The Design Museum, Azzedine Alaia. Photo credit: Mark Bowler

The Design Museum: Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier

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Non-conforming, ignoring fashion trends and always dressed in black, Chinese cotton pyjamas. Azzedine Alaïa co-curated the exhibition Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier at the Design Museum before his death in November 2017. It showcases the fashion legend’s iconic designs, and it contemplates the man behind them.

Alaïa started off his career from the world of haute couture, where garments are almost entirely made to order and by hand. The Tunisian-born designer moved to Paris in 1956 and started working for Christian Dior, but gradually rebelled against the existing rules of the fashion industry. Already in 1992, he decided to stop working around the fashion week deadlines and showed his collections whenever they were ready. He also didn’t comply with the rules of the ready-to-wear world, but hand-cut patterns himself. Blurring the distinction between these two, Alaïa created his own unique style and methods of working. His Maison had welcomed Greta Garbo, Grace Jones, Tina Turner, Naomi Campbell and more recently Michelle Obama, and Rihanna.

The Design Museum, Azzedine Alaia. Photo credit: Mark Bowler
The Design Museum, Azzedine Alaia. Photo credit: Mark Bowler


Instead of creating an image of a man at work, the exhibition blurs the division between the professional and private life of Alaïa. The exhibited designs are surrounded by a series of photographs by the artist Richard Wentworth. He was a good friend of the designer, and when spending time at his atelier, he photographed its professional side, and places where the designer used to spend time with his friends and co-workers. Running along the exhibition walls, the photographs give an overview of Alaia’s creative processes, showing peculiarities and beauty of ordinary studio objects; abstract-shaped dress patterns, evenly dispersed motifs on the fabric or pleasingly geometrical arrangement of wall decoration. They somewhat resemble still lives and are usually removed from the context, as if the spectator’s task was to speculate about the circumstances.

The dresses stand out in the gallery space like sculpture, are elevated on pedestals and the visible-through mannequins precisely fitting the costumes are hardly noticeable, as if non-existent. The whole room seems to be filled with dresses floating in the air. The lightness of the display enters into an interesting dialogue with Alaïa’s main concern, the idea of form and its moldability. The designs expose inspiration by the Renaissance costume and African art, which he passionately collected. Some of them recall the beautiful, doomed dresses of the 18th century, some were inspired by Egyptian mummification, but they all retain a sense of timelessness. This comprehensive overview of most of his career proofs not only his ability to accentuate the body-con silhouette of a female body, but also to revolutionise it.

The Design Museum, Azzedine Alaia. Photo credit: Mark Bowler
The Design Museum, Azzedine Alaia. Photo credit: Mark Bowler


Alaïa’s virtuosity in a constant re-evaluation of fashion is revealed in his approach to using fabrics. The couturier utilised them in a sculptural way – to give form to the body, to manipulate it and to extract the essence of female beauty and empower women, who wear his garments. He famously said that

“There is an evolution, but fashion hasn’t changed so much. The body is the most important thing.”

The designer had a power to re-define fabrics and give them new purposes. He possessed skills of choosing the right material and challenging its properties; to make leather behave like chiffon; to build up stretch materials so they appear to have increased volume.
Dividing the exhibition space and different themes across Alaïa’s legacy are five screens, made in a collaborative effort between Alaïa and his friends, who were invited to create them especially for the exhibition. They are monumental and give the sense of theatricality to the exposed dresses, but also enhance them by accentuating qualities present in Alaïa’s work. The use of screens is a visually attractive way of structuring the exhibition, like art dividing art, and they make one feel like moving between fitting sessions at Alaïa’s atelier.

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