Genius. Legend. Master. Even the most extreme superlatives are all but inadequate to describe Azzedine Alaïa. He has toiled away for decades in his Parisian atelier creating clothes that women absolutely adore. Alaïa receives criminally little press, but that is of no consequence--just check with the sales associates at any of the world’s greatest luxury retailers to see if they have trouble unloading his seasonal inventory. When it comes to the Tunisian-born couturier, $4,000 day dresses fly off the racks in a flash. The numbers simply do not lie.
So what is it about Azzadine that makes his clothes turn into collector’s items the moment they are available for purchase? Why are his prices so high yet act as no impediment to the health of his business? Why is he so universally adored and admired by both clients and professionals in the fashion world? To answer those questions an insider’s eye is needed. Luckily, internationally revered stylist Joe McKenna has put together a 25-minute black-and-white film that blends new interviews of Alaïa’s respected colleagues with beautifully grainy archival footage to give some insight into his rarefied world.
“There are very few people who have this capacity for innovation and this is something I truly admire in his work,” said Louis Vuitton women’s artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière. “In painting, in music, in art in general, you reach that point where you become a master. Azzedine is a master so it’s timeless and it’s the most fashionable clothes at the same time. It is something that every woman wants to wear and seems so exclusive at the same time,” he further states.
What Ghesquière astutely points out is that every woman who knows about Alaïa wants to wear his clothes, not just because of a specific look or feel, but rather because he has established an oeuvre unmistakably his own, which miraculously includes nearly every kind of woman. There are the body conscious dresses with slashes of revealed flesh for the toned and youthful, the crisp shirting and razor sharp tailoring for those who prefer something other than the traditional trappings of femininity, the dresses that hit just below the knee and sport two full-length sleeves for older women who prefer not to show their upper arms, and so much more.
Fashion critic Suzy Menkes echoed Ghesquière’s points and said, “Azzedine, contrary to what people might imagine, is one of those people who has really given confidence to women through their clothes. Confidence and strength and the ability to express your sexuality, your body, but never, never in a vulgar way.” His love for women and the female body is palpable, but it is never fetishistic.
If there’s one thing you can’t escape in this short but moving documentary, it’s Alaïa’s ever-present hands--nimble, experienced, always searching, forever busy. Such a perfectionist is he that he hasn’t shown during the regular fashion schedule for years preferring to show only when things feel exactly right. “It does take huge discipline, and the ability to say, ‘I’m not having a show this season ‘cause it’s not there yet.’ You can’t say that if you’re at a big house,” said Vanessa Friedman, the fashion director and chief fashion critic at The New York Times who was filmed wearing one of her many Alaïa dresses. In reference to the immaculate construction of each and every piece, she said, “It all comes from inside the garment and that’s what I always find so mind boggling. You know, nothing is added on afterwards. It all comes from the beginning. And I don’t think anyone else does that.”
New York Magazine’s critic-at-large Cathy Horyn participated in the short and recounted the events surrounding a story she wrote on Alaïa a few years prior. “I didn’t know that he had designed garments for the girls at the Crazy Horse. And I thought, God if you have to get in there and really measure those women, you’re really not worried about women. You’re not intimidated by them. You don’t have any fantasies about them. And that, we all know, is a problem with many designers, male or female. They have a fantasy about women that doesn’t jive with reality.” Horyn’s statements sums up Alaïa’s most potent design quality: He knows women and loves them, but for how they are, not how he’d like them to be.
The film closes with the 77-year-old Alaïa joyfully dancing to music accompanied by his comically large St. Bernard Didine. May it always remain so.
Written by Martin Lerma