Colin’s Column | The Focused Modesty of Azzedine Alaïa

On the eve of a major retrospective on Azzedine Alaïa, curated by Olivier Saillard and staged at the newly re-opened Musée Galliera, Colin McDowell reflects on the life and work of the great couturier.

Alaïa S/S 1991 | Source: Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris

PARIS, France — Amidst the growing flood of comment saying fashion has lost its way — bogged down with greed, ego and false glamour — I find myself thinking more and more about Balenciaga: son of a fisherman, who had no formal education, but was probably the most intellectually gifted couturier of the 20th century. Balenciaga knew the dignity of his calling. Aloof and shy, he kept the press at arm’s length, never parading his problems or personal feelings. A very close friend of his once told me that Balenciaga’s way of coping with stress was to bottle it up until bedtime. In fact, he would frequently wake up in the middle of the night and sit on the floor, compulsively folding and refolding a favourite piece of fabric as he figured out the solution to his problems in the silent dignity of his own thoughts.

There is only one designer today worthy of mention in the same breath as Balenciaga and that is Azzedine Alaïa, whose retrospective at the newly refurbished Palais Galliera costume museum has just begun. And what a retrospective it is, reflecting everything that links Alaïa with his illustrious predecessor, whilst showing us in example after example his own uniqueness in today’s fashion world. Like a sculptor, he wrestles with the raw material of his craft until he has revealed its true nature and produced an object with total creative integrity, something that makes the spirit soar in the same way as a Brâncuși bird or a Moore reclining figure. Every inch of every garment Alaïa creates, seen from every angle, is incontrovertibly right as an object, just as a chair or table by Prouvé or Eames.

Like Balenciaga, Alaïa is a modest man who, for most of his career, has been happy to be left alone to follow his own path. He is aware that all great creativity is achieved through silent communion with oneself. But as he cuts, pins and sews, Alaïa is not alone, of course. Floating around him and even guiding his hands are the women who occupy his imagination. And what women!

Let us begin with the powerful dignity of the women of the desert who he saw in his childhood in North Africa. Their voluptuous figures, the slow and gentle movements — and the effect these had on their flowing garments — have remained with Alaïa throughout his entire life, as, indeed, have the unique qualities of many other strong women. There was the great French actress Arletty, who, directed by Marcel Carné, dominated French cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, and the powerful Italian star of 1940s stage and cinema, Anna Magnani, whose nickname, “the she-wolf,” says it all. They are joined by their modern counterparts: Grace Jones, the opera diva Jessye Norman, Tina Turner, Farida Khelfa (one-time bouncer at Les Bains Douche, who starred with Alaïa in a fabulous series of photographs by Jean Paul-Goude) and Naomi Campbell. All have mastered not only their various crafts, but also their worlds and how they dress for them.

But what of the now?

Well, as the remarkably beautiful exhibition curated by Olivier Saillard shows very clearly, Alaïa knows that in fashion, as in all creative endeavours, less is always more. But not less thought, of course. A lot of that is needed in order to distill inspiration down to its essence. This is how a sculptor or a poet approaches what has been described by Philip Larkin as “the toad work,” meaning that, as in the fairytale, it must be kissed with love and dedication if anything of value or beauty is to result. This is something that Azzedine Alaïa knows so instinctively that he probably never thinks about it. And that is how it should be.

I guess I should at this point say that I have never seen an actual Alaïa show, just like many of my colleagues. And I particularly regret missing those very early days when the grandest of the fashion tribe were invited to sit on cushions on the floor of his atelier whilst a limited number of garments were modestly shown.

These days, so many designers seem to feel that a large cast of thousands of characters is essential to their probity, but not so Alaïa. He knew that he could say what he wished to through simple, more direct expression. His statements were short and intelligently edited, more a perfect haiku or sonnet than the bombastic epics we are used to seeing on today’s runways.

Alaïa’s output over the many years of his pioneering work has been comparatively small; the places where it is available for purchase even smaller. Advertising was non-existent. And yet, his name is respected globally. And this is the real lesson his example offers to today’s overheated fashion system.

A man who takes days and weeks to evolve a particular shape has, by definition, a limited output, but it is an output in which everything counts. If I could wave a wand and change the bloated industry we have today, I would encourage young designers to immerse themselves in only one or two design ideas, but immerse themselves to such an extent that, after six months of thought and research, they have produced perhaps only a dozen original looks that have real integrity and longevity; a new couture, instead of the travesty we call couture today.

Meanwhile, give thanks for Alaïa, see the exhibition and let it fill you with wonder. Less really can be more.