Azzedine Alaïa is a diminutive Tunisian man habitually dressed in black cotton pyjamas, with a wide grin and a shock of black hair. He is also the greatest fashion designer in the world. Fashion designer isn’t really the right term – it should be couturier, because Alaïa both creates haute couture and works on even his ready-to-wear clothes in a couture manner.
Yet, I like the use of the word “fashion” around Alaïa, because it can be both a noun and a verb. Alaïa’s fashioning often becomes fashion – his technique and craft are not the means to an end, they help to determine the eventual form, and sometimes function, of his creations. That is because Alaïa does not work like other fashion designers: he fashions his fashion himself, with his own two hands. Other designers produce sketches (today, some don’t even do that) and pass them to others to create the garments. Alaïa is embedded in the development, the construction, the cut of every design he creates. It’s an organic process. Much has been made of Alaïa’s refusal to follow the traditional industry calendar: he is painted as a recalcitrant rebel, a supreme nonconformist. Which is true – Alaïa plays by no rule but his own. Yet his show schedule is motivated by pragmatism, not contrariness. Alaïa’s shows are dictated by the clothes. He doesn’t show when he is ready, he shows when they are. And the faithful come.
Alaïa orbits his own fashion universe, which occasionally intersects with that of the rest of us. Which is how, this July, we were sitting in Alaïa’s kitchen six hours before his AW17 show, the penultimate presentation of Paris haute couture week. It’s the first time he has shown alongside other haute couture houses in six years. He isn’t on the of offcial calendar, issued by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture – he’s refused to join it since the 1980s. Instead, in a good old-fashioned way, rumour abounded that Alaïa would show. It was confirmed a week before. If you hadn’t known, in that expansive kitchen, sitting around a table groaning with food (salad, great fish, sliced hot peppers in thick olive oil), that a fashion show would be happening later that day, you would never have guessed. Alaïa himself is enigmatic, warmly smiling. He doesn’t appear tired, although there were models arriving at his studio well into the night before for fittings. The stylist Joe McKenna, a frequent Alaïa collaborator since the 1980s, is present. McKenna is a generally reserved and rather quiet Scottish man; here, he was giddy with excitement. The clothes, he tells me before we sit down, are extraordinary. I ask Alaïa if he is happy with the collection. He shrugs. “I am content.” He smiles again.
Alaïa had originally planned to show in April, shortly after Easter – he generally shows his autumn/winter collections around that time, between a few weeks and a month after the rest of the industry has presented their ready-to-wear. He mixes a selection of haute couture pieces in with his ready-to-wear in these shows, deflating the pomposity that often infects the presentation and coverage of haute couture. Perhaps that is because, at Alaïa, haute couture is a living, breathing thing. These are real clothes, ordered by real women. Passing through his boutique on the Rue de Moussy, the one with the tonsured, rough bronze rails designed by Julian Schnabel and originally used in the boutique he had on New York’s Mercer Street between 1988 and 1992 (it’s now an APC store), you may bump into an Alaïa couture client. You may also bump into Monsieur Alaïa himself, as his atelier is above the store, his kitchen out back, through a vast space used as a gallery and to present his collections. Alone among Parisian fashion houses, Alaïa operates as a true haute couture “house”. Everything is under one roof, including the designer’s own bedroom (he sleeps in a Jean Prouvé petrol station).
Women order Alaïa haute couture for all types of things. The litany of women whose wedding dresses were custom-made by him is astounding: Elle Macpherson, Stephanie Seymour, So a Coppola, Katie Grand, Charlotte Stockdale, Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz and many others whose choices aren’t public. Plenty of others order for events, some probably just because they want to look and feel extraordinary. There is no embarrassed justification of Alaïa’s haute couture business, no fluffed gestures and assertions of percentage increases in orders. No one has to be convinced why Alaïa haute couture is supreme, nor told why women want to buy it. Of course they want to buy these clothes. They are extraordinary.
