Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier, A Style Guide to Tunisia's Influential Designer

Béatrice Dalle (& Azzedine Alaïa) photographed in Paris by Jean-Paul Goude - 1998
Béatrice Dalle (& Azzedine Alaïa) photographed in Paris by Jean-Paul Goude - 1998
Photo of Julia Gardener
14 December 2017

Though Azzedine Alaïa didn’t advertise his clothes, or even show them at fashion week, the Tunisian-born designer was one of most influential craftsmen in the history of fashion. He refused the French Legion of Honor three times, but found gratification elsewhere; after doing his shows, models used to refuse their booking fee, asking instead to be paid in clothes. Ahead of the Azzedine Alaïa exhibition at Design Museum, we remember the designer who made clothes reported to be “the closest fashion comes to a masterpiece”.

How do you identify an Alaïa design?

The Skater Dress

“It’s the ultimate Alaïa silhouette” Olivier Saillard explains, referring to the dress that is fitted at the waistline and goes out at the hips, forming a sculpted circle skirt. Other designers, both in couture and on the high street, have endlessly copied the design, but Azzedine Alaïa remains the master of the flattering cut.

Figure fitting form

Dubbed the ‘King of Cling’, Azzedine Alaïa focussed on the female body when creating his garments. The ‘Bandelette’ dress in particular justified the noble title, and was created entirely from stretch strips to highlight the wearer’s figure. Unsurprisingly, Alaïa dresses are notoriously sexy; some joke that “you don’t have to wear underwear when you wear Alaïa’, but the general consensus is that the couturier’s designs were “seductive without being vulgar”.

Luxurious materials

Azzedine Alaïa is a man who believed in quality over quantity, creating rare collections of handmade items on his own schedule. However, his craftsmanship didn’t come cheap: designs are priced not in hundreds, but thousands. This allowed the self-proclaimed ‘builder’ of clothes to use extravagant fabrics; perforated leather was a recurring favourite and crocodile skin became “a sort of logo-less logo for Alaïa”.

Azzedine Alaïa biography: Your questions answered

Where did Azzedine Alaïa study?

Lying about his age to get accepted, Azzedine Alaïa studied sculpture at the Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts in Tunis. Though the designer has definitely retained a sculptor’s eye, he didn’t complete the course, explaining in The Independent that ’when I realised I couldn’t be an amazing sculptor, I changed direction’.

Which designers has Azzedine Alaïa worked with?

Azzedine Alaïa left for Paris in 1957, headed for the Christian Dior atelier. However, he was asked to leave after only five days, being told that “you can’t work here any longer. You’re a foreigner”. He then went on to Guy Laroche, learning how to tailor for two seasons, before working alongside his friend, Thierry Mugler.

Where did Azzedine Alaïa open his first atelier?

The first Alaïa atelier was opened in Paris in the late 1970s, based in the designer’s apartment on Rue de Bellechasse. The tiny apartment was regularly visited by the crème de la crème of high society, ranging from Marie-Hélène de Rothschild to Greta Garbo.

Where is the Alaïa brand based now?

Azzedine Alaïa created a center for all things Alaïa on Rue du Moussy. The Parisian location is home to the atelier, showroom, studio, boutique, and was where the designer was based until he died.

Who was Alaïa partnered with?

The company was part of the Prada group between 2000-2007 before going into an agreement with Richemont.

Azzedine Alaïa died, 18th November 2017.

The best quotes about Azzedine Alaïa

There is just one good reason to do fashion: to make the woman look more beautiful. If that is not the case, it has no meaning for me to create – Business of Fashion

I always feel free – I feel really free. When I don’t want something, I don’t make it. Even if there’s finance behind it, if I don’t feel it, I don’t do it. I always feel free; this is my strength – The Independent

We don’t have good ideas every day, it’s not possible. Nobody has new ideas every day. When you have one in the year, that’s already good – Women’s Wear Daily

Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier will open at the Design Museum, London in May 2018.

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