AZZEDINE ALAïA THE COUTURIER
It could be said that Azzedine Alaïa revelled in his role as the fashion world´s great outsider. The Tunisian Couturier was permanently dressed in his go-to uniform of head to toe black whilst he went about his daily affairs of disregarding the mainstream fashion calendars in favour of upholding the traditions of Haute Couture, as he saw it. From his first runway show in 1987 to his last, just before his death in 2017, Alaïa´s work has always kindled esteem and excitement within the industry. His trademark ´second skin dressing´ of body hugging and sensuous clothing earned him the nickname of ´the King of Cling´, thanks to his love and experimentation of precision cut leathers and uncompromising stretch fabrics. These are materials which he would fashion and mould into almost perfect body stockings from a trade he learned years back during his time spent with an array of great couturiers that he not only studied under, but greatly admired; namely Charles James, Madeleine Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga.
Alaïa gave his ideas life and form by draping and thinking firstly with his hands – feeling the material, understanding the material and seeing how the material would lie across the female form, in its rawest form. For hours upon end, he would drape, cut and pin his fabrics onto ´his girls´ – a clan of statuesque Supermodels with whom he loved to work and socialise. His marriage of technical excellence and his acumen on exactly how women want to feel when they wear his clothes made him in fashion designers terms, ´the Maestro´s Maestro.´ He was once overheard as saying ¨I make clothes, but women make fashion.¨ His followers certainly did, thanks to his talents he saw the likes of Lady Gaga, Grace Jones, Tina Turner, Rihanna and his muse Naomi Campbell fronting his latest collections each and every season.
“His obsession through his sculptural, almost architectural like aesthetic was to make women beautiful. When you design with that as a philosophy, clothes can’t go out of fashion.” – Charles Daniel McDonald
Retaining a unity of approach and a uniquely uncompromising aesthetic, Alaïa’s most important collections are assembled within the exhibition to unveil ideas and notions that he remastered and perfected over his reign. Not surprising, Alaïa’s use of black – his most widely used and favourite colour acts as the protagonist in all areas of his collections and indeed the retrospective. Alaïa believed that if he limited the colour palette, then this would leave him nowhere to hide and this in turn would bring forward his indulgence to develop the purest of expressions in his ideals of structure. As his explorations in volume and shape intensified, he remained solely focused on adhering to his own goals and perfection instead of some third hand industry regulated fashion calendar.
As well as providing a comprehensive retrospective of his principal collections and their underlying design philosophies, Azzedine Alaïa – The Couturier also includes complimentary Architectural elements from collaborates with whom he worked and admired. This collaboration period came to fruition around 2008 which was a turbulent time for every industry in the big city. Consequential factors such as the financial crash, political engagements and protest movements meant that people were more socially conscious than they had perhaps ever been within that generation. This hunger and interest also found its way to be conveyed into the creative industries thanks to the mediums of graphic design; from protest badges and banners to election propaganda, these also played a prominent role within the fashion industry as it is often through graphics and fashion that our hopes and fears are exercised, then brought to life by whichever medium we feel the most confident in addressing them.
“I refuse to do things that I don’t want to. I do what I want. I am free.” – Azzedine Alaïa
This decade also bore witness to the rise and rise of a holistic marketing concept called social media. International and highly engaging ´digital platforms´ such as Facebook and Twitter made it more manageable than ever to distribute and saturate politics and propaganda. The lapidation and irony of secondary visual communications such as the ´Internet Meme´ meant that if something was of specific interest and picked up on a current trend, then this could be viewed by millions of people once it had achieved virality. Thanks to these notions, even today, anyone can produce such political graphics and successfully target a global audience; making grassroots activists a very real and volatile challenge to political establishments.
Organised in three sections – ‘Power’, ‘Protest’ and ‘Personality’ – ´Hope to Nope´ explores the different roles of graphic design in political discourse. It begins with the Hope poster designed by Shepard Fairey for Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, which inspired countless imitations including the Donald Trump ´Nope´ meme. The exhibition includes significant graphic stories from across the political spectrum, but endorses no particular political point of view. Rather, it examines how graphics give both the powerful and the marginalised a voice.
Art came first, for me.
¨Azzedine Alaïa originally trained as a sculptor at the School of Fine Art in Tunis, and the couturier always considered his clothing in sculptural terms. Uniquely in the world of fashion, he used his own hands to give his creations form, shaping and moulding fabric as others would use marble or clay. In turn, Alaïa’s garments sculpted and reshaped the female body, consistently deploying unexpected materials to achieve their goals.
At Alaïa, metal is transformed into a textile both magical and mercurial, a theme that runs from his earliest collections to his final haute couture show in July 2017. Metal is used to blur boundaries: steel eyelets lend an airy lightness to leather, or a strength and weight to chiffon, and zips replace decoration. Here, metal is pushed even further. Nailhead studs invent animal patterns on leather and python skin, while chainmail links become more transparent than chiffon in a piece devised in the last months of Alaïa’s life. A constant theme of Alaïa’s work is challenge – he challenged himself, the craftspeople who worked with him and the materiality of the world around him.¨
Decoration And Structure
Material can trigger a form.
