Remembering Azzedine Alaïa ahead of an exhibition dedicated to his couture at London’s Design Museum

As the first major retrospective of Azzedine Alaïa’s work in the UK, the Design Museum’s upcoming exhibition Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier was always going to be special. But following Alaïa’s untimely passing in November last year, the show, which opens next month, will now resonate ever more deeply as his admirers reflect upon the unparalleled position he holds in the history of fashion.

Co-curated by the designer himself alongside Mark Wilson, chief curator of the Groninger Museum, there will be over 60 seminal pieces on view, dating from the early 1980s to his last creations in 2017. These include iconic styles such as the zipped dress, the bandage dress, the corset belt and the stretch body, each one a sublime example of his mastery at contouring the female form. These works will be displayed within architectural interventions by designers that the Tunisian couturier had close relationships with, namely Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Konstantin Grcic, Marc Newson, Kris Ruhs and Tatiana Trouvé. Also on show will be photography by the likes of Ellen von Unwerth and Peter Lindbergh reflecting his life, his passions and his many adoring muses.

While we look forward to Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier, as well as the opening of the first London Alaïa store on New Bond Street next week, Parisian journalist Elisabeta Tudor delves into her archives to share a feature she wrote after being invited to meet Azzedine Alaïa back in 2012. Read on…

“You have to live surrounded by the things and people you love, in this way you keep your memories alive and can forge yourself a strong identity”

A lunch with Azzedine Alaïa

The Paris headquarters of Azzedine Alaïa is as discrete as the designer himself. The three-storey 19th century building on rue de Moussy in the middle of the lively Marais district has a sleek front door, which leads to the boutique. The studio is on the first floor and the designer’s glass-roofed private apartment is on the top. At precisely 1pm each day, a handful of friends, artists, celebrities and employees of the house join Alaïa at his kitchen table. His intimate lunches are famous among the fashion industry - an invite is fashion gold dust. Recent lunch guests include Iman and Kanye West. "I like it when it's crowded. We're always in the studio - me, my team, my friends, people I do not know yet, but who come to introduce themselves. This is how we do things,” says Alaïa, who today has invited me to sit down next to him to enjoy a spread of chicken and green beans. A Saint Bernard dog sleeps quietly at his feet. "You have to live surrounded by the things and people you love, in this way you keep your memories alive and can forge yourself a strong identity.”

It is impressive how much devotion Alaïa inspires, both at his table and beyond. “We do whatever we can to change our dates or cancel other shows [to work for Alaïa] because we all love Azzedine!” Linda Evangelista said in the late 1980s. The womenswear designer is so much so the supermodels' favourite that Veronica Webb and Naomi Campbell even jokingly used to adopt his surname, pretending to be his daughters. But he’s never once courted fame.

Fiercely independent, Alaïa shows his collection at his own pace, shunning the gruelling seasonal fashion week schedules. He does not advertise and rarely gives interviews. Instead, he lets his work speak for itself, collecting a serious list of fans along the way. Customers become friends and friends become family.

No other couturier could afford to decline regular invitations to show at Paris Haute Couture, only to make a comeback after eight years, as he did for AW11, only to win back his pedestal. He stayed true to the style for which connoisseurs love him: shapely forms out of the finest materials, beautifully sculpted on a woman's body. He offered a fresh take on his masterful skills in cutting and draping by playing with textures such as crocodile, Mongolian fur, felted wool and latticework and introduced a new bell shape. His understanding of the female body was ever present in the cinched waist of the coatdresses, tops and jackets, which were paired with pencil and flared skirts in deep shades of teal, red, blue, and plum. I was among the select few invited to the show, alongside Francesco Vezzoli, Sofia Coppola, Victoire de Castellane and Donatella Versace. It took a 10-minute standing ovation, streams of tears from some of those present and the French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand to drag Alaïa on the runway to take a bow.

Is he anti fashion? "I do not think we can say that I am anti-fashion industry. This expression does not suit me. My world is rather in parallel, than anti. The excitement over ready-to-wear fashion has become accustomed to an inhuman pace. There are too many collections. Nobody, even the designers, can keep up anymore," he muses. He showed part of his SS12 collection in October 2011, unveiling the second part in January.

But artistic independence is hard-fought in a time when financial groups are running the fashion houses in the name of profitability. In 2007 he bought back the share of his company he sold to Prada in 2000 (the label is still in partnership with Prada Group for the production of footwear and accessories). Now he is signed with Richemont, the renowned Swiss group of luxury companies. "I'm not against the idea of accessible fashion. Yes, I appreciate companies like H&M because you have to live and be aware of your current world. But this doesn't automatically mean that we should neglect authenticity. I'd rather supervise my collections by myself because I want the job to be done right. I like to look at each piece, even if it takes a long time. We are a small team of 20 people in the studio, I do not spread my creations all over. If a designer delegates too many responsibilities, he loses his own soul," he says. "For the past 30 years, I've been working with the same factory in Italy. What I want to say is that I like to stay safe, to believe in my traditional values. Also, I need to see the materials and manufacturers I'm working with. I could not do without it and hand this job over to another person."

