No one designer has created a mystique as personal and exclusive as Azzedine Alaia. The once-anointed “King of Cling,” who made curves and skintight silhouettes the mainstay of ‘80s dressing, Alaia has always stood out as an original, and never has this been more evident than now. While many designers are mining the Greed Decade for clever and often flashy ideas, Alaia’s flowing knit jacquards, seamless boiled-wool suits, embroidered, butter-soft leather kilts, and velvety cashmere sweaters seem more modern than ever. His combination of exquisite fabrics and razor-sharp cutting techniques reveal the talent and commitment of an astute couturier. “No on can cut clothes as he can,” says Donatella Versace. “He has found the right balance between embellishment, softness, and fluidity.”
Eschewing the fashion industry’s norm of runway shows, the Tunsian-born, Paris-based designer hasn’t staged one since 1993, believing that clothing and style should transcend trends. Keeping his business small—something akin to a couture atelier—he designs what he wants when he wants, and his loyal clientele eagerly snaps it up. And they are hardly disappointed. He is constantly refining ideas and fine-tuning patterns until his military jackets, velvet-lined capes, or evening dresses with removable zip-off backs literally reach sublime proportions. “When fashion moves so fast, who has time to be creative?” asks the diminutive designer, whose credits run the gamut from dressing Greta Garbo and discovering Naomi Campbell to designing Stephanie Seymour’s wedding dress, which took more than 1,600 hours to make.
Aside from remarkable innovation, what’s most appealing about Alaia’s chi, sophisticated clothes is that they’re constructed to create shape rather than conceal it. He dismisses the notion of thinness as an ideal and reveres the feminine form. “He truly loves women and understands the body like an artist,” says Donna Karan. Apart from his knits, which are manufactured in Italy, most of the collection is cut and sewn by hand in his nineteenth-century home in the Marais district of Paris. He prefers to work by himself, often until 5:00 A.M., while watching old movies with his five dogs. He rarely travels and never leaves home except to attend dinner parties. “Watching Azzedine work is an inspiration,” says John Galliano. “I’ve been over at his house watching television while he’s casually draping cloth around a mannequin, and you immediately realize you’re in the presence of a master.”
Accolades from within the industry are numerous and heartfelt, an achievement itself, considering the often proprietary nature of designers. “He transformed traditional couture into modern couture,” says Yohji Yamamoto, who owns more than one of Alaia’s leather jackets. “He’s been a great source of inspiration to use,” admit Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. “He is one of my heroes for having turned his back on the conventional way or marketing,” says Narciso Rodriguez. For all that is said of Alaia, one thing is certain: He would never stand for convention. —Anne Slowey.
The Master Touch, Elle, September 2000. Photographer: Gilles Bensimon / Model: Karolina Kurkova / Stylist: Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele.