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4th December 2017

Alaïa: his story and legacy

As the fashion world mourns the loss of the iconic designer Azzedine Alaïa, Maddie Rodbert reflects on his successes and his ever-present influence in popular culture

Azzedine Alaïa has passed away in Paris at the age of 82; although if he had it his way, he would most likely have lied to you and cut off at least five years from his age.

The designer was famous for rejecting the status quo and settled himself into the fray as quirky and unpredictable.  From lying about his age to get into art school, to ignoring the traditional seasonal fashion weeks in favour of ‘surprise’ shows, Azzedine Alaïa’s eccentric and rebellious take on couture and the fashion industry turned him into a modern legend.

As the fashion industry mourns his death, it feels right to look back at his story and his biggest successes.  Born in Tunisia, the designer found himself obsessed with fashion due to his summers spent on the coast with his aunts and grandmother, who fuelled his passion with issues of Vogue and dressmaking.  Alaïa studied the process of dressmaking from a young age, watching the family midwife sew in his childhood.

Local, wealthy women who’d employed him to sew the hems of their dresses persuaded him to go to Paris after his training. However, the late fifties were not an ideal time to migrate from North Africa and within five days he was asked to leave Dior because his papers were not in order.

Alaïa never forgave Yves Saint Laurent for that.  However, two aristocratic Parisian women were taken by him and offered him a place as an au pair and dressmaker.  It was here that Alaïa started to get traction and after making dresses for his employers, he started to earn enough commission to afford his own flat and launched his atelier from there.

Despite this, he did flit from designer to designer as an apprentice; he spent time working for Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler before his own line was successful enough to be his sole work.  Having studied sculpture, Alaïa’s designs were heavily focused on the female form and how to sculpt and structure that shape through fashion.

Vogue named him the ‘King of Cling’ due to how he was revered for making garments that moulded the body into extraordinary proportions.  His focus on these classic silhouette shapes was what made him popular, and his first clothes launch was labelled as ‘ground-breaking’; the entire collection was constructed in leather and both highlighted and sculpted parts of women’s bodies into their best shape possible.

This launch cemented Alaïa’s position in pop culture for generations, dressing celebrities like Grace Jones, Madonna, Naomi Campbell and more recently, Kendall Jenner.  All of these women were dressed in, what many would call, works of art; the ratio of cling and structure to more flowing material show off the women’s bodies in the best way possible.

Almost more famously, Alaïa’s name makes a cameo in the 1995 film Clueless where the film’s leading lady, Cher Horowitz pleads with the man mugging her not to make her lie on the ground because of her dress.  Cher famously pleads “you don’t understand, this is an Alaïa”, but it seems she doesn’t understand; a dress made by Alaïa’s skill would absolutely withstand a short time on the floor.  The feathers would not even have been ruffled.

As the fashion industry mourns their loss, Francois Henri Pinault, the chairman and chief executive of Kering, describes him best; “In the fashion world, he was a great, major couturier.  Everything was at the top with him.” His uncanny ability to shape and shift the industry as expertly as he did the women’s bodies he clothed is a feat not many others could live up to.

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