Alaïa passed away on the 18 November, 2017, at the age of 82 after presenting his final autumn/winter collection earlier that month. It’s this very collection that greets you upon entering the exhibition.
A meticulous creative, a hands-on designer and a man who refused to conform to fashion’s strict calendar, Tunisian-born Alaïa launched his namesake ready-to-wear label in 1981 and his couture house in 1990. He worked on the model and presented his collections only when they were ready, often unveiling a piece after years of work instead of in line with the seasonal showcases of Fashion Week. He did, however, abide by the rules of haute couture with precision and diligence, and his designs are an exploration of technique, fabric and volume – a fact that you simply can’t miss within the museum’s careful curation.
Not satisfied with finalising two haute couture collections, Alaïa also designed the costumes for the Royal Ballet of Flanders’ Shahrazad and had a hand in the curation of this very exhibit, all in the final year of his life. Alice Black, co-director at the Design Museum, says: ‘The master is there with us through his selection [of clothes on display]. I think we’ve stayed true to what he wanted to do.’
There’s an unmissable sense of signature style within the display and, while many dresses are grouped by date or theme, there’s little that would imply their decade. One such piece is a 1980s plissé and leather mini dress that wouldn’t look out of place on today’s runway. This is timeless fashion in its most literal form. Complementing the clothes are Richard Wentworth photographs taken inside the Alaïa atelier, and a series of metal and glass backdrops commissioned especially for the display.
Pieces of particular note include a 2011 black velvet gown with embellished detailing at the hips, a fully beaded gold mini dress worn by singer Tina Turner and a piece made completely of hair. The aesthetic that ties them all together? An ever-present focus on celebrating the female form. On the wall, a quote by the designer reads: ‘My obsession is to make women beautiful. When you create with that in mind, things can’t go out of fashion.’
There is, of course, strong focus placed on Alaïa’s final collection. Dresses are an artful mix of leather, chiffon, pony hair and chain mail, but they’re designed in a way that somehow seems soft, with splices of chiffon pleating breaking up the tough-luxe composition and metals imagined in pale shades of grey that almost sparkle under bright lights. Unlike many fashion exhibitions, clothes are exposed so details are hard to miss. If it’s intricacy of design that you’re inspired by, then this is a showcase that’s sure to deliver. But the exhibition is equally rewarding as an insight into both the history of the designer and haute couture in general.
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier is at the Design Museum until 7 October, 2018.