Editor’s Note: Alice Black is co-director of the Design Museum in London. On May 10, the museum will open “Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier,” an exhibition dedicated to the late designer, who passed away on Nov. 18, 2017.
Having grown up in Paris in the 1980s, I have vivid memories of Azzedine Alaïa’s work. Alaïa was – and remains – incredibly popular and respected in the French capital. His clothes were in every fashion magazine; his shows included the world’s most famous models; his figure-hugging silhouettes represented femininity, confidence and beauty. He had the power to create strong, elegant women who commanded a room. So, when the opportunity arose to explore the idea of an Alaïa exhibition for the Design Museum, I jumped at the idea. It was a chance to bring one of the greats of fashion history to London.
I sent an initial email in early 2017 thinking it would take a while to receive a response, assuming he must be inundated with requests. But, to my surprise, I received a swift answer and, in very Alaïa fashion, I was invited for lunch. I quickly learned that business, creative or commercial, was not to be discussed over emails or phones, but over food. A few days later I found myself on a Eurostar train to Paris, heading home to meet a fashion legend.
I arrived at the showroom on Rue de Moussy in the Marais area of Paris for a viewing of his latest collection. I took a seat in a corner of the room, observing buyers from around the world – London, Milan, New York – as they took stock of Alaïa’s latest creations.
I sat with Mark Wilson, curator at the Groninger Museum and now curator of the Design Museum’s “Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier” exhibition. Wilson, who had worked with Alaïa for many years and developed a close friendship with him, gave me two crucial pieces of advice. One: “Don’t try to sell an idea to Azzedine. He will either like it or he won’t. No amount of selling in the world will change his mind;” and two: “Take it easy. Just hang out and let things unfold.”
I always want to take control, make things happen. But on this occasion, it was clear to me that this was not the way to do things. So, I just ‘hung out’ for a while, enjoying the show from the sidelines, observing people and situations.
I had heard the stories of the famous kitchen table next to Alaïa’s atelier, where the great and the good of global fashion, art and design shared food and ideas. Now I found myself sitting at the table facing him. We all had lunch: buyers, atelier workers, collaborators, Alaïa, Didine (his enormous dog) and I. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial, but I had no idea whether an exhibition was even a possibility.
Eventually he turned to me and said, “So, you are from the Design Museum in London. Hmmm. I want to do a display across the entire museum.” It was at this point I found out that, unbeknown to me or anyone at the museum, he had visited our new home in Kensington shortly after we opened. The permanent collection gallery, the atrium, the two temporary galleries - he loved the space and he “wanted it all.”
So, when I originally made contact about working together, I was pushing an open door. I did not need to explain, sell or argue. He had simply made his mind up that an exhibition was going to happen. And I guess that’s how he was. He made his decision without regard to what the world said or thought. Throughout his career, his truly independent approach to fashion, combined with his talent, made him one of the most influential couturiers of modern time and the ideal subject for our first fashion exhibition.
Alaïa’s atelier, home, shop, gallery and, of course, kitchen are located in a beautiful part of Paris just behind the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, or BHV, a famous department store in the center of Paris. This was his nest, where he would welcome his colleagues, collaborators and friends. The atmosphere always felt welcoming and relaxed, people wandering in and out in a constant bustle.
I only peeped into his studio once, to say goodbye after a visit. He was sat at his table surrounded by samples, material and tools, working away with his glasses on. You could sense that there were very few boundaries between work and rest. His creative mind was always on, always sharp.
After lunch, I was invited to return that evening for dinner. The meal was attended by museum directors, authors, photographers and art critics. It reminded me of the French salons of the 19th century, where society’s best would gather to debate culture, politics and philosophy. This was my first true insight into the character of Alaïa and how he worked: Dinners and lunches were his workshops and board meetings.
As I walked back to my parent’s home following the dinner, I reflected on what I can only describe as an out-of-this-world experience. It is difficult to explain the sensation of being in his company, but many others have shared this view on Alaïa. He was a man who could establish a rapport with others quickly but meaningfully, and he had a very strong aura.
The usual practical discussions around making an exhibition went back and forth, and last July Alaïa visited London with Mark Wilson and long-term collaborator Carla Sozzani. When we sat down to discuss ideas and exhibits for the show, he was attentive and spoke passionately about collaborations he wanted to explore with leading designers such as Mark Newson and the Bouroullec brothers. When the discussion turned to the nitty-gritty of scheduling, deliveries and deadlines, he was bored. I think the idea of a meeting was the most boring thing in the world to him. He came to life again in the gallery, where he observed every detail of the space and continually suggested new ideas.
I visited Alaïa and his team in Paris again in September, as they were unveiling a display of Richard Wentworth photographs at the Galerie Azzedine Alaïa. I attended the opening with Deyan Sudjic, co-director of the Design Museum, and our chief curator, Justin McGuirk, and went on to an intimate dinner – only 150 people! – in Alaïa’s shop, which he had completely cleared to set up for the meal. I later heard that the dinner was originally intended for 30 guests, but this was Alaïa: He would always make room for an extra guest.
I would see him for the last time in October of last year. I was in Paris for another meeting and was welcomed to the atelier to further discuss the details of the exhibition. We had lunch and enjoyed a relaxed conversation about the show. He loved the idea of mise en scene, of displaying his work within the context of a cultural institution. He thought carefully about how his garments would be displayed, and the architectural screens he commissioned to be placed alongside them. He was keen that the show include other designers, artists and photographers.
This was exactly a month before he passed away. My first discussion with Alaïa was sat around a dinner table and my last, just a few months later, would turn out to be the same.
I heard the news from Deyan on a Saturday morning. It is rare for Deyan to call on the weekend, I knew it was something urgent. Nothing could quite prepare me for the news. I was devastated and immediately thought of his team and his partner, of those who had worked so closely with him for many years. I had known him for a very short time, but I had felt welcomed into his fold, and couldn’t quite believe that we wouldn’t be able to complete the journey that we had begun.
Azzedine Alaïa was a man who never slowed down. An exhibition, a new store opening in London and a new collection were all planned for 2018. He still had so much that he wanted to work on.
Azzedine Alaïa defied the rules of fashion, indefatigably pursuing perfection. He draped on the body and sculpted every detail of his dresses himself. I remember observing his hands when we would meet, noticing cuts and scars – the marks of a lifetime dedicated to his craft, working and reworking to achieve beauty.
Alaïa didn’t see his work as collections. He saw it as a lifetime of ideas. You would struggle to look at a singular piece and pinpoint its year of creation. He was known to start making a dress, put it to one side and pick it up many years later. I have been told by many women who had dresses made by him that, during a fitting, he would never let go: One more stitch, a slight change here and a slight change there. He wanted it to be just so.
My earliest memories of Alaïa are of his clothes draped on famous models, seen through my adolescent eyes. But my lasting memory will be of the man that I spent a brief but unforgettable moment in time with, and whom we are honored to bring to the Design Museum.
“Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier” opens at the Design Museum in London on May 10, 2018.
Maison Alaia’s first store in London opened on New Bond Street on April 26, 2018.