France is renowned for its fashion history. Some of the world’s greatest couturiers were born and raised here, couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel and finally, the focus of this article, Azzedine Alaia. Whilst his two contemporaries were busy breaking social boundaries with their androgynous visions, Alaia instead created clothing that was designed to hug and emphasise a woman’s body. I was recently engaged by Alaia for the first time whilst reading Grace Coddington’s memoirs – her enthusiasm for some of his early collections led her to make the decision to dress exclusively in Alaia, a huge accolade. So upon hearing news that the first exhibition to be held at the recently-renovated Paris Galliera would be a retrospective of the man himself, I wasted no time in heading to the museum to see what the fuss was about. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
|Fall/Winter 2003, ph by Paolo Roversi|
Upon entering the extremely reasonably-priced exhibition (I qualified for the demi-tariff price of 4Euros), I was greeted by an expansive collection of some of Alaia's most famous couture gowns. The first section of the exhibition showed gowns in a range of beautiful fabrics - on the left-hand side were the more traditional of the designs, often executed in dark velvet or heavy cotton, which transitioned perfectly into the more ethereal designs on the right. The most impressive aspect of the garments was the construction - Alaia often speaks of his infatuation with the female body, made evident in the seams of the dresses which perfectly contour the female physique, often curving around to emphasise the behind. The chiffon dresses were all gorgeous, the execution of the looks was fascinating; one dress, for example, could function either as a slip or as a dress in its own right. Made from black stretch jersey, it was an exact mould of the female form and, when worn, the jersey would stretch to reveal an erotic glimpse of the flesh beneath. A personal favourite (pictured below, far left) was extremely impressive in its conception. The main body of the dress was made entirely from transparent black chiffon, broken apart by what appeared to be clouds of dark red powder with a slight shimmer, designed to mimic the effect of snow trapped in a snowglobe.
|A glimpse of the exhibiton's opening room|
The next section of the exhibition focused on how Alaia used zips to emphasise the female form. All of the dresses in this section came in varying shades of black – from deep, inky blacks through to more muted blacks with slightly grey undertones, they all worked magnificently when injected with the shock of the metal zips (both gold and silver). The original model for the dress started as a full-length (pictured below on Lindsey Wixson) but was later reinterpreted in the form of both a midi and mini-dress, corresponding with Alaia’s later ‘edgier’ aesthetic.This section also showcased the iconic hooded dress; an aesthetic which would later become a signature for Grace Jones and, more recently, Lady Gaga.
|Lindsey Wixson modelling the 'zip dress'|
The final section was by far the most impressive, and also the most comprehensive. It documented the various developments in Alaia’s aesthetic, starting with the hole-punched leather of his earliest work and progressing right up to some of his most recent work. It was a true testament to the designer’s skill that he later managed to master fabrics which are notoriously difficult to work with – one winter dress was made from a thick, boiled wool and embroidered with swirling metallic thread, whereas one jacket was exquisitely cut from crocodile hide, its cocoon-like silhouette still referenced by houses such as Kenzo today.
There were also two examples of one of his best-known looks. Both looks incorporated various strands of kaleidoscopic cotton, glimpsed beneath laser-cut leather. The first was extraordinary; with its nipped-in waist, corseted bodice and exaggerated full skirt, it toed the line perfectly between drama and sophistication. Based on an earlier design by Jean-Paul Goude, the leather was perforated into starbust shapes, exposing the hot pink fabric beneath and creating the illusion of various fireworks exploding against the black canvas of the dress. The other leather look was signature Alaia, but this time the material was cut to model the strips of prison bar. Upon further inspection, the garment which lay beneath the prison was the glorious ‘Butterfly’ bodysuit, a black bodysuit embroidered with two bright butterflies, one for the top half and one for the bottom. This look was beautifully described in the exhibition notes as “A soft leather prison for its consenting victims”, a beautiful contrast between fetish and beauty, dominant and submissive.
Perhaps it is the previous quote that best describes Alaia’s entire body of work. With hints of exposed flesh, there is always an element of eroticism in his work which stems not from the desire to provoke or cause controversy, but to celebrate the female body in its naked form. No matter how tough the materials he works with, the overall product always mirrors and enhances a woman’s silhouette, even when engineered in thick fabrics such as wool and leather. His influence is still evident in modern fashion, and it was surprising when looking around the exhibition how many of the looks had been quite obviously referenced by later designers. It is impossible to truly appreciate how ubiquitous the Alaia look still is until you see this collection, and although his varied aesthetics have been mimicked and homaged, it’s not unreasonable to say that nobody understands the female form quite like Alaia. For this reason, he will always be relevant.