It has been eight days since we lost the King of Cling. It took me a week to get my head around the fact that a true giant of fashion is gone forever. Azzedine Alaïa was a legend— a man who chafed against the confines of the fashion industry, while being one of its defining figures. I do not dare to call him a designer, since he was much more. First and foremost, he was a couturier. A craftsman to say the least. He designed garments that eschew the rigorous novelty of contemporary fashion, instead of offering gradual developments of idea and technique. Season after season, women rushed to buy them. Buy being the operative word since Alaïa never loaned his clothes, nor did he advertise his brand. The man who once declared himself “as old as the Pharaohs” passed on a legacy liberated of convention, a legacy based on a genuinely unique vision, a legacy (appropriately) as complex as the riddle of the Sphinx.
He was born in Tunisia, but soon based himself in Paris where he lived a life of designing and crafting clothes. Alaïa was uncommon in many ways, being a designer that actually takes up needle and thread himself to work on his delicate garments and a designer who regularly defied fashion week norms. Instead of presenting his work on Parisian runways, he prefered exhibiting his work quietly and occasionally in his headquarters in the Marais in Paris. “When the collection is ready, it’s ready”, was his attitude. Fascinated by the human body, as a young student he enrolled into the Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts in Tunisia to study sculpture. “When I realized I couldn’t be an amazing sculptor, I changed direction”, stated Alaïa and journeyed into fashion. After years of assisting as a dress-maker, in 1957 he moved to Paris and began working at Christian Dior. That bliss lasted for just five days. In the midst of Algerian war, Alaïa was dismissed for having incorrect immigration papers. After Dior, he went to Guy Laroche where he stayed for two seasons, and then to Thierry Mugler. However, a number of his elite private clients— such as Greta Garbo and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild— and numerous patrons granted him to establish his own atelier.
“From two seasons at Guy Laroche I learned how. From the last elegant women in the world, I learned what.”
Ideologically and literally, he stood apart from fashion. He designed clothes that were often characterized as seductive, but I believe that he was telling us a more meaningful story. Azzedine Alaïa was utterly fixated with the body, and not in a way that is associated with sex. His garments delineated zones of the body. He payed attention to delicate silhouette construction, the relationship between the clothes and female body, treating fabrics like a clay that needs to be sculpted in a way to wrap the body and serve as a second skin. He was a master of cut, a designer working beyond fashion propagating culture, arts and philosophy. For Alaïa, freedom was a prerogative.
“I always feel free – I feel really free. When I don’t want something, I don’t make it. Even if there’s finance behind it, if I don’t feel it, I don’t do it. I always feel free, this is my strength. Truly, I don’t need much to live.”
His understanding of women was remarkable. Alaïa carefully observed their movements, tastes, desires and shapes. His underlying principle was that women should celebrate their undulations. His signature look emerged after his first New York show in 1982. It was the new look of the 1980’s — clothes that emphasized the figure and were identifiable by the pliable textures, such as leather and rayon jersey, and the use of zippers and eyelets. Decades before fashion began flirting with new technologies, Alaïa experimented with new, unconventional fabrics to mold the body. In 1995, he designed dresses from Relax, an anti-stress fabric used by NASA for wall and floor coverings. One of the trademarks of his clothes was their timelessness. The late designer dedicated his life to the belief that fashion was about women empowerment and a broader cultural conversation. His book Alaïa, a compendium of amazonian images published in 1997, took a decade to complete. The designer’s personal friends and various photographers painted a picture of the Universe Alaïa, a universe far away from everyday pressures, the world of a man who traded sculpture for haute couture.
“I’m not naive enough to think my dresses are going to be photographed unless the girl in them looks great. Anyway, I feel depressed when I look at rails of limp dresses. I don’t feel they’re alive until they’re on a woman’s body”.
As we mourn the boundless loss of, perhaps, the last real couturier, we take comfort in knowing that Azzedine Alaïa left abiding spirit of fashion. He has become the equivalent of national treasure, a gentleman and a genius. The most independent fashion figure passed away at the age of 82. He is survived by his partner, the painter Christoph von Weyhe; and nieces and nephews.
Photo credit: cover photo, LES FAÇONS / backstage photos, Gérard Musy (1987)