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Clothes cut by the hand of God

18 May 2018 | Suzanne Frost

The Tunisian designer who died in November of last year embodied haute couture with an uncompromising conviction that is becoming rare these days in the fashion world.

Born in 1935 he arrived in Paris in the 50s and forms an indispensable link between the first great couturiers such as Cristobal Balenciaga and Madame Vionnet to the supermodel era of the 80s. He didn’t do sketches and drawings but could only work directly on the body, draping and folding, ‘thinking with his hands’, forming shapes like an architect. Alaïa refused to follow the seasons of the fashion industry and only presented when he felt his work was ready, sometimes weeks after the international fashion week press had flown home.

Photo: Suzanne Frost

The body-hugging, second skin silhouette was his trademark and he loved experimenting with stretchy materials and precisely tailored leathers, always meticulously cutting his own patterns. His love for reptile skins and slightly morbid skeleton inspired details parallel the work of Alexander McQueen who admired Alaïa and always cited him as one of his greatest inspirations. Held in the highest regards by many of his peers, his clothes were often described as "cut by the hand of god."

The exhibition Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier, conceived and co-curated with Monsieur Alaïa himself prior to his death, examines the work of one of the most respected fashion designers in history in over 60 rare and iconic garments spanning his career from his first show in 1970 to his final one in 2017.    

 Photo: Suzanne Frost

The display is achingly elegant and stylish. The pieces are presented on hyper-elongated mannequins on platforms and look more super than any supermodel ever could. They also make us mere mortals walking amongst the glamazons feel like stumpy dwarfs. The different sections of the exhibition are separated by metal and glass screens that were created for this installation by artists Alaïa admired and befriended. Some subtly reference Tunisian and Moroccan patterns, carried out in modern sleek materials.

Photo: Suzanne Frost

Photographs and videos adorn the walls, many of Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. Alaïa was fiercely loyal to the girls he liked and championed them through the decades. Naomi Campbell called Azzedine ‘Papa’ ever since he offered her his apartment in Paris at age 16. He also kept close working relationships with photographers Peter Lindberg and Paolo Roversi (who’s collaborations are displayed on the first floor gallery space). Once you were in the Alaïa’s circle you were part of the family and from the photographs you take away an image of a man who smiles and smiles.

(c) Dazed magazine

The dresses are much more dramatic. There is fantastic laser-cut leather lace from 2011, similar to what Self Portrait are using nowadays. In the Dark Silhouettes section there are decorative zips and corset-like lacing that recall Gianni Versace; in the Wrapped Forms section there are bodycon dresses crafted from elasticated fabric that wraps around the body like a bandage, near identical to the dresses of Hervé Leger, Alaïa’s former student, who is now famous for the formfitting design. Sculptural Tension displays leather and metal dresses and animal prints fit for amazon warriors in fascinating juxtaposition to the most delicate and transparent chiffons.

Photo: Suzanne Frost

The exhibition lets you get really close and put your nose right into ridiculously fine lace that on closer inspection looks like leather and is actually beaded. "He makes clothes like bullets," Alaïa model Veronica Webb once said, "they last forever." Pieces from the early 80s sit seamlessly next to the last works from 2017, confirming a designer of timeless individual style. Simply stunning.
 
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier is at the Design Museum until 7 October
 
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