First Look - Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier

Conceived and co-curated by Azzedine Alaïa before he died in November last year, the exhibition ‘Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier’, is located at the Design Museum and features over 60 examples of Alaïa’s work. The exhibition entwines stories of his life with his journey from sculptor to couturier and includes handpicked garments from the designer himself, spanning from his early days to his latest collection.

Resisting the urge to turn the exhibition into a retrospective, Alaïa’s long term collaborator, friend and partner in curating the show, Mark Wilson, opted to stay with the designers original vision for the exhibition; a depiction of technique and craft. It’s the first-ever UK show dedicated purely to the Tunisian designer, who is known by his unique desire for perfectionism, his anti-commercial personality and incredible generosity. It’s known that there would always be a chef present in his Paris located atelier and no matter if you swept the floors or were one of his many supermodel guests, everyone would sit at the same table and eat dinner, collectively, like a family.

The exhibition presents Alaïa’s work against the backdrop of specially commissioned screens from five of his closest friends and artists; Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Konstantin Grcic, Marc Newson, Kris Ruhs and his partner for many years, Christoph von Weyhe. The results provided a new and stimulating perception of his designs.

The exhibition is split into 11 separate themes with ranges of clothes from different collections throughout the Tunisian designer’s time. Originally trained as a sculptor at the School of Fine Art in Tunis, the ‘king of cling’ always considered his clothing from a sculptural perspective. Hence, there was no other place to start than the theme ‘Sculptural Tension’; a display of seven uniquely crafted evening gowns, standing on mirrored mounts to reflect the light off the 10 metre long shimmering architectural wall, designed retrospectively by friend and industrial designer Marc Newson. Alaïa transformed metals into a textile that could be both light and airy when combined with leather, or strong and powerful to hold the structure of the dress. He used nailhead studs to reinvent animal prints on python skin, whilst certain aspect of chainmail was so fine they were almost transparent.

Moving clockwise around the room, we came to a trio of beautifully constructed laced gowns under the theme, ‘Decoration and Structure’. One of Alaïa’s many trademarks was his ability to avoid surface embellishment. Rather than use embroidery, a popular technique in Haute Couture, he elegantly sewed intricate patterns into the different layers of his designs; altering the structure of the dress as well as its form on a women. The screen behind the dresses was designed by artist, sculptor and designer, Kris Ruhs, and looks almost mesh like in aesthetic, perfectly complimenting the gowns themselves. Jumping ship, we moved onto a complete opposite aesthetic; his use of leather. Titled ‘Revolutionary Skins’, Alaïa changed the use of leather on female clothing. The first recognition he received came from a leather coat in 1981; studded with eyelets, the jacket epitomised the hard-edged style that followed in many seasons to come. He constantly revisited leather and often combined it with utilitarian metal detailing, evoking an industrial aesthetic.

At the back of the room lied an entourage of voluminous dresses, surprisingly attached to the theme, ‘Exploring Volume’. Although the cherished designer loved using stretch fabric to amplify the female body, his interest in hyper-fitting was by no means single minded. Fascinated with fashion history, this theme explored his interpretation and respect for grandeur shapes from the 17th and 18th century. Using contemporary technologies, he re-evaluated intricate techniques, such as boning and the use of petticoats, to achieve deceptive garments that floated weightlessly around the female body.

Alaïa found a lot of inspiration from Africa; a celebration of both his home town, Tunisia, and African colours and textures. To the theme of ‘Other Place, Other Cultures’, there were three interesting designs using the likes of flax ropes, sea shells, and crocodile skin.

Alaïa loved watching the National Geographic channel and was obsessed with animal prints, often using techniques such as faggoting to encourage air to cool the body. The designer also found inspiration from Spain claiming ‘the first fashion I remember was Velazquez –Las Meninas’. He was inspired by the vibrancy and life style of Spanish folk costume. Here, to the theme of ‘Spanish Accent’, we were presented with another trio of dresses, in dynamic shades of emerald, crimson and pink. With clear flamenco-inspired ruffles and textures, Alaïa achieved a tremendous amount of energy and movement in these pieces. The screen between both themes was designed by Konstantin Grcic, a leading industrial designer; think reflective screens with different folds in each tile, breaking up the overall reflection of the clothes.

Black was Alaïa’s favourite colour, which often simplified his hard complex work to a simple silhouette. He preferred people to notice the women wearing his clothes rather than the clothes themselves and said using black allowed the attention to be on the muse not the creator. However, looking closer at each dress you can appreciate the craftsmanship behind it. The ‘Black Silhouettes’ theme consisted of seven black gowns each with incredibly intricate detailing. He would often combine many fabrics, some bright with veils of black chiffon, to subtly achieve colouring dependent on the movement of the dress.

Alaïa thought there should be a level of sensuality about fabrics and prized velvet for its radiant surface and tactility. Another trio of dresses, under the theme ‘Renaissance Perspective’, explored his use of the material. Using jewel-tones of ruby or sapphire, as well as his beloved black, he succeeded in modernising velvet to beautifully encrust the female body. The screen behind the collection saw sketches of Alaïa’s designs from his life partner, Christoph von Weyhe. The screen also complimented the next theme in the exhibition, ‘Timelessness’. Obsessed with the ‘intemporelle’ of fashion, Alaïa constantly toyed with ancient cultures, updating their styles with modern techniques. His belief in eternal beauty was influenced by early Parisian couturiers, Madeleine Vionnet and Alix Grés. He collected their work and used it as reference points for his own interpretations and explorations.

There was a reason Alaïa was also known to the media as ‘The King of Cling’. His use of stretch materials primitively started as a secondary material to shape his garments, however, after many years, he started to use the fabrics on their own. Debuting in 1986, Alaïa introduced the use of ‘Bandelette’ (bandages); an exploration of highly fitting precisely cut materials that cling to the human form. Taking inspiration from ancient Egyptian mummification, we saw seven gowns, including the infamous pink dress worn by Grace Jones, set out to illustrate how each band of fabric was precisely engineered to sensually wrap the body.

A truly inspiring exhibition, laid out in a phenomenal way, stripping the garments of any obvious sexuality to allow us to purely examine what Alaïa loved; craftsmanship and culture. Doors open tomorrow from 10:00 – 18.00. An admission for an adult is £16.00 and £12.00 for students; you definitely won’t regret it. Afterwards, be sure to visit his first recently opened UK store in Mayfair. Although not couture, the clothes are just as heavenly and why wouldn’t you soak up more of his mastery designs?! We did.