Azzedine Alaïa was a prolific collector but it was only after the designer’s death, in November 2017, that the true extent of what he’d amassed began to emerge. The Alaïa complex on Rue de Moussy, which is spread over five floors and three buildings, had rare and important 20th-century design pieces, photographs, books, objects, art and 12,000 pieces from Mr. Alaïa’s own fashion archive stored in almost every room. Priceless, museum-level artefacts were piled high in the higgle-piggle of its many rooms. Gradually, over the past five years, it has yielded its treasures.
The Azzedine Alaïa, Arthur Elgort. En Liberté exhibition at the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa, Paris
Alaïa entrusted his legacy to Carla Sozzani, the publisher, gallerist and owner of the 10 Corso Como stores. Following plans laid out by the designer 10 years before he died, painter Christophe von Weyhe, Alaïa’s long-term partner, and Sozzani petitioned the French government to create the Foundation Azzedine Alaïa (which they did in 2020, bequeathing an important new cultural institution to the nation). In the five years since the designer’s death, Sozzani has overseen the curation of a permanent home for everything Alaïa made and collected, with his legacy living on through exhibitions and educational programmes. She was joined at the Foundation by the esteemed fashion historian and curator Olivier Saillard to oversee the building of the designer’s fashion archives, itself no small job. Long before it became accepted practice, Alaïa was collecting his own work. “He kept every piece he made, sometimes in triplicate,” explains Sozzani. “As he said, ‘I am not a designer. I am a couturier.’ He knew the value of his work: so much passion, so many nights, so much dedication.”
For Sozzani, the path to this point has been a labour of love, coloured by grief and driven by a deep desire to honour her dear friend. The task was gargantuan. Not only were the buildings in a poor state, but every room in the complex from the basement to the rafters was “full, full, full,” says Sozzani. “Of clothes, of his own work and collections, and lots of the masters of fashion that he had been collecting. You can’t imagine. We have pictures of how they were,” she says. After Alaïa’s death, she remembers taking Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on a tour. “He told me you need five years and 12 people a day to organise it. I said it would take 15 years because we don’t have that many people.” Each floor of the building took roughly a year to complete, with the contents of every room documented, organised and catalogued.
From left: the doors to the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa, with its “A” logo designed by Julian Schnabel and a Marc Newson Zenith chair in the corner of Carla Sozzani’s office
Alaïa’s urge to collect began in 1968, when upon hearing of the sudden closure of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s couture house, he went with a model friend to his studio. “They saw all these amazing pieces, so he took them home and started to cherish them. He collected Balenciaga all his life,” says Sozzani. In the end, he had amassed more than 300 pieces. Madame Grès, Chanel, Charles James, Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet and the Hollywood costumier Adrian were among his other collecting obsessions.
But he kept many of his prolific purchases a secret. One of his favourite ruses was to tell everyone at the atelier he was going to a physio for his knees, when in fact he was slipping out to an auction or a vintage shop. He always bought the rarest, finest pieces and often outbid museums to get his prizes. “He had no budget because he had no sense of money,” says Sozzani. “He wanted only ever to have enough money to afford the most important thing in the world, which is freedom.” He took the same secretive approach with furniture and design.
The glass-floored dining room dominated by a Marius-Ernest Sabino glass table from 1929, blue standard chairs by Jean Prouvé, flanked by Sabino consoles topped by verdant plants and a delicate Kuramata, Twilight Time table from 1985
She described how he’d leave secret purchases in his car, retrieving them late at night after everyone at Rue de Moussy had gone to bed, then squirrelling them away in any one of the three buildings on the site. Sozzani remembers finding 15 museum-quality Balenciaga pieces packed into plastic bags in one room. “So, you can find a Balenciaga on the fifth floor, you can find a Balenciaga in the basement.”
Now, the buildings of the Foundation hum with new life and fresh purpose. In the basement is a huge temperature-controlled archive holding all of Alaïa’s catwalk collections, including couture pieces worn by Tina Turner and Greta Garbo. The vast collection has been meticulously documented by Saillard and his team. On the ground floor, a boutique, café and bookshop bustle with life and the gallery space, curated by Saillard, throws fresh light on Alaïa’s legacy.
