Miranda Smith

REVIEW: AZZEDINE ALAÏA @ THE DESIGN MUSEUM

Miranda Smith
REVIEW: AZZEDINE ALAÏA @ THE DESIGN MUSEUM

A step by step look at the Azzedine AlaÏa exhibition in London.

Azzedine Alaïa is one of those names that to anyone remotely interested in fashion conjures up the image of beautiful drape work, and ‘second-skin’ dresses. Curator Mark Wilson worked on the exhibition with the designer before his untimely death at the end of last year. The exhibition focusses on a range of works spanning from the late 1970s until his final show just before his death. There are also several architectural installations included in the room, conceived by artists the designer admired or befriended, which are paired with his works to make sure the viewer sees the exhibition and recognises it as art, not just fashion. 

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The exhibition is then split into Haute Couture and Ready To Wear, differentiating between his pieces which were individually commissioned, and those which were manufactured and mass produced for sale around the world. This is not to say that the latter included clothes that were considered simple, or boring – his ready-to-wear pieces still managed to keep a certain degree of complexity and he used haute couture techniques to create the prototypes for these pieces. Alaïa is actually quoted stating that “I don’t see the difference between couture and ready-to-wear, everyone should do what feels good to express creativity.” The difference in terms of technique is that for each haute couture dress, the client would have to stand for three lengthy fittings with the designer to ensure the correct fit of the dress, and they are typically created using much more complex techniques and all made by hand. 

Once split into the two categories above, the curator (presumably with Alaïa himself) has chosen to arrange the pieces thematically: Sculptural Tension; Decoration and Structure; Revolutionary Skins; Exploring Volume; Other Places, Other Cultures; Spanish Accent; Black Silhouettes; Renaissance Perspective; Fragility and Strength; Timelessness; and Wrapped Forms. These eleven sub-categories display the different influences on his collections and separate the works in a manner which is easy to follow and comprehend. Visually the eye follows a story as the visitor walks around the single room, and with each section more is learnt about the designer and the way in which he evolved and changed details but continued to use similar shapes and ideas.

Each of these sub-categories is paired with a quote by the designer which is intended to summarise the ideas included:

Sculptural Tension – “Art came first, for me”. Alaïa originally trained as a sculptor at the School of Fine Art in Tunis, and he always used his hands to create the forms of his works, sometimes making moulds out of clay before turning to fabric. His use of unexpected materials, such as metal, helped him to reshape and reimagine the female form. 

  Decoration and Structure  –  “Material can trigger a form”.  Instead of adding embellishment onto his pieces to create details, Alaïa instead used the integral fabric of the dress to create interest, for instance, using perforated fabrics, such as broderie anglaise or laser-cut leathers.

Decoration and Structure “Material can trigger a form”. Instead of adding embellishment onto his pieces to create details, Alaïa instead used the integral fabric of the dress to create interest, for instance, using perforated fabrics, such as broderie anglaise or laser-cut leathers.

  Revolutionary Skins –   “Leather is a material I sometimes wanted to make more feminine, more delicate, more fragile. I treated it in the same way as other haute couture fabrics.”  Typically, leather is associated with the harshness of the punk movement and androgynous jackets, but the designer changed that viewpoint by pairing it with chiffon, for example, or creating flounced skirts with it.

Revolutionary Skins – “Leather is a material I sometimes wanted to make more feminine, more delicate, more fragile. I treated it in the same way as other haute couture fabrics.” Typically, leather is associated with the harshness of the punk movement and androgynous jackets, but the designer changed that viewpoint by pairing it with chiffon, for example, or creating flounced skirts with it.

  Exploring Volume –   “Making the right volume is a technique that is just as complex as any other. It demands good mathematics.”  To juxtapose his clinging, body-hugging forms, the dresses in this section express his interest in creating volume, and re-exploring techniques prominent in the 18th century. His pieces do not contain any internal structure though, relying entirely on the weight and the form of the fabrics themselves.

