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Alaïa After Alaïa

As Richemont-owned Alaïa opens a new flagship in London, Tim Blanks talks to Carla Sozzani about the late designer Azzedine Alaïa and the radical proposition that his studio will be able to sustain his legacy entirely with what he left them.
Azzedine Alaïa | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Tim Blanks
BoF PROFESSIONAL

LONDON, United Kingdom — Azzedine Alaïa loved London. The feeling was clearly mutual. He has a 6,000-square-foot store opening on Bond Street next week — his label's first outside Paris, where it operates two stores; a celebration of his work is launching at the Design Museum a fortnight after that. If he'd lived a little longer, he might even have taken an apartment here.

But Alaïa didn't live to see any of it. Five months ago, he had a heart attack in Paris. He was 82. But age was just a number to Azzedine. "So busy, so many projects, he would have loved to go like this," says Carla Sozzani, retail doyenne, close friend and confidante for 40 years. He managed a 60-year career in fashion entirely on his own terms, long ago liberating himself from the tyranny of seasonal fashion shows or the need to court the press.

It’s a measure of Alaïa’s success that nothing about the current flurry of activity feels like a memorial. “It’s exactly what he wanted,” Sozzani insists. “It’s not like starting from scratch with something he never saw or knew about. We found the [store location] together, he enjoyed the whole process, he saw the walls come down.” Alaïa liked the fact it was a historical building, home for almost 150 years to the antique jewellery dealer S.J.Phillips. Now it’s three floors of high-ceilinged, loft-like space, open, airy and full of light. “Rare for London,” says Sozzani, in her typically understated way.

And it’s a revelation. Alaïa was a design nut, collecting furniture by some of the greatest mid-century-and-later names like others buy vintage vinyl. And the store is studded with spectacular pieces, the obvious standouts being the central spiraling staircase by Kris Ruhs, the giant circular ceiling lights by Marc Newson and the two Martin Szekely bookshelves that fill the front windows. (Sozzani has bowed to convention and placed a small bag on each, by way of window display.)

Personally, I love Pierre Paulin’s Cathedral tables, customized in an orange to match the accent colour of the spring/summer collection racked around the walls. The same shade reoccurs in the huge, impressive canvas by Christoph Von Weyhe, Alaïa’s partner of 58 years, which hangs behind the till. Against this sculptural, occasionally monumental backdrop, his clothes take on a different weight from any other experience you may have had of them.

Inside the new Alaïa flagship in London | Source: Courtesy

After he moved to Paris from Tunisia in the late 50s, Alaïa would cruise the flea markets, buying pieces by designers like Jean Prouvé, decades before anyone else took notice. Their interest in pure form reflected his own sculptural inclinations. And his instinct for their work – and the designers who came after them – creates an impressive frame for his clothes in the London store. Their timelessness is now his timelessness. “You can’t say when they were made,” Sozzani agrees. “They don’t look like anything else. So it’s a discovery in a way.”

What’s currently on the racks is a blend of the spring/summer collection and some curated pieces. For the future, there is an endless archive of work to draw on — 21,000 patterns and counting, according to Sozzani — with a dedicated atelier ready to perpetuate the legend. As testament, the Design Museum show will feature two pieces Alaïa was working on when he died that the atelier has since finished.

He wasn't interested in material success. His obsession was to be simply the best. (It's hard to tell the Alaïa story without at least one Tina Turner reference.) And Alaïa's work was self-referential, to the point where he believed his studio would be able to sustain his legacy entirely with what he had left them. It's a radical proposition in an era when a designer's name is regarded as a mere bagatelle — something to be bought and sold — by the corporate overlords that own the label. Sozzani insists that Alaïa's owner Richemont is committed to the continuation of a business that is utterly unusual in the history of fashion. (They also have Chloé and Cartier in their portfolio.)

“Richemont respects the heritage,” she says. “I can’t think of many designers who have worked for 60 years with this consistency outside the system.” Many? Try any! Name one other designer who was in the position to buy back at auction the clothes he originally designed for Greta Garbo.

Alaïa also lived in the grip of a true collector's compulsion.

But Alaïa also lived in the grip of a true collector's compulsion. Sozzani tells stories about him slipping away from the studio "for an appointment with the physiotherapist" when his real destination was Drouot or some other Parisian auction house. "He was a strange collector, buying then hiding," she says. "Everything is in a box or a shopping bag." Finding things, saving things. In early 2000, when money was tight, she and Alaïa were parked in an auction when she realized he was bidding against all the museums of the world for a coat by Paul Poiret. He got it. Sozzani has no idea where it is, in the same way she can barely get a grip on how many dresses by Charles James, Dior, Madame Gres, Claire McCardell or Hollywood legend Adrian Alaïa managed to acquire.

She does, however, have the assurance of curatorial superstars Olivier Saillard, former director of the Palais Galliera in Paris, and Andrew Bolton of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, that the collection will be the foundation of the most important private fashion museum in the world when it eventually opens in his maison in Paris. The institution will celebrate all his collections, his own and those of other designers, and Saillard has come on board to oversee the exhibitions.

He’s joining the association Sozzani formed in 2007 with Alaïa and Christophe Von Weyhe to preserve and protect the designer’s legacy. “We were always talking about the future,” she says. “With Azzedine, we never talked about the past.” In the London store, there is a private space where Alaïa imagined himself sitting with customers. “He really wanted to do more couture,” Sozzani adds. “He missed the one-on-one in the last years. He liked to talk with a customer for hours, then measure, then sit and drink, measure some more, try the clothes. So many hours, going from one pattern to another, with friends coming in all the time. He would never close his door.”

"I don't even feel like he's not here," says Carla, as we perch on a Pierre Paulin sofa, sipping pink champagne. That is a small measure of the sensual, pleasurable joie de vivre Alaïa was able to communicate with his clothes.

In other words, the door is still open.

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 17 April, 2018. An earlier version of this article misstated that Azzedine Alaïa died three months ago. In fact, he died five months ago.

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