Remembering the Remarkable Talent of Azzedine Alaïa

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© Richard Wentworth, courtesy of the artist

“I will not teach you fashion, but I will teach you life” – a tribute to the man who made women strong

“I will not teach you fashion, but I will teach you life,” Azzedine Alaïa used to tell his assistants. He taught so many of us that. He was one of the greatest of the greatest in his fields: couture, and fashion. Both are distinct – haute couture is designed for specific human beings, it is supposed to fit them, suit them, and allow for the expression and expansion of their individuality; fashion is shifting the stylistic mores of the time. Azzedine Alaïa strode both these distinct principles, like a colossus. He will be remembered in the history of couture for an extraordinary number of inventions: reshaping the body, reconfiguring fabrics, redefining a woman’s perception of herself. In fashion and couture, like in any field, creative visionaries often have one brilliant idea, create a couple of key works. Alaïa himself would say: “I have one good idea a year, I follow it. I am like a cowboy, I try to catch it with a lasso.” One good idea a year was an assertion made only by Alaïa himself. Looking into catalogues of his work – for instance that of his retrospective at the Palais Galliera in 2013 – one cannot help but be struck by a wow effect. Every single one of the 50 pieces shown is extraordinary, still. There are many more. In the 36 years he led Maison Alaïa, the masterpieces he created are legion.

He used garments and materials nobody had even considered before – funky pearls, fish skin, leather elaborated like no other, and of course knitwear, which he reinvented. When asked about these inventions and reinventions, he would simply say: “I work with great people.” His generosity was beyond compare.

Alaïa’s creations expanded the concept of clothing to question its relation to design – developing new materials, new techniques. He came from the world of haute couture, as it grew in early 20th-century modernity: Charles Frederick Worth, Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret, Fortuny, later Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès. He started his career looking at Christian Dior (he worked at the house of Dior upon arrival in Paris, albeit only for five days) and Cristóbal Balenciaga, both of whom were major influences, in different regards. But his dialogue was as consistent with industrial designers as it was with couturiers: most recently, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Marc Newson, Martin Szekely, Konstantin Grcic, Jonathan Ive. His proximity to design is easily explained: stemming from the traditional, ancestral practice of haute couture, he leaned on the world of design in order to conceive a living environment for human beings. He embraced the newest technologies in order to achieve such a goal, while remaining rooted in the fundaments of craft.

Azzedine Alaïa was a couturier and a designer and fulfilled both terms to their utmost. We all know the great divide between haute couture and ready-to-wear: the former a rarefied industry, only created for a wealthy elite; while ready-to-wear can go mainstream, is designed to be produced industrially. His designs were produced, but even when they were completely mainstream, as with his collaboration with the French retailer Tati in 1991, one of the first of its kind, he never lost the sense that it was all designed for the body, for human beings to live in. He created ready-to-wear with the ideology of haute couture; clothes that could be bought in a shop yet worn as if conceived on this very body, for this very woman.

With all his craft, all his knowledge, all his expertise as fashion’s top secret historian, Alaïa understood life, and its changes. He included references to all cultures, not as a form of exoticism, referencing a specific, distant culture. He was as much in dialogue with the core of French culture – Arletty, Louise de Vilmorin – as with Spanish painting; with designs from his native Tunisia and the Maasai people he visited; with Japanese state-of-the-art materials, Oceanian shell-dresses, and Adrian, Hollywood’s great 1940s designer, of whom Alaïa was a passionate admirer. Indeed, he was a global designer, with roots in Northern Africa and France, yet, as he would often say, “at ease anywhere in the world.” He knew no other language than French, because he never wanted to speak improperly. But he knew fluently the most important of tongues: body language. Only he could translate it with such precision. He knew a tight waist would change the way one breathes; that compression and release creates pressure; that a voluminous dress will completely change one’s stance in the world. He knew that clothes are dwellings, they are one’s first home. We live inside them.

Throughout his work, he adapted cut and shape to time: trends did not belong in his vocabulary. The subtle changes in women’s bodies and postures were the object of his endeavour: he made them feel powerful in the 1980s, at a time of assertion; after that achievement, he made them feel at ease – in their clothes, in their body, in the world. The 1980s supermodel was his invention; and in the 1990s his use of materials pioneered. His relentless passion for the servicing of modern life has influenced virtually every designer working today.

His dedication to women was unparalleled. When asked about the “Alaïa woman”, he would always protest: in his 50-year career, between dressing Greta Garbo and Lady Gaga, he did not serve one woman but every woman who has worn and will wear his clothes, whatever her roots, whatever her position or social standing. The idea of one “woman” is systematic: Azzedine Alaïa’s work followed a method, rather than being locked in a system. In every woman he sought to express the deepest form of her femininity, of her humanity. He used every tool available.

His close friend Leïla Menchari once offered a key to understanding his work: through all his designs, Alaïa engaged with the sacred and the sensual, two parts of humankind. Sometimes he would lean one way, sometimes the other. Often, as with his final Autumn/Winter 2017 haute couture collection, he would strike a perfect equilibrium.

He was famed for his largesse, and supporting his friends whom he hosted at the Maison. There are so many stories of late night conversations, readings, career advice, kind gestures of support nobody would ever know; countless exhibitions that drew attention to unknown artists’ work.

Alaïa taught us life; he also taught us that, in order to understand fashion, you need to know that life comes first; a piece of clothing is an integral part of life, and it can make so much of it possible, or difficult. At a time when so many of us are seeking freedom, he paved the way to it; he did it in his silent way, with his kind, gentle smile; he invited us to understand that only through hard work are we able to speak up. He is a master of couture and of life. There might be easy ways, there might be public ways, to do anything: but there is one right way, following oneself and respecting everyone. That is the path he took.

It is easy to say there will not be another Azzedine Alaïa. And it is true. However, when asked about being the “last couturier”, he would always refuse the label, and say: “no one is ever the last.” He will not be the last. His legacy is ours to live with, as he would have wanted it.

Donatien Grau is head of contemporary programmes at the Musée d’Orsay. 

This story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale now.