Azzedine Alaïa On Fashion’s Current Turbulence
IT'S A STRANGE period," said Azzedine Alaïa as we spoke, before and after his show, about the recent upheavals in the fashion world.
Like so many people in Paris, Azzedine's interest was not what Anthony Vaccarello would do as newly appointed designer at Saint Laurent, but what will happen to the outgoing designer, the fiercely fastidious, Los Angeles-based Hedi Slimane.
"I want to see what Hedi is going to do," Alaïa said. "I would be very surprised if he went back to Dior [where Slimane was menswear designer from 2000-2007]. But I wouldn't be surprised if he goes to Chanel. He's friends again with Karl after they fell out, and it would not be stupid for him to come back to Karl - at Chanel. He could start with menswear and then take over the ready-to-wear and then he might take over completely..."
Azzedine's gentle voice faded away. Being only six years younger than Karl, 82, both must feel intimations of mortality - or at least a realisation that such intense work cannot go on forever.
I asked Alaïa, 40 years a designer, what he thinks has changed. "It's a strange time," he replied. "A stylist like Hedi could start his own house under his own name - he has earned a fortune. But he wants the security of being at an existing house. He's only been two or three years at Saint Laurent and they have invested a lot. Now someone else will come in and want to change it all again."
Azzedine is emblematic of "slow fashion". Over these four decades he has created clothes with his own hands, shaping them like the sculpture that he once studied. Knits make up around 60 per cent of the collection and this season they were animated by geometric effects in vivid African colours. "But not North Africa - south of the Maghreb," he said, referring to Sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the Tunisia in which he grew up.
These dresses, shaped to an A-line silhouette with low arm-holes and swirls of vivid blue and ginger, were a fine example of Alaïa's way of subtly changing his distinctive look. There was more movement for the body, as opposed to his once-signature "King of Cling" dresses, and the geometric lines - straight or curvy - brought both boldness and freedom.
"I don't say, 'I prefer this or that' - not at all," Alaïa said. "I have an idea and I work on it."
His new thoughts, fast and furious this season, included long skirts, breaking open in movement to prove that they were, in fact, culottes; and a cape, shaped like a bell, with shoulders softened by kangaroo fur. A leather coat, loose from its rounded shoulders and generously cut, had just the faintest whisper of Vetements' style, if it had not been for the elegant tailoring of the butter-soft leather that defined the garment as extreme luxury.
I feasted my eyes on coats that were elegantly tailored, slightly raised and with a bow at the back halfway down the spine. All these "grown up" clothes were shown with little boots, 1960s style, studded with silver hardware.
"Why would I want to deliver them immediately? For what reason?" asked Azzedine, squashing completely my tentative enquiries about the current "see now, buy now" concept. This Alaïa show was nearly a month after the end of the international fashion season and could, theoretically, have been offered at the start of winter selling. But I know that speed is anathema to this designer. He designs and creates every single outfit himself, and shows it when he, not the store, is ready.
I was so inspired by the virtuoso display of tactile patterns, that I asked Alaïa how they were made. "I start with a drawing from Kris," he said, referring to Kris Ruhs, the artist and partner of Carla Sozzani, whose 10 Corso Como concept store in Milan has been a fervent supporter. That was long before brand Azzedine Alaïa was bought by luxury group Richemont and given a glamorous boutique just off the Avenue Montaigne and the so-called "Golden Triangle" in Paris.
"Azzedine works from his own work; the continuity is why I like it," said Carla Sozzani, defining for me the importance of design stability.
The jacquards that were the backbone of this show were inspired and designed by Alaïa in Paris, worked on over the computer, and made in Italy, where the intensely patterned and molded jacquard is created. Until I had the pieces in my hands, I did not realise the intensity of the Azzedine Alaïa work. For example, a black lace dress was made by piecing together ink blue and black, while slithers of woven silk covered delicate parts of the body like passing shadows.
The collection included more than 70 pieces, with twice as many backstage, the designer said. He designs each and every piece himself, as it has been since those heady days in the 1980s when statuesque singer Grace Jones carried him on stage and he invented the concept of the "super model" from Naomi Campbell to Stephanie Seymour.
I thought about the current turmoil in the fashion industry. The news had not even broken at that point about the Qatari owners of Valentino bidding for Balmain. That brand has been dramatically transformed by designer Olivier Rousteing, via Instagram, from the signature "Jolie Madame" ("Pretty Woman") style to sex-pot glamour.
Maybe a completely new aesthetic is required for all these houses, Dior included, that are searching for designers. The truth is, you can follow the codes of an existing brand, but you cannot be a leader unless you design from your heart and soul for yourself, as John Galliano did at Dior and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent.
Azzedine Alaïa's dedication is not only awe-inspiring, it melds imagination and continuity. Long may he reign!