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Azzedine Alaïa: A New Spin on the King of Cling

A new exhibition at the Design Museum in London, “Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier”, explores his body-conscious designs in terms of a sculptor at work, celebrating his precision and mastery of construction. The designer himself often said that it was the women that wore the clothes who brought out the sexiness of the designs

For his first exhibition in London, the late designer worked closely with the Design Museum to focus on couture.

It is easy to imagine that Azzedine Alaïa himself is here, in the bold museum exhibition space, perhaps crouching at the base of a slim, silvered dress or disappearing under the padded skirt of a scarlet gown; or, in a far corner, wearing his perennial black Chinese worker’s outfit, looking up and down to study, again and again, the volume of his creation.

Alaïa’s untimely death in November 2017 caught in halfway through the preparations for “Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier”, an exhibition conceived and co-curated by the designer himself, and the first display of his work in England. With the help and support of the Alaïa “family” team in Paris, the show opens this week at the Design Museum in London’s Kensington.

“I met him in 1996 and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness – this man is a classicist!’” says Mark Wilson, Chief Curator of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, and the Chief Curator of this show. He perceives Alaïa as the sculptor he had once been as a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in his hometown of Tunis.

“That is why I was interested in him from the beginning,” Wilson continues. “I realized it was a sculptural effect, because when I stayed up with him very late at night, I saw clothes that were developed on a woman or a mannequin – that is how he constructed. And when he was working, he would draw and cut his own patterns. Who does that now, except for students?”

Carla Sozzani (standing), with Azzedine Alaïa (facing camera) in 2007 at one of the many frequent dinner parties he held in his apartment in Paris

The story of the pint-sized designer, who embraced the Eighties supermodels as if they were his family and became “the greatest couturier who never was”, is fashion legend. But this may be the first exhibition to show Alaïa as a technician with a mathematical vision, rather than principally a designer who embraced womanly curves.

“Sculptured Tension”: Light reflecting off the mirrored mounts for a display of evening gowns by Alaïa at the new exhibition at the Design Museum in London, “Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier”. Alaïa maintained deep friendships with artists, designers, musicians and dancers, and would frequently host dinners for these friends and studio staff at his home. Here the specially commissioned screen at the back is by industrial designer Marc Newson

The use of light, reflected on mirrors, carefully measured, is a joint-creation between Alaia and the curators.

The essence of this couture show is a dramatic play on the famous image of a tiny Alaïa with the towering Grace Jones from 1985, which was the focus of a 2015 exhibition by Wilson in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. The entire collection on display in London has been re-made to show, literally, the height of Alaïa’s reach.

“Decoration and Structure”: A trio of lacy gowns by Alaïa at the new exhibition at the Design Museum in London, “Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier”. The silver screen backdrop is by artist Kris Ruhs

So a curvy velvet dress is given an extra one-third in length, and the same for semi-sheer dresses that reveal transparent mannequins beneath. One of the most dramatic pieces is a shapely black-and-white stitched dress, completed by the studio, that Alaïa had half-finished before he passed away. Caroline Fabre Bazin, Maison Alaia’s Studio Director in Paris, has a story to tell about each piece – its materials, its visual development, and the commitment of the designer.

Simply the best: Tina Turner and Azzedine Alaïa under the Eiffel Tower, 1989

Fabric is a constant element in this London exhibition. Alice Black has worked with Wilson to offer a clean, clear, and powerful vision of Alaïa’s work. In fact, the modernist building, originally The Commonwealth Institute, underscores the purity of Alaïa’s vision.

The timelessness section includes the dress made of chains for Tina Turner in 1989 (center). The screen is by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec

So, while previous museum shows of his work have tended to focus on the variety of Alaïa’s clothing and the wealth of his imaginative ideas, here the focus is on his taut silhouettes and the fabric of imagination. That means, for example, presenting three outfits, short and shapely, which up close are revealed to be made of exceptional materials: a bra top made of stingray; a dress woven from raffia with a geometry of shell decoration; and another from horsehair.

With a healthy ego, Alaïa worked hard to make the most of this London exhibition. According to Deyan Sudjic, Co-Director of the Design Museum, the designer more or less demanded that his work take over the entire space, hence two dramatic, sculpted gowns – one black, one white – greeting visitors in the main foyer, while on the first floor are photographs from the Eighties and Nineties by Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi of models wearing Alaïa.

The display area itself has been divided into sections with architectural elements created by four artists, including Marc Newson and Kris Ruhs. To show how the Design Museum values Alaïa as an artist himself, one wall is filled with photographs by Richard Wentworth of the designer at work in his Paris atelier. There are also several short films by the stylist Joe McKenna of the clothes worn on the female figure, and in motion. They catch the intimate side of Alaïa’s work.

Alaïa at work, photographed by Richard Wentworth, who was given rare access to the Alaïa atelier in 2016 and 2017. Alaïa was renowned for working late into the night, poring over seams and stitches. His concentration on detail and structure led to the exhibition curators considering his approach as that of a sculptor

“Joe McKenna was very keen that we projected the same film on three different TV screens – that’s the scale at which he filmed it and intended to show it,” Black says. “You see him work and feel like you knew him. It’s about 20 minutes long, so there is a variety of media in the exhibition.”

Azzedine Alaïa out for a walk in Paris with his two Yorkshire terriers, Patapouf and Wabo, and model Frédérique wearing an Alaïa zipped leather outfit

What is the verdict? It is an interesting way to present Alaïa’s work, removed from their effect on a body in motion and stripped of their obvious sexuality. There is also a nobility to the exhibition that is a fitting tribute to the couturier, who designed this exhibition, like the rest of his work, primarily by himself.

Linda Evangelista and Azzedine Alaïa at a fitting in his studio, 1990

I hope that visitors to the Design Museum will also move on to another part of the city, where the first Alaïa store opened on Bond Street at the end of April. The clothes here are not couture, but rather the designer’s very wearable and saleable work, from fretwork leather belts to curvy little dresses and with a distinctive display of bags and accessories. This is the Alaïa that encouraged the luxury fashion group Richemont to buy a stake in his company a decade ago.

In tandem with the Design Museum’s vision showing the purity of Alaïa’s couture, the new boutique proves that Azzedine, the couture sculptor, still incites women’s desire. Together, they offer a 20/20 vision of a remarkable fashion story.

Alaïa fitting a model before a photoshoot in Paris

“Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier“ is at The Design Museum until the 7th of October

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