Azzedine Alaȋa: The couturier

Azzedine Alaȋa, the Tunisian-born couturier who passed away last year, is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Design Museum. I visited earlier today and was bowled over by the beauty of the clothes on display – and moved by the evident love the fashion world bore towards this most unassuming of individuals.

Born in 1935, in Tunis, Azzedine Alaȋa came from a family of wheat farmers and was brought up by his grandparents. Having attended the School of Fine Arts in Tunis, in 1956 Alaȋa moved to Paris where he worked for Christian Dior. Introduced to Parisian society by Tunisian socialite Simone Zehrfuss, within three years Alaȋa met his life-long partner Christoph van Weyne, a painter.

The 1960s and 1970s saw Alaȋa working for Guy Laroche and dressing women from French high society. He also established a studio on Paris’s Left Bank, making clothes for private clients and commissions for other designers.

In 1980 Alaȋa presented his first ready-to-wear collection. Featuring leather garments with metal eyelets and structured leather suits, this Spring/Summer collection garnered Alaȋa international attention. He returned to leather constantly throughout his career, noting “I treated it in the same way as other haute couture fabrics.” In his hands, leather became a symbol of elegance, rather than rebellion.

Alaȋa shot to prominence and his first show, part of Paris fashion week, took place in October 1983 at his atelier. Within two years, he was showing designs in New York, sponsored by Barneys – and dressing Grace Jones in ‘A View to a Kill’. That may not have been the most memorable Bond film, but the clothes remain imprinted on my mind.

By now, the fashion world was in love with Alaȋa and his shows attracted the best-known models. Stephanie Seymour, Veronica Webb, Yasmin Le Bon, Christy Turlington…the list goes on. All were part of the Alaȋa “family” and, in the designer’s 1986 Spring/Summer collection, modelled his now-legendary ‘tube dresses’. Made with body-hugging jersey bandages inspired by mummies, the dresses clung to the models’ figures, creating minimal silhouettes. This became known as ‘bodycon’ dressing: the defining aesthetic of the early 1990s.

Azzedine Alaȋa did things his way. From 1988, he showed his clothes when they were ready, not according to the fashion calendar. He also began working with stylist Joe McKenna, who would remain a close collaborator. Despite using an array of fabulous colours, black remained his “happy colour”, for which he was sometimes criticised by his peers. Alaȋa loved its anonymity, stating “I prefer people to notice the woman and not her clothes.”

The 1990s were an interesting, yet sad, decade for Alaȋa. In 1991, he undertook the first collaboration between a couturier and a mass market brand, teaming up with French chain Tati. His continued success seemed ensured – but in 1992 Alaia’s sister, Hofiola, died, causing her grief-stricken brother to withdraw from public life. For a number of years he stopped showing his collections, although he continued to have private clients and sell his ready-to-wear lines.

Alaȋa believed in the ‘intemparelle’ (timelessness). He constantly quoted from ancient cultures, updating these ideas with modern techniques and fabrics, re-engineering them for today’s women. He believed in eternal beauty, not fashion’s constant fluctuations,as you can see from the gorgeous creations below, dating back to 1991, 1989 and 1991.

Alaȋa frequently turned to Africa for inspiration, using criminal patterns and unusual materials such as raffia and Nile crocodile skin. He was also heavily influenced by Spain, attracted by the vibrancy of Spanish folk costume. This trio of dresses is based on a style originally used in Alaȋa’s 2011 haute couture collection, but reinvented in emerald, cerise and cyclamen, featuring flamenco-inspired ruffles.

At his first Couture show the designer revisited one of his distinctive visual trademarks: tailored jackets with crocodile skin and long-sleeved jersey tube dresses. Going against the conventional use of a specific textile became a game to Alaȋa, as can be seen in the way he used chiffon – the three examples below date back to 1996, 2003 and 2003 again and highlight his technical prowess: chiffon is delicate and exceptionally difficult to handle.

What I liked most about the clothes I saw today was how feminine they were – and Alaȋa’s obvious love of the female form. You would feel a million dollars wearing something he designed, be it a leather jacket or a ballgown. That said, I couldn’t help noting that you would have to be exceptionally thin to wear any of them: Alaȋa may have loved the female form, but not the fuller version.

This is an excellent exhibition and I liked the way in which it was set out: a timeline of Alaȋa’s life and career, followed by groupings of his garments into categories such as Spanish Accent. I have no links whatsoever with the world of fashion,but was able to marvel, nonetheless, at Alaȋa’s genius. I also enjoyed the films of supermodels relaxing backstage: an insight into a world very few of us will ever visit.

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