Remembering Azzedine Alaïa: Fashion's Rule-Breaker

Azzedine Alaïa pictured with Laetitia Casta.

Azzedine Alaïa pictured with Laetitia Casta.

This week the world of fashion has been mourning the loss of one of its most prodigious talents. But despite being one of Paris’s most respected and much-loved couturiers, Azzedine Alaïa remained a relatively unknown figure outside the industry during his lifetime. The Tunisian-born designer didn’t advertise, nor did he court magazine editorial space, he rarely gave interviews and made no public appearances. Instead, he simply let his clothes speak for themselves.

A rare glimpse of M. Alaïa at work.

A rare glimpse of M. Alaïa at work.

The son of a Tunisian wheat farmer, self-taught Alaïa opened his own house in 1979, and debuted his first ready-to-wear collection the following year. He created every piece of clothing with his hands, manipulating materials on a bust into fabric sculptures. He rejected the idea that there must always be something new in fashion, and maintained a consistent house signature throughout his career. However, while he eschewed the industry’s fondness for change, he remained curious and continued to strive for perfection. “I’ve been trying to manipulate clothes for thirty years, but I know I can still get better,” he told 032c’s Jina Khayyer in 2011. “Sometimes I redo one thing five, six times. I am always in doubt; I am never sure of myself.”

Azzedine Alaia with Stephanie Seymour.

Azzedine Alaia with Stephanie Seymour.

His goal was simply to make women beautiful. His form fitting yet flattering designs, crafted from silk, knitted jersey and butter soft leathers and suedes, were dramatic but wearable, and beloved by clients who included Grace Jones, Madonna and Naomi Campbell, and Beyoncé, the Kardashians and Michelle Obama.

Alaïa Fall 2017 Couture / Photo: wwd.com

Alaïa Fall 2017 Couture / Photo: wwd.com

Azzedine Alaïa had a reputation as a fashion maverick, and not just in terms of his design ethos. He rejected the relentless pace of the industry, refusing to sacrifice creativity for what he considered to be an outdated system. He created collections at his own speed, deciding when, where and indeed if he would show at any given time. “We don’t need to think in seasons anymore; we need to think about beautiful clothes,” he said.

Carmen first met Azzedine Alaïa over 30 years ago when she was 22 and had opened her store Cabus in Venezuela. Her idol since she was 18, he was among one of the first designers to support her. “I had all the must-have iconic Alaïa pieces in the 80s: the leggings, the tiger jumpsuit, the white and black check outfit,” she said. Over time, they became close friends as he supported Carmen with CoutureLab and her idea of promoting seasonless couture and crafted pieces with the story behind the product. “He believed in CoutureLab as a concept store more than I did,” said Carmen. “Perhaps because like me, it reminded him of how fashion was for all of us in the late 80s and early 90s.”

Carmen recalls how he knew her body perfectly, and that she would be scared to eat before a fitting. “I knew that even if I expanded half an inch, he would smile and make fun of me, and would say, "Carmen, you have to go and see Martine de Richeville! Stay for lunch, eat healthy food and stop going to restaurants, you need to lose that half an inch, I am not altering your dress."” She would suffer every time she knew she would be trying on her favorite Alaïas, but then revealed that, “He once made me a black dress perfect for a Carmen opera opening gala and I was nervous, but gosh, was I ever relieved when I realized it was stretch material! The diet ended there.”

Related Reading: Alaïa's Fall '17 Couture Comeback