“Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier” — on view through October 7, at the Design Museum in London — features 60 seminal garments by the designer. The exhibition coincides with the opening earlier this year of Maison Alaia, the designer’s first London flagship store, with over 6,000 square feet of gleaming retail space on Bond Street.
The exhibition, which was conceived well before Alaia’s unexpected death in November 2017 at the age of 77, was co-curated by the designer himself and by Mark Wilson, chief curator of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. The designs on view span from the early 1980s to the designer’s last creations in 2017. “Because it was not intended to be viewed posthumously, the show has a lightness of touch, without the pomp of a retrospective,” the fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley wrote in the Guardian.
The show charts Alaia’s journey from a young sculptor to a seasoned couturier. He sewed for a local dressmaker to help pay for his education and supplies while completing his sculpture studies at art school in Tunis; this experience resonates in his creations and illustrates how he interpreted haute couture as being synonymous with sculpture.
Alaia moved to Paris in the 1950s and presented his first signature collection in 1979, adopting a sensuous approach to leather, jersey and stretch fabrics: each textile was rendered exceptional through meticulous draping. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Alaia personally constructed each garment by hand, mastering every step of the exacting process: drawing a pattern, transferring the forms and volumes to cloth, cutting and sewing the fabric to execute his vision.
The exhibition spotlights his life and career alongside garments that are brought together by aesthetic theme rather than chronology. His signature second-skin bandage dresses, extra-wide corset belts, and dexterous perforated-leather silhouettes are on view. The exaggerated height of the towering mannequins highlight his vision of women as Amazonian powerhouses and modern heroines who are not to be underestimated or reckoned with.
The role of Couturier is one Alaia took on in a nonconformist way: he refused to accede to the pressures of fashion week and its draconian seasonal deadlines, and instead, worked according his own rhythm even when it kept him out of step with the rest of the industry. He established a rapport with his muses, models and clients, which included pop culture greats like Greta Garbo, Grace Jones, Stephanie Seymour and Rihanna.
His designs are woven into fashion photography history: worn on the hips of Christy Turlington (shot by Arthur Elgort), or seductively styled on the long frame of Naomi Campbell in an Alaia bustier and short-shorts (shot by Ellen von Unwerth) or energized by Tina Turner wearing a bustier dress (shot by Peter Lindbergh).
“With him disappears a certain idea that I had of the history of fashion and its authors,” Olivier Saillard, former curator of the Palais Galliera in Paris, has been quoted as saying. “It embodied a territory of complete independence,” which he noted was completely absent from the landscape of fashion today.” In 2013, Saillard honored Alaia with a retrospective at the renovated galleries of the museum. The 70 iconic designs were presented in the Palais Galliera, along with silhouettes that were on display across the street at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
It was not the first time Alaia’s garments were so directly equated with art. Throughout his career, Alaia’s creations were often included in the exhibitions and shows of other artists, including Dan Flavin’s installations at CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux in 1985 and Julian Schnabel’s paintings at the Biennale Della Moda in Florence in 1996. His creations also appeared with works by Pablo Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer and Christoph von Weyhe at the Groninger museum in 1998, and alongside paintings by Andy Warhol in New York in 2000.
This latest show is no exception. The Design Museum gallery is divided up in a series of specially-commissioned interventions by people in Alaia’s creative entourage. The list includes the French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, the German industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, the Australian furniture designer Marc Newson, the American painter and sculptor Kris Ruhs, and the German painter Christoph von Weyhe, who was Alaia’s partner.
The backdrop of the exhibition is a wall of blown up photographs by Richard Wentworth, who was given rare access between January 2016 and July 2017 to Alaia’s atelier on Rue de la Verrerie in Paris, where the designer worked for over 30 years. Wentworth’s photographs capture the details and textures of couture production, offering an insider’s peek to a life of daily craftsmanship and lasting chic.