After Alaïa’s show, backstage is carnage. Alaïa wouldn’t bow (he never does) but does pose with Farida Khelfa and Carla Bruni- Sarkozy, both of whom have modelled for him (Bruni’s husband, when president, tried to give Alaïa the Légion d’Honneur – he’s the third president to attempt. Alaïa refused them all). Naomi Campbell is in the background, her hair teased into a high pompadour wrapped with electrical tape by Julien d’Ys. The next day, I return with Alaïa and his right-hand woman, Caroline Fabre-Bazin, to investigate the clothes up close. He has just had lunch with Paolo Roversi (who photographed him for this story), alongside Carla Sozzani of 10 Corso Como, a collaborator second and close friend first. Also in attendance (Alaïa’s guest list is ever-expanding and frequently leaves you dumbstruck) is the British artist Richard Wentworth, who has been documenting Alaïa’s working process in a series of photographs for an exhibition to be staged in his gallery this autumn.
The Alaïa haute couture collection hangs on half a dozen wheeled racks. A couple of dresses are laid at. Rough linen cloths are draped over the top to protect against dust. Far from the preciousness of other couture houses, these clothes are resolutely real and treated as such. Fabre-Bazin murmurs that clients are already calling to order pieces and they must price them accordingly. Alaïa whips back a stretch of white cloth to uncover the opening looks from the show: a sequence of generous coats in sheepskin, intricately embroidered with vaguely art nouveau patterns. The embroidery, Alaïa says, is by machine – but a belle époque machine, operated entirely by hand. Then I ask if there was an inspiration for the collection, or a starting point, and he says it was these: “Le mouton – working with the sheepskin and the decoration.” The result is dazzling: the embroidery is keyed into the surface of the skin, almost fusing together, with tufts of fuzz emerging from between stitches to soften the effect. Flick back the cloth on another rail and there is a selection of garments in python, an Alaïa signature. All have intricate seaming along their flank, subtly echoing the body’s musculature. One has the seams delineated by zipper teeth; another looks as if it is held together with hooks and eyes, but is actually constructed using thin metal staples, allowing the seams to remain open on the body beneath. The colour palette is also typically Alaïa, dominated by black and white, with touches of red and a juicy teal. Under another cloth is a selection of dresses constructed using strips of leather. They are all a few centimetres wide, pierced with nailhead studs, hundreds of strips seamed together to create the dress. The work in each one is almost impossible to comprehend – as is the fact that not only will each garment have to be made to measure, but each pattern will need to be entirely redrafted for each customer. “Oui,” agrees Alaïa, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
Alaïa began his career with haute couture. In 1957, he came to Paris to work for Christian Dior. The Algerian War was underway and Tunisian Alaïa found himself unwelcome – he left after five days. He then went to work for Guy Laroche for two seasons, before establishing, in some small way, his own business. Alaïa was living with the Comtesse Nicole de Blégiers in a small maid’s room, creating one-off pieces for her as a way of paying his rent, alongside babysitting her children. He stayed with her until about 1965, we think. Dates and figures (bar the female sort) are blurry with Alaïa: he has a propensity to state he’s as old as the pharaohs; when I asked how many hours it took to make a hand-pieced python coat in his autumn/ winter haute couture, he grinned and just said, “Beaucoup.” Certainly by the end of the 1960s, Alaïa had moved out of people’s spare rooms and was based at the Rue de Bellechasse on the Left Bank, around the corner from the Musée Rodin, creating made-to-measure clothing for a tight-knit but ever-swelling cadre of women. At about this point (again, hazy on the dates), Greta Garbo came to visit Alaïa. It was probably about 1971, when Garbo vacationed with Baroness Cécile de Rothschild in the South of France. It was the latter who brought her to Alaïa; Garbo ordered a pair of trousers and a navy cashmere coat with a huge collar for her to hide behind. Other clients included Claudette Colbert, the writer Louise de Vilmorin, every echelon of still- moneyed French aristocracy and the film star Arletty, a childhood idol of Alaïa.
