Photographed by Gilles Bensimon, May 1992.
It’s time for the collections. You’re sitting on the edge of your little gilt seat, watching in wonder as the mannequins saunter down the catwalk, parading the designer’s latest creations. Inquiring minds want to know: “Where does he come up with all this stuff?”
For most style makers, the answer is simple enough: sound a dominant theme and ring all the possible changes. But there are those designers who choose to approach the question from the other way around - notably, Azzedine Alaia, whom the International Herald Tribune has called “the major couturier of our time.”
Instead of translating abstract notions into concrete fabrics and cuts, Alaia takes as his muse the fabric itsel. “Unless I can have a length of fabric in my hand,” he says, “and a girl in front of me, I really can’t say I come up with a lot of ideas.” You understand what he’s getting at when you see the Tunsian designer at work in his huge, sparsely furnished studio, in the Marais district of Paris. A piece of black chiffon is tossed casually over his right shoulder, and he is towing several yards of thin gold chain. A pretty woman stares into a mirror as Alaia’s own gaze alights at her waist and bust. He steps back, the better to take in the full silhouette, and suddenly the moment of truth dawns. The designer throws the chiffon over his model’s shoulders and drapes it deftly into a low neckline. Working fast—abracadabra—he magically transforms the chain into sleek spaghetti straps. The fabric that inspired Azzedine Alaia for the Summer ’92 collection is the same charming embroidered eyelet that used to be made up into detachable collars, cuffs, and dickeys. In the sixties, even snug little blouses were made of it, not to mention those flouncy petticoats floated over five or six bouffant layers of net. Today you often find it trimming underthings. But Alaia gets it out into the open. It finds its way into a flirty petticoat that “accidentally” flashes from beneath a skirt. The dollygirls of the sixties were adept at arranging this frilly sort of revelation, crossing their legs in front of their mod boyfriends with unruffled nonchalance.
This year’s fashion-forward crowd is almost as blasé—about showing off their bras. The trend began last summer. With a soaring thermometer as their excuse, they traded their T-shirts for lacy little underwire cups. Still, they’ve balked at showing off their underpants - even when these sport an Alaia label. Yet, in keeping with fashion’s unremitting drive to test the limits of propriety, that is precisely what the maverick Alaia wants them to do this season. He must have had American women in mind—“I love American girls. They’re audacious. They put more outrageous things on their bodies than anybody” - when he designed this innerwear. But it’s not going to make life easier for anybody who decides to go out unescorted. Perhaps a class in Thai boxing—the latest in fashionable self defense—is in order.
But Alaia does provide an alternative to the body-conscious, curve-clinging clothes he’s famous for. He’s that rare designer generous enough to lend an ear to women’s complaints that they’re “too old,” “too fat,” or that their “legs aren’t all that great.” Because Alaia strives to make such customers look almost as sensational as his models - a tall order, since they include Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell—he has launched another new silhouette that promises to suit just about everybody. A good thing, too, considering the diversity of his fans—among the more celebrated are Neneh Cherry, Andree Putman, Yasmeen Ghauri, Helena Christensen and Yasmin Le Bon.
Central to Alaia’s collection this summer is the return of the chemise. One version is short and striped and comes equipped with its own curves. It’s made with a small, sexy bustle that buttons on and off and is designed to be worn as a pouf - under a skirt. A longer version of the chemise resembles a djellaba. Slit up the sides, it manages to look impeccably chic while breaking the rules by opening to expose a bra underneath. Cool and collected, the new body-skimming chemise is as easy to wear as a man’s shirt and radiates confidence and good humor.
But the biggest news is that the hit of this season’s collection isn’t a dress at all—it’s a radically new yarn. It all started at Lineapiu, a textile mill outside of Florence. The mill was looking for a way to market the carbon yarn that NASA had developed for use in astronauts’ uniforms. Chemists at the German firm BASF came up with a practical solution: a carbon yarn that is softened and made wearable when combined with rayon or cotton and wool.
The resulting fabric is light and resilient. But, more important, it is reported to act as a screen against pollution and the potentially harmful effects of microwave emissions from ordinary household appliances. The electromagnetic field created when even simple electrical equipment is in use is believed to be stress producing and the course of many an unexplained headache.
Appropriately enough, Alaia calls the new fabric “Relax,” and has an exclusive on this revolutionary material for his summer collection. The yarn will be used for underthings, like bustiers and body stockings, and for sweaters, tiny shorts, and dresses that fit like a second, calming skin.For the hyperstressed, Alaia has been working on an all-encompassing cat-suit, complete with mittens and hood. The possibilities of the new yarn are endless—except when it comes to color. Because it’s made from carbon, which emits a grayish cast, it can be anything but white. But the fabric will be available in other light colors, according to the designer.
A final word—about the shoes that accompany the new collection. They’re the fruit of a very successful Franco-American collaboration. Beth Levine, the celebrated New York shoe designer, provided Alaia with two of her wildest hits from the fifties: a strappy, zebra-patterned platform, and a little princess mule cuffed in leopard. To make them, Alaia recruited his friend Raymond Massaro, the shoemaker of the Place Vendôme. He also commissioned Massaro to turn out a pair of platform pumps of his own design. Their vertiginous wooden heels look like a neat pair of legs topped by a perfectly shaped derriere—a collector’s item worth of that other shoekeeper on the Place Vendôme, Elsa Schiaparelli.