Azzedine Alaïa: A New Spin on the King of Cling

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 came 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 perceivesAlaïa 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 realised 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?”

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.

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

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

“This is an industrious work of detail – it reflects absolutely how he was,” says Alice Black, Co-Director of the Design Museum. “This was his passion, which consumed him and which he spent all his life doing. He is certainly one of the greatest masters. And that is also what we do, in terms of the Museum. To be able to bring his skills to the UK, in a way that has never been seen before, is very important and shows a different side of fashion to other exhibitions.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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