Notably, these women were turning to Alaïa as they were opposed to traditional haute couture. Cristobal Balenciaga had closed his couture house in 1968, and young women were increasingly dismissing the couture as irrelevant, mired in the past and disconnected from contemporary life in both its extravagance and exorbitant expense. The same arguments, oddly, are levied at haute couture today. Part of the appeal of Alaïa – then, now, eternally – is as an alternative to the rest of fashion. In the 1970s, as haute couture’s influence waned and clientele dwindled, Alaïa’s private business thrived. I have never seen his clothes from this period – they were created for private clients, after all, and hence were not photographed by fashion magazines, nor were they presented in fashion shows. They were created to satisfy the wants and needs of his customers, which perhaps explains why Alaïa seems to intuit how women want to look, which in turn establishes what the fashion of any given time will be. The designer himself said, “From two seasons at Guy Laroche, I learnt how. From the last elegant women in the world, I learnt what.”
That is of fundamental importance in the work of Alaïa. He isn’t creating clothes for show, clothes to satisfy his own whims or those of the fashion industry. Alaïa creates clothing in the service of women, to make their lives better, fuller, somehow richer. When Alaïa’s clothes first began to be lauded in the 1980s, when he launched his ready-to-wear line and became available outside that small group of Parisian couture clients, women marvelled at how an Alaïa dress negated the need for underwear: the dress itself did everything. Alaïa showed those first ready-to-wear collections in the Rue de Bellechasse, to crowds intimate enough to cram into his two-room live-work space. There was no music as the models padded through. It’s not difficult to imagine the electricity of those early shows: magically, that sense of anticipation is still present, almost 40 years later. Today, Alaïa shows in a larger space – a former mattress factory in the Marais, a complex of buildings that takes up almost an entire city block, straddling the Rue de Moussy and Rue de la Verrerie. He now shows with music, but there is still little fanfare. He does not admit external photographers (there were four at the latest Alaïa show; they were all his). And the clothes are sublime.
Haute couture is at the heart of what Alaïa does. Even the prototypes for his ready-to-wear clothes are made by hand. And not any hand: his own. He cuts his patterns, he fits and perfects the silhouettes. But perhaps more fundamentally, Alaïa’s clothes today are born from conversations between him and the women who wear them. It may not necessarily be spoken – some is, in conversations with friends and clients. Equally, it may be Alaïa recognising, from watching women in the street (perhaps dressed in Alaïa; most likely not), what they need from their clothes now. In the 1980s, he felt they needed power – an assertive means of dressing that, nevertheless, did not denigrate or neuter their sexuality. Alaïa dressed women to be equal to men, but different, using their femininity as a power. His clothes were fitted, but due to his knowledge of the female body, they didn’t constrict.
The 1990s ushered in something else: stretch garments created to reshape and mould the female body, fashioning a new perfected form. Alaïa pulled everything in close, eschewing linings in his elastic clothes and focusing on knit as a new challenge. Today, Alaïa collections are filled with knits that are unsurpassed, the textile knitted with the shape of the dress moulded into the fabric, the whole thing constructed with a single seam. The resulting clothes aren’t simple in appearance: the skirts ute out, the waists cling and often the fabric is jacquard, with an intimate pattern of animal print or flowers or a geometric design. And yet it reflects a need, a yearning, for simplicity, for paring everything back to the absolute minimum, a salve against the over complication of modern life. Alaïa clothes are ferociously complicated to make, but the garments themselves are often breathtakingly simple. One seam, one zip, no lining, no knickers. They’re clothes you don’t have to think about, because Alaïa has done all the thinking for you.
Fully fashioned, they call these knits – linking right back to Alaïa as a fashion designer, as a fashioner of fashion, as someone who does, rather than someone who thinks too much, with little action. Alaïa thinks with his hands – as he uses them to create clothing like none made before.
Text by Alexander Fury
Portrait by Paolo Roversi
Taken from the latest issue of 10, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…