¨A trademark of Azzedine Alaïa’s work was to avoid surface embellishment such as embroidery or applied decoration – symbolic elements of haute couture over the past half century. Instead, Alaïa keyed pattern into the very fabric of his garments, making it an integral part of their structure. These decorations alter the form of a garment and change its weight.
His use of lace and perforated fabrics, especially broderie anglaise and punched or lasercut leather, recall the mashrabiya (porous screens) of Arab architecture, reflecting Alaïa’s love of ancient culture and his Northern African childhood. They are also reminiscent of the chiaroscuro (light and shade) effects explored in 1930s and 1940s films, of which Alaïa was an ardent fan. His lace garments are frequently lined in painstakingly dyed, flesh-coloured fabrics to add to an illusion of idealised stage nudity.¨
Leather is a material I sometimes wanted to make more feminine, more delicate, and more fragile. I treated it in the same way as other haute couture fabrics.
¨Azzedine Alaïa’s use of leather was revolutionary. He translated it from a fabric of rebellion, of sexual and societal transgression, into one of utmost elegance. The first garment that garnered Alaïa international attention was a leather coat. Studded with eyelets and presented in 1981, this coat foreshadowed the hard-edged style that defined the coming decade.
Alaïa returned to leather constantly throughout his career – he challenged the boundaries of the material, imbuing it with the fluidity of chiffon and cutting it into garments for which it had not previously been used, such as flounced skirts and bras. His use of leather, combined with utilitarian metal detailing as the sole means of decoration, evokes industrial design, of which Alaïa was a passionate admirer. He elevated leather the way the designer and engineer Jean Prouvé elevated raw sheet metal – transforming the simple into the sublime.¨
Making the right volume is a technique that is just as complex as any other. It demands good mathematics.
¨The mastery with which Azzedine Alaïa invented and deployed stretch fabrics earned him the nickname the ‘King of Cling’ in the 1980s. But Alaïa’s interest in the hyper-fitted form was by no means single-minded – it expressed a fascination with exploring volume, creating sculptural shapes that could redefine a woman’s body. This idea is pushed to the extreme in these voluminous ball gowns.
These styles also underline Alaïa’s life-long fascination with fashion history and his respect for the past. These pieces re-examine the grandeur of costume in the 17th and 18th centuries, re-imagining their shapes and effects through contemporary technologies and attitudes to the body. They are not a revival, but a re-evaluation. Alaïa’s volume is achieved through intricate technique. Echoing the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, he seldom used internal structures such as boning or petticoats, instead exploring the qualities of the fabrics themselves to achieve deceptively complex shapes that float weightlessly around the body.¨
Other Places, Other Cultures
I have a lot of African art. I love African sculpture, objects. It´s a passion.
¨At the start of the 20th century, the influence of Africa redefined the way artists represented the human form. Its power also turned Azzedine Alaïa to the continent for inspiration. This was both a celebration of his own Tunisian culture, and an idea of Africa, evoked by colour or textile. For Alaïa, Africa was about life, not aesthetics, and he avoided obvious cultural references in his work. However, his interest in animal patterns, a Saharan palette of dusty hues and a use of unusual materials such as flax rope, raffia, shells or Nile crocodile skin, is intimately tied to both the reality and the fantasy of Africa.
When working late into the night, Alaïa’s favoured viewing was the National Geographic channel. ‘I travel only in my chair,’ he used to say. Nevertheless, his childhood in Tunis influenced his work on a fundamental level: Alaïa knew first-hand the experience of dressing in extreme heat. He often incorporated patterned perforations or openwork seams (such as faggoting) into his garments, to encourage air to circulate and cool the body.¨
The first fashion I remember was Velazquez – Las Meninas.
¨Azzedine Alaïa’s work is marked by fervent curiosity about other places, cultures and customs. The influence of Spain, just across the Mediterranean from his native North Africa, emerges again and again. Alaïa’s earliest fashion memories were of the girls in Diego Left; Other places, other cultures. Right; Spanish accent G Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas. The volume of Alaïa’s ball gowns evoke the formality of the guardainfante – the hooped gowns of the 17th-century Spanish royal court. He also cited the influence of Francisco de Zurbarán, an artist who inspired the great Spanish-born couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, to whom Alaïa is considered the natural successor.
Alongside such solemn courtly portraits, Alaïa was also inspired by the vibrancy of Spanish folk costume. This trio of dresses is based on a style originally used in his 2011 haute couture collection, but reinvented here in dynamic shades of emerald, cerise and cyclamen. In his trademark knit jacquard fabric (here embroidered with micro sequins), Alaïa’s flamenco-inspired ruffles, explored since the 1980s in various fabrics, are given energy and movement.¨
I like black, because for me, it´s a very happy colour.
