtle curation allows garments to take center stage. Dresses seductively envelop mannequin forms first conceived by the designer in 1996 and based on the proportions of life-long friend, supermodel Naomi Campbell. Over the years, Alaïa transformed these mannequins, turning them into sculptural objects in their own right. Here, these forms are elongated to resemble both the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti and the exaggerated proportions of fashion illustrations.
“We commissioned the screens and came up with the plan together,” curator Mark Wilson explains to ORDRE at the exhibition opening. “Actually, it was really instinctual, and in each place the process is completely different. There was a synergy here with the store opening [in London] and the plan just came together.”
On the stunning body forms, Wilson adds, “he developed these mannequins back in 1996, and for me, using them now is a win/win victory. When I saw these, well that’s when I thought - this guy is a classicist!”
Azzedine Alaïa began his career in haute couture - briefly at Christian Dior, then at Guy Laroche, after which he established his own maison, creating made-to-order clothes for clients. As well as RTW, the house continues to create one-off garments for discerning customers who commit to at least three lengthy fittings to ensure a perfect fit.
Azzedine Alaia: the Couturier runs until 7 October, 2018
Main Image: Carla Sozzani & Azzedine Alaia, 2007, Paris Minesota project: Alec Soth