“I do not spread my creations all over. If a designer delegates too many responsibilities, he loses his own soul”

Born in Tunisia in 1940, Alaia arrived in Paris in 1957, having graduated from Tunis Fine Arts where he studied sculpture. He’d learnt sewing by working for a small dressmaker during his holidays. He made friends with well-known personalities of the time such as Marie-Helene de Rothschild and the writers Louise de Vilmorin and André Malraux, who invited him to their dinner parties. At one of these dinners, he met the Countess of Blégiers and started to design her dresses. Making inroads into high society, his clientèle grew. He went on to work for Guy Laroche in order to learn tailoring and then with Thierry Mugler in his atelier.

It may sound effortless but the designer’s early years in fashion were anything but. "At that time it was difficult to get a place to live in Paris if you came from North Africa. Being in France at the end of the Algerian War was very hard. Eventually I got a job at Christian Dior but after five days they told me ‘You can not work here any longer. You're a foreigner.’ I owe everything to the women around me, who were the only ones to protect me."

Is this the reason why Alaïa is so much in love with the idea of turning women into ever-lasting beauties through his work? Does his designer DNA, that earned him both the nicknames "the man who made wearable sexy" and "the king of cling," come from the love these women brought him? Probably. What is certain is that Alaïa sculpts women's clothing with a power and sensuality that allowed him to develop a loyal female following over the last three decades.

"It is with women that you learn fashion. I only talk to men when I can't avoid it anymore," he jokes. One of his first well-known pieces was a black zip up dress he created in the early 1970s for the French actress Arletty. "She represents for me the ideal of the Parisian woman. She was open minded, aware of everything, had a provocative side, and a big mouth that said the words that one never forgets. She was from Courbevoie, in the Parisian suburbs, she has actually ennobled the suburbs, she is better than the Queen of England,” he says, laughing. "I like the current image of the chic and modern woman, this great mix of past and future that you can see out there. That's why I love going into the street and observe unknown women. The street has been democratised, and fashion receives the benefits. There is so much to see out there.”

Alaïa has been constantly inspired by female personality with a strong character. Countless women of power have been unofficial ambassadors of the house of Azzedine Alaïa. In the 1970s, actresses such as Claudette Colbert and Greta Garbo came in incognito to his first tiny first studio on rue de Bellechasse in order to purchase a dress personally adjusted by the designer. "My atelier was small, there were sewing machines everywhere, even in the bathroom,” Alaia reminisces. In the 1980s, it was the top models who knocked on the door, not only for fittings but also to get a hand on their favourite prototypes. Stephanie Seymour-Brant, who affectionately calls Alaïa "Daddy", Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, who used to live in his studio, were an important part of the eclectic life at the atelier on rue de Bellechasse. "It was like a secret club. Only the lucky few had Alaïa in their closets,” said Seymour-Brant.

One of the lucky few was a buyer of Bergdorf Goodman, who helped Alaïa stage his first major show in New York in 1982, where Naomi Campbell also made her modelling debut. This event helped to spark a succession of glorious years. In 1983 Alaïa opened a boutique in Beverly Hills, Neiman Marcus bought his collection for San Francisco, Les créateurs followed in Geneva, as did Browns and Joseph in London. Madonna, Yves Saint-Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn all became enthralled by the designer's perfectly moulded dresses. 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 tricolour draped dress worn by opera singer Jessy Norman at the Bicentennial Parade of the French Revolution, on the Place de la Concorde.

“I like the current image of the chic and modern woman, this great mix of past and future that you can see out there”

Today, Alaïa fits influential first ladies Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni, who proudly wear the designer's wears in public. How does it feel to have the most powerful women in the world at his finger tips? "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 by a normal woman. Every customer is valuable, there is no hierarchy."

After lunch, he gives me a preview of the second part of his SS12 collection. Double layered cotton, a laser perforation system declined from couture, viscose, raffia, crinoline and embossed knits featuring laser perforation and discrete embroideries create cocktail dresses in shades of celadon green, eggshell yellow, nude pink and eternal white. These are timeless pieces that refuse to bend to trends. What is their creator's secret? "I wake up every morning, curious about what I will learn and never regret anything at all."

Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier, 10 May-7 October at the Design Museum, London
The Azzedine Alaïa store is at 39 New Bond Street, London

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Published on 17/04/2018