Taken from Issue Two of 10+: Alaïa after Alaïa
In the Rue de Moussy in Paris, there is an extraordinary room full of exquisite tailoring, piece after perfected piece is placed on mannequins. Like good jewellery, which looks as crafted on the underside as it does from the top, these jackets are impeccable from every angle. Paris Fashion Week, which rages outside, is full of designers reaching, once again, for tailored elegance. Here, in this room in the Marais, it has been perfected. A nipped-in black jacket traces every detail of the torso, its seams embrace the body, defining the silhouette. Curving yet strong, powerful but full of grace, the line is so pure that your eyes can’t help but marvel at it. Imagine what it feels like to wear something that refined. It is (and could only be) from the hand of one man: Azzedine Alaïa.
The jackets are part of an exhibition of Alaïa’s tailoring that is posed next to that of Adrian, the great Hollywood couturier of the 1940s and fellow master of silhouette and construction. Alaïa was obsessed with Adrian, connecting not just with his powerful silhouettes, but the strength of character his clothes imbued in the wearer. He collected more than 150 pieces by the Hollywood designer. Circle the exhibition and something becomes clear: the Adrian pieces are of a time, but the Alaïa pieces are dateless. Transcendent. “They could be from the ’70s, ’80s or 2000s, and you can take [a piece] and put it on. You don’t need to do anything to it. He had this very rare gift, which was ahead of his time and contemporary,” says Carla Sozzani. The founder of 10 Corso Como and sister of the great Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani, she was one of Alaïa’s greatest friends. After the designer died suddenly, aged 82, in November 2017, she became the fierce protector of his legacy, working with Alaïa’s partner, the artist Christoph von Weyhe, on creating a foundation in his name. “He wouldn’t like to be forgotten,” she says in her magical, dove-like voice. “And that was the best way to keep him alive and keep him with us forever.”
The extraordinary timelessness of Alaïa’s designs is only one of the ways in which the great couturier transcends death. Sozzani explains more a few miles from Rue de Moussy, in the tiny 8th arrondissement. We are standing in the showroom, above the Alaïa boutique. The place is buzzing with the kind of energy that commerce brings. Buyers from exclusive stores eagerly place orders, salespeople usher proceedings along and elegant cabins serenely swirl in the new collection, created by Alaïa’s two long-time studio heads. Honed and trained by the master, they faithfully continue his work.
Alaïa created a design language and culture that is so strong that, in the Paris showroom, you feel his presence. It’s as if he’s there but has just stepped out of the busy studio for a moment to do something in another room. His life force and determination and commitment to excellence have seeped into these very walls. His codes are so defined that Sozzani still asks him questions and gets clear answers in the work and culture he left behind. “It’s so strange – it’s like he’s really there.”
And so, 18 months after his passing, Azzedine Alaïa lives on. Death is not the end but the beginning of a busy new era. A new London store opened last year, and a sunglasses launch followed. New seasonal collections are produced by the design team, which also curates reissues of archive pieces. The pieces are so contemporary it’s almost impossible to comprehend they were designed decades ago.
“There were two ways to go, I think,” says Sozzani. “One was to stop and the other was to respect his work in a stronger way – to keep working from his work. That’s what he was doing – working from his work.” There’s enough in the archives, she says, to inspire the design team’s seasonal collections for generations.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, Alaïa’s closest friends suffered terrible grief, but even in the depth of such emotion, they knew what to do. Ten years before he died, the designer put together a plan to control his business and manage his legacy. “To think about legacy when you have a lot of things to do is very wise and even very generous,” says Sozzani. In 2007, he and von Weyhe created the Azzedine Alaïa Association, a nonprofit administered by Sozzani, von Weyhe and Olivier Saillard (the historian and former director of the Palais Galliera fashion museum).
After Alaïa’s death, Sozzani says, “we knew exactly what he wanted. Everything was settled 10 years before he passed away. He wanted everything to be a foundation of public interest, so the young generation could have access and could learn and see his books and see his collections. He wanted to become a museum, which is what Christoph and myself are working on now. But everything was designed by him, we are just executing it, which makes us very comfortable, because we are not having to fight hard for what he would have wanted.”
Sozzani expects the association to be granted formal foundation status in the second half of this year, giving France an important new fashion and cultural institution.
