Azzedine Alaïa (Photo: unknown)
Despite his diminutive stature – he stands just five feet three inches tall, allegedly – I didn't measure him myself, but it seems about right – Azzedine Alaïa is a giant in the fashion world. It's just one of a knotty bundle of contradictions that make up his character, his career, and consequently his legend. He refuses to show his clothes at fashion week, but everyone wants to see them; he chafes against the confines of the fashion system, while being one of its defining figures. He creates garments that eschew the relentless novelty of contemporary fashion, instead offering gradual developments of idea and technique. But women clamour, season after season, to buy them. In Harrod's, Alaïa outperforms all other international brands. He doesn't advertise, and doesn't loan to celebrities – although they buy his clothes.
The brand flies in the face of all convention, as complex as the riddle of the Sphinx. And Alaïa sometimes deflects questions about his age – somewhere around 75 – by declaring himself "as old as the Pharaohs", so that's appropriate.
Alaïa was born in Tunisia, is based in Paris, and makes clothes. I mean, he really makes them. He is one of the few designers who takes up needle and thread himself to work on his garments. He always has. When he used to present his fashion on a seasonal basis, the shows were frequently weeks late. spring/summer 1990, one of his last, was shown a month and a half after every other Paris label, because he insisted on steaming every garment and sewing every prototype himself. I am loath to call him a designer at all, because really Alaïa is first and foremost a craftsman, a couturier. Today, he presents occasionally, quietly, in his headquarters in the Marais in Paris. The audience is made up of friends, like the artist Julian Schnabel, the photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, and Alaïa's gargantuan St Bernard, Didine. It's still shown a few days after everyone else.
Why? Because Azzedine Alaïa stands apart from fashion – literally and ideologically. His clothes are frequently characterised as sexy – even by Alaïa himself – and often are. But for me, a more telling notion is of the corporeal. Alaïa is fixated with the body; we in turn associate that with sex. At one point, Alaïa created clothes for the showgirls of Paris's Crazy Horse cabaret: look at the way his seams delineate zones of the body, like an external musculature mapping the flesh. Many sneer, with not a little salaciousness, that you don't have to wear underwear when you wear Alaïa. What that illustrates is that his work is about dressing a body, not constructing a dress. Those are the words of the great Madeleine Vionnet, inventor of the bias cut, describing her own approach. Alaïa is a passionate admirer; if she were alive, I suspect that admiration would be mutual.
Alaïa's garments seem engineered rather than simply sewn, their fluctuating, distinctly physical relationship with the individual beneath them the real mark of his mastery of craft. They flare and wrap and grip and knead the human body, as if the flesh were clay ready to be sculpted. Like sculpture, they belong in a museum.Many of them end up there. That's where I meet Azzedine Alaïa for the first time.
We were in Rome, where an exhibition of his clothing – or, to borrow the phrase of the curators, Mark Wilson and Anna Coliva, his "soft sculpture" – has been installed at the city's Galleria Borghese. Erected in the 1600s for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, patron of Bernini and something of a Caravaggio fanatic, it's one hell of a backdrop for his work. Alaïa's clothes are, arguably, the only ones that could stand the test. Exquisitely realised, timeless, the product of obsessive devotion to the act of creation, they're the closest fashion comes to a masterpiece.
Alaïa himself trained as a sculptor at the Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts in Tunis. "Un peu," he says, smiling wide, his fingers pinching the air to indicate the brevity of time spent in that pursuit. Alaïa does not speak English, and my French is as ropey as one of Alaïa's macramé dresses, so we speak through Caroline Fabre, his commercial director and confidante. He continues: "When I realised I couldn't be an amazing sculptor, I changed direction."
Not entirely, though. Rather than representing the body like traditional sculptors, Alaïa chose to mould on to it. His work is in the tradition of ancient Greek sculptors, who chose the perfect components from imperfect sitters to fashion their own superhuman ideals.