Azzedine Alaïa – the sculptor of women

Azzedine Alaïa was born in Tunis on February 26th 1935.

Of modest origins, he managed to get a school education thanks to his grandparents’ care.

With his grandfather Ali the agenda was full: on Thursdays, he would read him The Thousand and One Nights except for the first Thursday of the month:

“Every first Thursday of the month we had to have an early dinner. We had to be quiet, not make noise, because my grandfather was trying to get the radio from Egypt because Oum Kulthum was singing. Everyone was sitting on the floor waiting for her to sing. Her voice was impressive. It was the first great voice I heard as a child.”

When he met her in 1967 at one of her concerts he almost fainted.

On Fridays and Saturdays, he would take him to the cinema to see films from all over the world. He was forever impressed by the image of Silvana Mangano in shorts in the film “Bitter Rice“. To pay for his studies he went to work for the midwife Madame Pineau. Helping women in labour, she began to understand, respect and admire women and their bodies. Madame Pineau was the first to understand the talent of the young man, he incessantly copied clothes from catalogs and paintings from art books. Two Tunisian upper-middle-class girls introduced him to Madame Richard, a French seamstress who bought Haute Couture models in Paris and reproduced them for her Tunisian clients.

“Madame Richard told me that I had to devote all my time to learning how to sew.”

In the late 1950s she moved to Paris.

In the ’60s she met Christoph von Weyhe, her lifelong partner, and in ’64 they moved to Rue de Bellechasse which became their home and her atelier. He dressed all the most famous women in Paris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and limousines came and went from his atelier.

“I dressed a woman and she recommended me to another. I dressed the wives of Picasso, Miró, Calder.”

One of his most loyal clients became Greta Garbo. He designed clothes for her using his partner’s build as a model for the coats, which the divine wanted baggy and masculine.

In 1965 he created pieces for the house of Yves Saint Laurent. It was he who made the prototype of the emblematic Mondrian dress. Alaïa was so obsessed with clothes that he created one of the largest collections of vintage haute couture garments. It all began with the closure of Maison Balenciaga.

Alaïa rescued many of the great designer’s clothes seeing them as vulnerable fashion assets. He was the first designer who most inspired Alaïa. In 1979 he met Thierry Mugler and a great friendship was born. 

Mugler asked him to create evening gowns for his autumn/winter 79-80 collection “Future Spirales“. In 1983 Alaia presents his first ready-to-wear collection in his house in rue de Bellechasse.

Until then the address of Alaïa’s house was a secret reserved for a few, but with that event it became the most coveted place for journalists and photographers, making their way into that small space inside the apartment. 

The couturier always said he was never interested in celebrity, his goal was to create clothes that made women dream.
But fame was inevitable when he received two fashion Oscars from the French Minister of Culture as “Best Designer of the Year” and “Best French Collection” in 1985 where he was accompanied at the Opera Garnier by singer Grace Jones dressed in a “bondage dress“, which immediately became iconic.

In 1986, the spring/summer collection included dresses made of body-hugging bandages inspired by the mummies of ancient Egypt. This show would be the runway debut of his favourite unknown Naomi Campbell.

It was against the grain, the spring/summer 1988 collection was presented two months after the other designers’ collections. From then on he paraded only when he felt the collection was ready and snubbed the official fashion calendar. He was revolutionary. He created a fiber that could be shaped according to his needs and called it “houpette“, composed of small tufts of nylon that create a special tactile perception as if you were caressing the plumage of a swan. This fiber will be used massively in his fall/winter 1988-89 collection.

In 1991 Alaïa collaborated on an innovative project for the history of fashion, a collaboration between haute couture and low-priced industrial garments made between Alaia and the Parisian discount store Tati. The collaboration was an international success.

Famous was his passion for animals, he loved Africa intensely.
In the autumn/winter collection 1991-92 he created a fashion show with a succession of dresses and knitwear outfits in animal prints. In it, the feline motif is followed by the gracefulness of the butterfly’s profile. Dresses “cage”, consisting of a grid of black leather, allow a glimpse of the underlying fabric depicting a concentrated multicolour à-plat and sheath dresses in black knit with large butterflies that rest on the chest or back.

Another great passion since the Academy of Fine Arts was Madame de Pompadour to whom he dedicated an entire collection, the spring/summer 1992. It was the largest he realized (counting about 115 items). He combined the splendour of 18th-century fashion and his Tunisian roots, tying and reinterpreting them in a contemporary key. The vision of eighteenth-century fashion is revised with leather, a material that is worked as if it were lace, with bustiers and corsets in perforated leather that emphasize the forms, Sangallo lace miniskirts, knit dresses with boat neckline and floral motifs on the pubic; the collection was a condensation of identity and colour and the most well-received by critics.

He did only three Haute Couture shows. The first was in 2003. The highlight, which later became his visual trademark, was the crocodile, of which he used the untreated shell to create a tuxedo jacket. The second will be in 2011 with a standing ovation from the audience. The third, in 2017 opened by his favourite Naomi Campbell.

In 2007, the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation was founded. The main purpose was to preserve his collection of clothes and within it he founded a gallery, a museum and a library to educate young people, help those in the industry and especially to archive and preserve his great collection.

Azzedine Alaïa leaves us on November 18, 2017, after several days of coma caused by a fall.

“… An artisan in the noblest sense of the word, and a man fiercely attached to his freedom,” is how François-Henri Pinault, head of the Kering group, defined him, saddened by the loss.


Alaïa collection – aloe&wolf archive

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