The legacy is substantial. As well as his own Alaïa-collection archives, dating back to the early 1980s, Azzedine was an obsessive couture collector. It started in 1968. When Alaïa heard that Balenciaga was closing his house, the young couturier went to the atelier with his favourite model at the time, Marie. “They saw all these amazing pieces, so he took them home and started to cherish them and he collected Balenciaga all his life,” says Sozzani. By the end, he had amassed more than 300 Balenciaga pieces.
Sozzani drops delicious details of the lengths to which Alaïa would go to satiate his urge to collect. One of his favourite ruses was to tell everyone at the atelier he was going to the physio for his knees, when in fact he was slipping out to an auction or a vintage shop. As well as Adrian and Balenciaga, he collected Charles James, Paul Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel and Madame Grès – always buying the rarest, finest pieces and often outbidding museums for his prizes. “He had no budget because he had no sense of money,” says Sozzani. “He wanted only ever to have enough money to afford the most important thing in the world, which is freedom.”
He’d leave his secret purchases in his car, retrieving them late at night after everyone at the Rue de Moussy had gone to bed, squirrelling them away in any one of the three buildings on the site. Even now, the place is still yielding its treasures, most recently 15 museum-quality Balenciaga pieces packed into plastic bags. “So you can find a Balenciaga on the fifth floor, you can find a Balenciaga in the basement,” says Sozzani, her eyes twinkling with amusement at her friend’s eccentricities.
As well as staging two exhibitions a year at Rue de Moussy, the Alaïa foundation will be heavily involved in education, sponsoring stages to work in the atelier and learn Alaïa’s craft, particularly his genius for knitwear. “It’s going to be the roots of the future for generations. We shall open a library so that children can have access. We are going to do courses and activities with schools, and we’ve opened a bookshop,” says Sozzani. “He wanted his work to be beyond fashion, above fashion, separate from fashion. He always said he was not a fashion designer. He said, ‘I am a couturier’ – he always had such a clear vision about what he was. To keep his brand and his name on the level that is different from the others makes sense, because he has 60 years of heritage and legacy and archives with 2,000 pieces. It’s not changing fashion every six months. It is Alaïa.”
Sozzani met the designer in the late 1970s when, on assignment for Vogue Italia, she decided to shoot Alaïa’s work. At the time, he was known only to a few haute insiders: “I was almost fired because they said, ‘My God, you have six pages on somebody who doesn’t have ties with anyone, who nobody knows.’” But Sozzani was in awe of his skill. The first time she met him in Paris, he offered to make her a dress and immediately started taking her measurements. “It was all couture at the time,” she says, still sighing about how the dress made her feel.
A few weeks later, the pair cemented their friendship at Sozzani’s house in Portofino. “Thierry Mugler arrived on a bike,” she recalls. “So we became friends and we stayed friends, always. All the way.” Friendship and loyalty are the strong threads that bind the Alaïa world. “He could kill for his friends,” says Sozzani. “Of course you couldn’t deceive him because… ” Cross the line with Alaïa and you would find yourself very far out in the cold – “and it’s a long way to get back.”
The kitchen at Rue de Moussy has remained the hospitable heart of the Alaïa headquarters. But the empty place at the table is undeniable. Over dinner, the Alaïa inner circle – Sozzani, von Weyhe, Caroline Fabre-Bazin (studio director) and Bernard Brunel Patrice, who manages Alaïa’s 3Rooms hotel in Paris – tell stories and laugh. There was the time when Alaïa celebrated Stephanie Seymour’s wedding with a club night in the basement, which then flooded, soaking famous guests including Robert De Niro; and the time Lady Gaga came for dinner and ended up giving her fans who had gathered outside an impromptu performance on the doorstep. Regulars at Alaïa’s table tell how you’d never know who might come for dinner. Tina Turner, Naomi Campbell and Kanye West have all broken bread here. “We’d start to have dinner and then stay until three or four o’clock. Talking, talking, talking,” says Sozzani.
Her friend is gone, but the world he created, the clothes and the culture remain. “It takes 60 years to build something and then you are forgotten in a second. Phff! It’s like a child blowing over a house of cards,” she says. But the house of Alaïa is no house of cards. It was built with care and built to last.
Photographs by Cedric Buchet
10+ Issue 2, EVERYONE, VOCAL, TOGETHER is available to order HERE.