From the Cabaret to the Catwalk: A Brief History of Azzedine Alaia
Azzedine Alaïa’s legacy is unbreakable—his patience for his practice and his complete understanding of the female form set a new, untouchable standard that will forever impact and challenge the world of womenswear. Throughout his career, Alaïa remained staunchly independent and enigmatic, ignoring the schedules and institutions of the fashion industry, and focusing purely on improving his craft at his own pace. Alaïa was a true master of the female shape at every stage and plane of life—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. From his legendary bandage dresses to his baby-bump-hugging anti-maternity maternity gowns, Alaïa’s designs accentuate and celebrate a woman’s journey through time, making themselves ephemeral manifestations of life itself.
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It comes as no surprise that Alaïa, who possessed such an intimate understanding of the female body, was introduced to the craft of fashion by the very midwife who delivered him into this world. Mme. Pineau revealed to Alaïa the universe of fine arts through her department-store catalogues and art books, opening him up to what, little did she know, would be his life’s passion. As Alaïa immersed himself in clothing design and the sculptures and forms constructed by Picasso, Mme. Pineau quickly recognized Alaïa’s innate interest in the arts and enrolled him in a local school. Like his predecessor, Madame Gres, Alaïa studied sculpture, but took a job with a local dressmaker to pay tuition, using fabric as his new sculptural medium. He worked alongside his sister, Hafida, until landing a new short-lived job at Dior where he was employed for a total of five days—Alaïa’s Tunisian roots tainted his reputation in the post-Algerian-War world, but he did not let his heritage stop him from moving forward.
Alaïa pressed on, working for five years as a live-in seamstress and nanny for the Countess de Blegiers, and later opening his own in-apartment atelier where he designed garments for independent clients through the late 70s. Unlike designers who came into the spotlight decades after him, Alaïa’s world of fashion was pre-ready-to-wear—women did not select the items they wanted from a completed collection, but instead, they relied on skilled, unbranded designers to construct garments custom-made for them—and Alaïa quickly became the go-to man for actresses and aristocrats alike. Alongside the high-profile socialites who cherished his work throughout the 70s, were the women at Crazy Horse, a cabaret on Avenue George V in Paris, for whom Alaïa designed costumes. Perhaps this is where his aesthetic understanding of the female body came full circle.
The silhouettes Alaïa was constructing during this time were far from what was in vogue—cinched waists, bare backs, and broad shoulders—not only an example of his disinterest in popularity or fame, but the key element that kept his clientele close and bystanders intrigued. At Paris collection week in 1980, Alaïa lent outfits to Nicole Crassat and her Elle colleagues; Carlyne Cerf and Brigitte Langevin—a fitted leather suit, a chiffon skirt weighed-down by grommets, and a knit dress detailed with a single spiraling zipper. Their unusual styling caught the eyes of Bill Cunningham of Women’s Wear Daily, who wrote on November 23, 1981 that an “unknown designer” was “putting women back in clothes designed to illuminate the curves of the female.” With this press, Alaïa quickly became the most-wanted designer abroad—and it was not be long before his name was buzzing amongst the American fashion-elite.
Shortly after Cunningham’s piece, Alaïa was tracked down by Dawn Mello, the fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, who asked Alaïa to complete his first collection to show on the runway in Paris. In September, 1982, Alaïa presented his first (and only publically-scheduled) collection, which was wildly well-received by the press and modelled by some of the most prestigious faces in the industry. Perhaps it was surprising for a newcomer like Alaïa to have such well-known women flaunting his designs, but these women knew what they could get from walking a show—nearly every model asked to be paid in Alaïa’s coveted clothes. As his notoriety grew, Alaïa relied less on the fame of industry icons and instead became a platform for newer models to rise: many of the model he discovered and used on his runway—Veronica Webb, Grace Jones, Naomi Campbell, and Stephanie Seymour, to name a few—owe their success to him.