¨Azzedine Alaïa’s sense of colour was highly refined, yet often overlooked. Others often reduced his output to the little black dress, of which he was, admittedly, the master. Alaïa favoured camels, soft greys and browns that resemble animal hide, alongside more occasional shades such as olive or khaki, magenta, teal and burgundy. But black was the Alaïa’s favourite colour. He would use it on its own, combining multiple fabrics in a single garment to explore their different textual qualities. He would also panel bright colours with veils of black chiffon, to achieve a subtler colouring that varied according to the movement of a dress.
Black often reduced Alaïa’s complex, painstaking work to a graphic silhouette, disguising the extent of his labour – you had to look closer at a black dress to appreciate its workmanship. But Alaïa himself said, ‘I prefer people to notice the woman and not her clothes’. The anonymity of black focused attention not on Alaïa as a creator but on the women wearing his creations. It allowed his dresses to ‘disappear’, reduced to an idealised, perfectly crafted form.¨
There is sensuality about fabric. I think all materials should be inviting when they touch the skin. When I watch children stroking their mother’s clothes, I feel that I have succeeded.
¨Combining sensuality with nobility, Azzedine Alaïa prized velvet for its lustrous surface and tactility, for its innate ability to hide a complex web of seams in its pile, and for its connections to the richness of the past. Alaïa often used velvet in black, but also jewel-like tones of ruby red or deep blue reminiscent of Renaissance dresses. Alaïa succeeded in modernising velvet and lightening the fabric. He created featherweight stretch velour knits that mimicked the nap of velvet, and semi-transparent velvet that seemed like a hybrid with chiffon.
These garments are presented on a series of dress forms designed by Alaïa himself. Originally based on the proportions of the supermodel Naomi Campbell, over the years Alaïa transformed these mannequins, turning them into sculptural objects in their own right. Every tweak in proportion required the garments to be entirely reconstructed, their patterns redrafted. In their final incarnation, these figures are elongated to resemble both the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti and the exaggerated proportions of fashion illustrations.¨
Fragility And Strength
When I´m working on a garment, it has to flow all over the body.
¨Testing the inherent properties of materials was an obsession for Azzedine Alaïa. At times, he so wilfully went against the conventional use of a specific textile, it became a game. Just as he gave fluidity to leather, velvet and metal, Alaïa gave chiffon strength – cutting it with razor sharpness to dissect the body. Used in his collections since the 1980s, when Alaïa laid translucent chiffon against naked skin with startling erotic effect, he also looked for contrast and contradiction in his use of this soft, delicate fabric.
His most compelling work turns chiffon into a fabric with a hard, predatory sex appeal – even when softly draped, the flourishes of Alaïa’s cut strip the chiffon of any innocence. An Alaïa chiffon dress is as powerful as a tailored suit. These garments also express Alaïa’s technical prowess – a delicate fabric with specific demands, chiffon must be finely handled and specially seamed, but there is nothing tentative in Alaïa’s use of chiffon as a material for seduction.¨
There is an evolution, but fashion hasn´t changed so much. The body is the most important thing.
¨Azzedine Alaïa was always interested in the intemporelle (timeless). He constantly quoted from ancient cultures, updating these ideas with modern techniques and fabrics, reengineering them for today’s women. Alaïa sometimes described himself as a bâtisseur (builder), stating, ‘If anything, my work comes closest to architecture’. There is a kinship between Alaïa’s inspiration from the ancient world and architecture’s use of neoclassical style, reinventing the ideal proportions of Greek and Roman villas for modern life.
Alaïa believed in eternal beauty, not fashion’s constant fluctuations. His work was also influenced by earlier Parisian couturiers, such as Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975) and Alix Grès (1903–93), who also drew on ancient civilisations. Alaïa collected their work to use as reference points for his own explorations. Other creations reference armour – his moulded shapes, which Alaïa himself compared to bas-relief sculpture recall cuirass (joined breastplate and backplate) armour and idealise the form of the body without nudity.¨
I had used stretch materials for years to shape the inside of garments I made for private clients. Then I just started using them on my own.
¨Azzedine Alaïa’s innovations in stretch fabrics were at least as important as his elevation of leather. In his hands, these transformed the silhouette of the wearer. Rather than creating clothes anchored at strategic points – conventionally, the waist and the shoulders – Alaïa’s bandage dresses cling to the wearer’s form, conscious of the entire body. The stretch fabric allows these minimal silhouettes to move freely.
Debuted in 1986, these variations on the ‘Bandelette’ (bandage) dress are clearly inspired by ancient Egyptian mummification, but also perhaps by the swaddling of infants. The garments join Western and Eastern traditions – highly fitted and precision-cut, with a body simply and sensually wrapped in cloth. The dresses seem simple, but each band of fabric is precisely engineered and cut to specific dimensions, according to its place on the figure. These creations ushered in the notion of physique-delineating ‘bodycon’ dressing, the defining aesthetic of the early 1990s.¨
Article: Charles Daniel McDonald
Quotations: Azzedine Alaia
Photography: The Design Museum London / Azzedine Alaia