This post is a visit to an amazing exhibition that I went to a few years ago, all about the amazing couturier Azzedine Alaïa. I posted this on my old blog, so I thought I’d repurpose it for my lovely readers, just in case you missed it the first time. It’s such a fabulous exhibition and an extensive collection of Alaïa’s work. So without further ado, Azzedine Alaïa: Couturier, enjoy!
I make clothes, women make fashionAzzedine Alaïa
Who was Azzedine Alaïa?
Born in Tunis, Tunisia in 1935, Azzedine Alaïa was a bit of a fashion rebel. Ignoring the collections calendar, he stayed loyal to his true love of creating and upholding the traditions of Haute Couture. He knew what he liked to design and refused to conform to trends in his work. Studying at the School of Fine Arts in Tunis before moving to Paris to work briefly at Christian Dior during Yves Saint Laurent’s tenure, it is clear to see where his love of couture began. He deeply admired couturiers Madeline Vionnet, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Charles James and this was reflected in the fine finishing of his work. Being a lover of figure and form, he was a purveyor of the aptly named ‘second-skin dressing’ and he was known for experimenting with stretch materials and leathers as a result. His work meant he had nowhere to hide; he used a simple colour palette and quite often chose black for his garments letting his talented craftsmanship do the talking. He created beautiful garments for beautiful women, concentrating on elegance, sensuality and making women feel beautiful and empowered. Alaïa sadly passed away in November 2017, but had a hand in the curation of this exhibition; his presence is felt throughout and his designs have certainly stood the test of time, blurring the lines between haute couture and ready-to-wear, he was an exceptional talent.
The exhibition was split up into sections, so I have arranged my photos accordingly to give a better feel for how it looked in the room, with a little bit of information about each section.
Alaïa’s artistic education began when he trained as a sculptor in Tunis. He manipulated fabrics in a way that most sculptors would manipulate clay or marble. Working with his hands, he moulded his fabrics and often used unusual and difficult materials, such as metal and leather in his garments.
Decoration & Structure
Avoiding the preconceived rules of haute couture, Alaïa preferred to use materials that were patterned such as lace or broderie anglaise in his designs as opposed to the traditional use of applied decoration. Lining his lace garments with dyed, flesh-coloured fabrics created an added illusion of nudity and sensuality.
I think the following quote from the exhibition guide really helps to sum up Alaïa’s use of leather:
Leather is a material I sometimes wanted to male more feminine, more delicate, more fragile. I treated it in the same way as other haute couture fabrics.Azzedine Alaïa
I absolutely adore the nude, neutral coloured leather dress from this collection-it is the epitome of femininity! Alaïa used leather in many of his designs throughout his career, but in a way that challenged its usual connotations of rebellion or sex. By working with the material alongside softer fabrics such as chiffon, he constantly challenged the boundaries of the material, thus presenting it in many unexpected forms.
Known more for his figure-hugging creations, you may initially find it rather unusual that Alaïa also enjoyed exploring volume. Conveying both his respect of fashion history and the grandeur of costume, it is also clear in these pieces how much Alaïa respected the work of Balenciaga.
Other Places, Other Cultures
Alaïa’s Tunisian cultural influences cemented a strong relationship to African culture, often reflected in his work. Avoiding stereotypes, he preferred to reflect Africa as a lifestyle through use of unusual materials such as flax rope, raffia, shells or crocodile skin in his garments.
Alaïa often represented other cultures in his work, with influences from Spain appearing again and again throughout his fashion history. The gowns shown here are a loose representation of traditional flamenco-inspired Spanish dress. This style originally featured in his 2011 haute couture collection but has been reimagined in more vibrant and dynamic shades.
Azzedine Alaïa: Couturier, Black Silhouettes
Black was Alaïa’s preferred colour and featured heavily in his work, both combined with brighter colours and used as a stand-alone. Sometimes the intricate details were lost in the colour (such as in the gown above-my favourite from the whole exhibition!) allowing the focus to be on the woman wearing the dress as opposed to the attention being all about the garment itself. It is only on closer inspection that the beauty of Alaïa’s craftsmanship can truly be revealed.
Velvet was another of Alaia’s preferred materials of choice, due to its tactility, ability to hide complex seams in its pile and for its connections to richness and luxury. The dresses featured here were originally based on the dimensions of Naomi Campbell but were then elongated after multiple transformations to resemble the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and the exaggerated proportions of fashion illustration.
Fragility & Strength
Forever breaking the boundaries of the expectations of certain fabrics, Alaïa not only managed to give leather a sense of fragility, he also used chiffon in a way that gave it strength, sensuality and empowerment. Laid against the skin, it added a sense of eroticism to his work, stripping the fabric of its associated innocence.
There is an evolution, but fashion hasn’t changed so much. The body is the most important thing.Azzedine Alaïa
The main focus of Alaïa’s work was timelessness; he refused to conform to trends and created pieces that borrowed ideas from history but he reinterpreted them in a modern way. Unlike other designers or other collections I have seen, there was a complete sense of elegance, timelessness and wearability in this exhibition; Alaïa achieved his objectives, as his work certainly feels modern and would sit comfortably alongside most haute couture collections today. With Alaïa, it was all about eternal beauty, structure and form, allowing his work to most definitely stand the test of time.
Alaïa used stretch fabrics and wrapped forms to enhance and transform the silhouette of the wearer. His bandage dresses cling to the wearer’s form as opposed to being anchored at certain points of the body, such as the waist and hips. Inspired by Egyptian mummification and debuted in 1986, these dresses are most famously known as being the style worn frequently by Grace Jones and were the basis for ‘bodycon’ dressing which famously defined the aesthetic of the early 90s.
So what do you think?
What an amazingly talented man and a wonderful exhibition! Seeing his work in person gave me a great sense of respect for the man behind the designs and the detail and intricacy of his craftsmanship is truly inspiring and breathtaking.
Until next time,
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier ran at The Design Museum in 2018. I was not asked to write this post, I loved the exhibition and wanted to share it with my lovely readers! All opinions and photographs are my own and most of the information used was pulled together from the exhibition guide kindly given to me on arrival. It was a joy to visit; I learnt so much!