I have a confession. I was shamefully and deeply unfashionably late to the cult of Azzedine Alaïa. The Tunisian designer — who arrived in France as a refugee in 1956 (during the Algerian War of Independence), and passed away there late last year — was a master couturier and singular fashion visionary. The very last true couturier, some say, because he continued to make most everything himself, from the patterns to the final touches.
The problem is, I was a teenager in the 1990s. It was a time when celebrities from a variety of alphabetical strata were in thrall to his iconic bandage dress — a ‘body conscious,’ form-fitting style crafted from elasticated fabric that wraps around the body. It was such an instant design classic that, of course, everyone copied it. Azzedine’s former student Hervé Léger even claims to have originated the bodycon look (he undoubtedly popularized it), and fast-fashion eventually chimed in with an enthusiastic plethora of knockoffs.
In its ubiquity, there were versions spanning the good, the bad, and the ugly. But as a dedicated teenage skater-goth living on the southwest coast of England, I hated them all on principle. As I left those days of baggy, puddle-sucking skate jeans and chalky black lipstick behind and moved into the fashion industry, I noticed the incredibly high regard in which Alaïa was held. Beyond the heavily quoted name-drop from 1995 film Clueless, Alaïa was esteemed as both a master of design craft and a rebel who refused to lash himself to industry norms, like actually showing during fashion week (he would often show weeks after the international press had flown home, or skip seasons because he hadn’t got to where he wanted to be with the designs).
But it wasn't until I watched the incredibly beautiful and moving film produced by one of Alaïa’s longest collaborators, stylist Joe McKenna, that I really ‘got it’ — the romance and obsessional genius of it. Naomi Campbell did not call Alaïa ‘Papa’ as flattery to edge into campaign or runway work; she called him that because she moved into his apartment at 16, and he cared for her like a father figure. Top journalists do not wax lyrical about the clothes to protect valuable advertising partnerships, but because they are genuinely still wearing the Alaïa pieces they bought decades ago. "He makes clothes like bullets," Alaïa runway regular Veronica Webb says in the film. "They last forever."
Incredibly, it’s McKenna’s first film. Perhaps this fact, together with his close relationship to the designer and the maison, is why it’s such a magical depiction, so free of hyperbole and bluster (it features commentary from journalists Vanessa Friedman, Cathy Horyn, and Suzy Menkes, stylists Grace Coddington and Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, designer Nicolas Ghesquière, and, of course, Campbell herself). Though the film isn't brand new (it came out in March 2017), it's such an essential viewing that it is actually shown alongside the garments in the London Design Museum’s new exhibition, Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier. (The show was planned while Azzedine was still alive, and the designer worked on it with his frequent curation-collaborator, Mark Wilson of the Groninger Museum.) After Alaïa’s passing, the Design Museum team "resisted the temptation to turn it into a retrospective," as The Guardian put it, "and has stayed with the designer’s original vision for it to be a study of technique and craft." Which is great for the purists, and people already in the know, but perhaps harder to access for the relatively uninitiated. And that's why McKenna's film is the perfect introduction.
Having watched the film, it’s easier to notice and appreciate the awe-inspiring, precision-crafted work for which Alaïa is so revered. There isn’t a lot of text to read at the exhibition, and it’s all the better for it, because it forces you to really look. To see the garments up close is to understand why it took him years to perfect certain designs. Every tiny element has been considered and innovated upon, like high-performance sportswear — not in service of speed, of course, but instead for the most exquisite fit and the pleasure of minutely engineered detail. Diaphanous, sheer silk chiffons are expertly origami-ed around the body. The weight of studs and chainmail is so well balanced that the gowns cling and drape improbably, like magic, with not a single pucker to be found in the silk. Thank goodness you can get a 360-degree view, because the backs and sides of the garments are works of art and feats of engineering too. And the mirrored pedestals even give you a glimpse of the structure underneath — the only form of upskirting we can really get on board with.
Alaïa famously said: "Women make fashion, I make clothes." And it’s true — but what clothes! Curator Mark Wilson’s take is that Alaïa was "a sculptor, not a fashion designer," but however you frame it, he is a giant of fashion history. And if you haven’t joined the cult already, well, now is a better time than any.