Exploring Volume – “Making the right volume is a technique that is just as complex as any other. It demands good mathematics.” To juxtapose his clinging, body-hugging forms, the dresses in this section express his interest in creating volume, and re-exploring techniques prominent in the 18th century. His pieces do not contain any internal structure though, relying entirely on the weight and the form of the fabrics themselves.

  Other Places, Other Cultures  –  “I have a lot of African art. I love African sculpture, objects. It’s a passion.”  This section of the room both celebrates his own Tunisian upbringing, and also explores an idea of Africa which he has evoked through the colours and textiles used.

Other Places, Other Cultures “I have a lot of African art. I love African sculpture, objects. It’s a passion.” This section of the room both celebrates his own Tunisian upbringing, and also explores an idea of Africa which he has evoked through the colours and textiles used.

  Spanish Accent –   “The first fashion I remember was Velázquez – Las Meninas.”  Highly influenced by the culture of other countries, the designer took ideas from Spain, from both the formality of painted depictions of the Royal Court, and also from Spanish folk costume. The volume and energy of these dresses pays a modern homage to flamenco dresses.

Spanish Accent – “The first fashion I remember was Velázquez – Las Meninas.” Highly influenced by the culture of other countries, the designer took ideas from Spain, from both the formality of painted depictions of the Royal Court, and also from Spanish folk costume. The volume and energy of these dresses pays a modern homage to flamenco dresses.

  Black Silhouettes  –  “I like black, because, for me, it’s a very happy colour.”  Not a criticism perhaps, but many people think solely of Alaïa’s little black dresses first and foremost when imagining the work of the designer, and forget about his expansive use of bold, vivid colours. It is however true that black was the artist’s favourite colour, and his works in black continue to explore textural variety, but in a more subtle way – you have to look more closely at a work to see the hidden details and incredible workmanship.

Black Silhouettes “I like black, because, for me, it’s a very happy colour.” Not a criticism perhaps, but many people think solely of Alaïa’s little black dresses first and foremost when imagining the work of the designer, and forget about his expansive use of bold, vivid colours. It is however true that black was the artist’s favourite colour, and his works in black continue to explore textural variety, but in a more subtle way – you have to look more closely at a work to see the hidden details and incredible workmanship.

Renaissance Perspective – “There is a sensuality about fabric. I think all materials should be inviting when they touch the skin. When I watch children stroking their mothers’ clothes, I feel that I have succeeded.” Velvet is one of those materials that people either love or hate, I adore it, my mother not so much. Alaïa created a thinner, lighter stretch velour that mimics velvet in the way it looks on the body in order to reminisce over the voluminous dresses of the Renaissance era, but also to create more modern forms, similar to his other body-hugging pieces.

Fragility and Strength – “When I am working on a garment, it has to flow over the body.” Changing the perceived properties of fabrics was one of Alaïa’s main ideas. He made leather and velvet sensuous and flowing, and also managed to create a rigid structure using chiffon. This section of the room also highlights the designer’s immense talent for handling each specific fabric.

Timelessness – “There is an evolution, but fashion hasn’t changed so much. The body is the most important thing.” The artist has used techniques and ideas dating as far back as ancient times, yet his pieces incorporate modern techniques and materials in order to create something for contemporary women. He was also a believer in eternal beauty, rather than the constant changing ideas of the industry, hence there are recurring ideas and forms in his pieces throughout his career.

Wrapped Forms – “I have used stretch materials for years to shape the inside of garmetns I made for private clients. Then I just started using them on their own.” Inspired by the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification, the bandage dresses, perhaps the most well-known pieces by the designer, are created in order that they cling to the form of the wearer, hugging in all the right places, yet flowing and allowing for movement. These pieces are the precedent to the ‘body-con’ style of dresses which a lot of rather young girls wear now at parties and which I could personally never pull off.

As a whole I thought the exhibition was beautiful, but perhaps that is purely because the clothes Alaïa designed are so beautiful so it would be difficult not to do them justice. If you are in London I would highly recommend the visit, the exhibition closes on the 7th of October.

Photographs Miranda Smith

Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier is on at The Design Museum, London, until 7th October 2018.