Of these women, perhaps most notably, was Grace Jones—a close friend and client of Alaïa’s with a definingly handsome face. Stunningly unusual, Alaïa gravitated toward her appearance and the very narrative it proposed: a face so strikingly masculine and strong—high cheekbones and full lips beneath a closely-buzzed haircut—alongside a curvy feminine figure. His clothing highlighted her juxtaposition, creating a definitive womanly silhouette that contrasted her untraditionally eye-catching face. Like her character May Day in A View to Kill, who was frequently dressed in Alaïa’s designs, Jones’ femininity never stopped her from being a figure of strength and evocativeness.
Although women’s rights were still largely disregarded in the 1980’s, in today’s context it only seems natural to ask—was Alaïa fetishizing the female figure or simply celebrating it? Alaïa’s work was provocative, no doubt, with tight-fitting leathers and high-reaching slits, but his nurturing nature and undeniable love for design makes the former statement seem less likely. Alaïa was rooted in self-improvement and worked wholeheartedly to improve his craft, all while nurturing the women he worked closest with. Nonetheless, his work was not celebrated by all—Alaïa received harsh criticisms from Second Wave feminists, who rejected the stimulating, crazed nature of his designs. He was seen as the origin of the push-up bra era, where unfathomable cleavage became a desirable, yet naturally unachievable, everyday look. Trotting right alongside this wave of negativity was Women’s Wear Daily, the very publication that helped him rise from his private atelier, who began to criticize Alaïa’s work. In a piece titled, “The Rise and Fall of Azzedine Alaïa,” WWD argued that the fashion industry had moved on from the body-obsession that defined Alaïa’s work—claiming that audiences were no longer interested in anything he had to offer. Alaïa’s comeback ten years later would surely prove them wrong.
If a major fashion publication writing-off of his career wasn’t enough, the sudden death of his sister, Hafida, in 1992 set a despondent tone for the decade to come. The 90s proved a difficult time for Alaïa; defeated by his loss, he closed down his boutique on Mercer Street and retreated, more or less, until the new millennium. In 2000, Alaïa returned to the fashion scene with a full runway show, and soon after sold 100% of financial stake of his brand to Prada. A surprising move for a man who remained so staunchly independent throughout his career, but Alaïa managed to maintain his vision as a designer. Rather than succumbing to the pressures of investors, he did not show another collection on the runway for another seven years.
Alaïa’s last traditional runway show in 2011 was an awesome aur revoir both on and off the stage. The clothes were timeless and classically sexy—an intricately knit gown perfectly hugged the model’s curves, fading out into a structured tier of ruffles, while rounded shoulders, slim waists, and a bell-shape skirt created a shapely silhouette so iconic to the designer. The models were notable, to say the least—Karlie Kloss opened the show—almost as a modern rendition of Alaïa’s runway debut in 1982. The audience was swarming with socialites from Donatella Versace, to Sofia Coppola, to Kanye West, all who held an unbreakable standing ovation for the designer—a moment everyone undoubtedly hoped they would be fortunate enough to partake in again.
Alaïa’s death on November 18th shook the fashion world and echoed throughout its many surrounding industries. Carine Roitfeld, a close friend of Alaïa’s towards the later half of his career, told Business of Fashion, “Azzedine was the true meaning of ‘original.’ We should all aspire to live life as purely as he did and to be as focused in and devoted to our work as he was to his... Like a true artist he followed his instinct and simply did what he loved. He was dedicated to women—all types of women, not just those with the typical model’s silhouette. He always told me he loved to spend time with real women, learning about their loves and likes and dislikes. This is how he came to understand women the way he did—by listening. On top of all this he was incredibly modest, which is very rare in our world.”
Although Alaïa’s physical presence will be missed, his creative spirit and legacy will no doubt live on for the eternity of womenswear—in the cinched waists, clingy fabrics, and costumes at the Crazy Horse cabaret. Alaïa’s radical mindset pushed an entire industry forward, pulling away from unshapely uniformity and allowing the female form to be fully celebrated and cherished through fashion. The far-reaching impact of Alaïa’s death and the untouchable history created by his clothing immortalizes the fact that Alaïa never has, and never will fall.