By V Lynn Smith
“My obsession is to make women beautiful. When you create with that in mind, things can’t go out of
fashion.” Azzedine Alaïa
So when my summer travels took me to London, I did what any fashionista would do I purchased tickets to see the Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier Exhibition at The Design Museum. What an amazing exhibit it was to bear witness to. When Azzedine Alaïa passed away in November 2017, he and co-curator Mark Wilson were “90% of the way through” their plans for a new exhibition of the Tunisian couturier’s work. I am truly thankful that the show opened as planned. The exhibition features over 60 of Alaïa’s most iconic pieces, from the early 1980’s to his final creations. The exhibit features items worn by his most famous muses like Tina Turner, Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell. The Grace Jones dress, the Tina Turner dress, the Naomi dress, have now become iconic pieces of fashion history. Every garment on display is a masterpiece of texture, shape, cut and color.
The Tunisian born couturier Azzedine Alaïa reveled in his role of being an outsider within the fashion world, as ignored the collection calendar while still upholding the traditions of haute couture. Sensuous, body-hugging forms, described as second skins are Alaïa’s enduring legacy and influence. Azzedine Alaïa obsessed over the work of the Grand Masters of Haute Couture: Madeleine Vionnet, Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga and these designers would influence and fuel his work for years to come.
The garments in the exhibition are organized by technique as opposed to chronological grouping. Azzedine Alaïa’s work is presented against beautiful pieces of art specifically commissioned for this show, that split up each installation. Upon walking into the exhibit the first breathtaking display I saw was “Sculptured Tension” which focuses on the couturier’s passion for the sculpting, and his love of experimental materials such as metals. The collection of is framed by a ten-meter copper chainmail-like screen designed by Alaïa’s close friend Marc Newson.
“Revolutionary Skins” features his revolutionary use of leather. He challenged the material’s fetishistic overtones and created elegant, timeless pieces that wrapped the female form. My favorite item was the Swallow-tailed jacket of wool cloth and crocodile” from the Spring/Summer 2003 couture collection. “Fragility and Strength” displays Alaïa’s expertise with other materials such as chiffon, including that red dress worn by Rihanna at the 2013 Grammy Awards.
Other displays include “Exploring Volume” – a large display of different dresses that showcase Alaïa’s inimitable talent for voluminous ball gowns while creating shapes that could redefine a woman’s body. My favorite display “Wrapped Forms” or what was known as “the move something dresses” features the most amazing examples of some of the Alaïa’s most iconic designs, including the cerise Badelette dress worn by Grace Jones at the 1987 Fashion Oscars. Alaïa’s bandage dresses cling to the wearer’s form, ever so conscious of the entire body while allowing the body to move freely.
The exhibition also featured the work of photographer Richard Wentworth who was given rare access to Maison Alaïa between January 2016 and July 2017. Richard Wentworth was able to observe and capture on film the daily routine of Azzedine Alaïa. This is an artist view of another artist at work and when seen together it bridges the gap of what goes into the making of a couture garment. The photographs surrounded the outer edges of the exhibition as it to enshrine the displays.
The one takeaway that I have after seeing this exhibit is the understanding of “Timeless Fashion”. The phrase has a tendency to be over used but in the case of Azzedine Alaïa it is an understatement. Any one of these amazing pieces could be worn for years to come and they would still be appropriate for any occasion. You can’t put a date on any of his creations. He was always working and reworking each garment until it was perfect. If your travels should take you to London in the very near future I highly recommend seeing this exhibition.
“Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier” runs until October 7, 2018, at the Design Museum, London. For more info, contact the museum at www.designmuseum.org