Pieter Mulier staged his third Alaïa show in the stripped-back edifice of the house’s forthcoming headquarters on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. “The new heart of Alaïa,” as he wrote in an accompanying letter laid on every seat. It’s a couple of years away from completion, this home – currently, it shows. Floors are scarred concrete, walls are raw, wires dangle. In short, you can see every line of construction, every stage of its making – and the whole thing is, itself, still a work in progress. And doesn’t that connect to Azzedine Alaïa, to his love of technique and craft, his joyous embracing of the act of making rather than fashion’s relentless focus on the end product? This wasn’t a couture show – his two previous seasons, Mulier has mixed couture in with his ready-to-wear, as Alaïa himself sometimes did. But just as with all Alaïa made, it had a couture sensibility running through it, traced back to that love of craft, that instinct to make something unique and special.
A mix of the polished and refined with the savagely unfinished was the source of inspiration for this collection, Mulier said. He achieved it through direct means – skirts cut as simple geometric shapes, draping around the body, dresses whose shape were determined by drawstrings puckering the fabric, spontaneous and uncontrolled gestures laid alongside the precision of Alaïa’s tailoring. A sequence of jackets and coats seemed to dissolve on the body, details disappearing into sweeping falls and gestures of fabric, as if captured in a moment, suspended half-finished. And shearling was left rough-hewn, skin laid against skin, its surfaces seamed and fitted to the body, but the edges raw. Another bunch of outfits consisted of tops that were just knotted, easily, wide panels scrunched up around the waist. They looked instinctive, unpredictable, and were later echoed with precisely worked draped skirts below torsos encased in semi-transparent stretch, so refined they seemed sculpted.
There were, of course, echoes of Alaïa’s past – how could there not be? The ability not only to draw on the legacy of a figure who helped re-shape how women dressed at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, but to actually delve into the archivers and flip pieces inside-out is, inevitably, a turn-on for any decent designer. And Mulier is more than decent. That turn of phrase around ‘turn-on’ isn’t accidental, because with this collection there was an embracing not of the actuality of Alaïa but the sensibility: a sensuality and deep-rooted eroticism that throbbed through pieces, emulating the sexually-charged garments with which Alaïa, in the words of his ardent fan Tina Turner, gave women back their bodies. And isn’t today a moment when, sadly, that conversation feels more relevant than ever?
So Mulier referenced Alaïa’s strokeable chenille houpette knits, his draped jerseys, a shoe model developed by Raymond Massaro that resembled a pair of shapely crossed female legs. But it was the final outfit that gave a jolt of recognition – a sheer bodysuit worn above a velvet skirt, suspended from a ribbon fastening lapping the waist, a slither of skin visible at the top of the buttocks. Alaïa was obsessed with what the French call the “fess” – the ass – sending his seams curving around and under to emphasise and eroticise the female figure and, once, cutting a swimsuit so high it famously bared the entire rear, which Alaïa compared to apples in the sun. He would’ve liked these apples, too.
In all, what this show felt like was a melding of Alaïa’s obsessions and Mulier’s, a meeting place between respect for the past and the urge to push forwards. The metaphor of a building stripped back to its foundations to be rebuilt has an echo in the act of moving a fashion house forwards, after all. Mulier has taken Alaïa back to its essence, its heart. Now, he’s taking it into the future.