From left: Olivier Saillard, Director of the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa, sits on a Pierre Paulin ribbon chair in his office and a colourful Jean Nouvel piece stands in the dining room
Upstairs, the designer’s studio is preserved behind glass. “It was the first thing I did after he passed away,” says Sozzani of the glass wall she built, inspired by the window on designer Mariano Fortuny’s studio in Venice. “It’s still the way he left it exactly, with the last dress he was working on. This was my first step, but when it was the moment to show it to people, I felt it was too early, emotionally.” Sozzani finally allowed the room to be seen on 26 February this year: Alaïa’s birthday.
Sozzani’s office is on the first floor in a room that was filled “up to the ceiling” with magazines. “Because Azzedine wasn’t only collecting the magazines that featured his work, but any kind of magazine that he loved. All the [copies of] Elle, all Interview, all [of the property magazine] Le Palace,” she says. Each was catalogued, digitised and archived, then the room was painted, and its damaged floors repaired. Sozzani used furniture found in the maison, including two mid-century desks, Jean Prouvé chairs and a Kuramata glass table. She brought the Fontana lights by Gio Ponti and a Castiglioni lamp from her old office on Place des Vosges and filled the walls with framed photographs by Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh and Arthur Elgort – all from Alaïa’s personal collection – that were found stacked in a corner of his apartment. This mix of Azzedine’s things and her own brings her great comfort. “I feel at home,” she says.
From left: Alaïa and Sozzani photographed in the kitchen at Rue de Moussy, where the late designer loved to cook and entertain and the César breast sculpture in the courtyard
One of the most extraordinary rooms she restored was the glass-floored dining room that floats above the boutique. It’s dominated by a huge Marius-Ernest Sabino glass table from 1929, flanked by Sabino consoles and topped by verdant plants. Alaïa threw a few dinner parties there but always preferred to entertain in the kitchen. Sozzani remembers taking meetings with Patrizio Bertelli, aka Mr. Prada, in the room in 2000, when the two houses negotiated a production deal. But latterly it had become a storage space for Alaïa’s ever-growing collections, including a set of rare Irving Penn photographs given to him by the model Bettina Graziani.
Also in this room are treasures including a delicate Kuramata Twilight Time table from 1985 and an abundance of Jean Prouvé chairs, which Alaïa collected obsessively, although he wasn’t always so enamoured. Sozzani recounts how the designer used to tell a story of how a wealthy client had gifted him a set of Prouvé chairs soon after he moved to Paris in the 1950s and was living in the maid’s room of a wealthy client’s house. When he moved out, he left the chairs, not realising their value. Today, she uses the room for board meetings. When she brings down a set of three César Baldaccini sculptures (two glass thumbs and a metal plaque) from the designer’s apartment, she tells me, “It’s like having a little bit of him with us.”
Alaïa pieces hanging in the archive
Even now, five years after his passing, the Foundation’s staff are still discovering things. Alaïa’s bedroom, famously dominated by a Prouvé-designed, pre-fabricated, 1950s petrol station, still yields surprises. It’s also the one space Sozzani struggles with emotionally. “In the beginning it was difficult to go in there. It’s easier now that all the other parts of the building have been renovated. I find more courage to go into his apartment.” Even so, the task of cataloguing the wonders within is mostly undertaken by a trusted colleague. “He sends me pictures,” she says.
Sozzani’s next challenge is to finish the library on the third floor which will house Alaïa’s vast collection of fashion and art books. It will sit alongside a further archive for the great masters of fashion design he collected. The work never stops but every corner of the Foundation thrills and hums with Alaïa’s distinctive taste and touch. She recalls finding a set of huge metal doors in the basement which fit exactly into the bookshop. “We cleaned them and discovered they were [Jean] Royère!” she says with delight. Everywhere, she feels his presence. “It is very, very strong. It’s like he’s directing things.”
A Julian Schnabel portrait of Alaïa in the café
Top image: Carla Sozzani in her office at the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa. She used furniture found in the maison, including two mid-century desks, Jean Prouvé chairs and a Kuramata glass table. She brought the Fontana lights by Gio Ponti and a Castiglioni lamp from her old office on Place des Vosges and filled the walls with framed photographs by Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh and Arthur Elgort – all from Alaïa’s personal collection – which were found stacked in a corner of his apartment.
Photography by Jason Lloyd-Evans. Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Men – NEW, DAILY, UNIFORM – out now. Order your copy here.
From left: César sculptures and one of the many African art pieces collected by Azzedine Alaïa
Collections stored in the archive
A dress made for Tina Turner