Alaïa’s Legacy Lives on in London

A new exhibition at the Design Museum underscores the timeless, masterful nature of the late couturier’s work

A few days after the First Monday in May, there was a very different opening, Azzedine Alaïa : The Couturier, at the Design Museum, London. But then again, Azzedine Alaïa never danced to any tune other than his own and fashion was all the richer for it. There’s ready-to-wear season, couture week, then there was his show, held perhaps a week or two after the fashion tourists had left town. Alaïa showed when the collection was ready. Those in the know came back for this. Why? He was an artist and a perfectionist. He wasn’t remotely pretentious or interested in trends or popularity games. He was interested in women and creating clothes that captured the soul of the silhouette, not just a passing moment, and for that reason, he changed fashion.

This all sounds very reverential, but Alaïa was and is in a league of its own. The exhibition at the Design Museum was planned to coincide with his store opening in London, and was something the designer was very much working on before he unexpectedly passed away in November of last year. Above all this not a retrospective, it’s a celebration, and each dress is timeless, and all look ready to be worn today as much as the date it was first cut. In typical Azzedine fashion, he asked his friend, Mark Wilson, who happens to be chief curator of the Groninger Museum, to work with him, and the exhibition features collaborations with friends and creatives including Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Konstantin Grcic, Marc Newson, Kris Ruhs and Alaïa’s partner of many years, the artist Christoph von Weyhe. Friendship and love is something that runs deeply through the veins of all of Alaïa’s work and collaborations, and you could sense this at the show’s opening last week. His open table and dinners were legendary, and here, his work looks effortless and remains timeless. This London exhibition, his first solo show in the city, was co-curated and conceived by Mr. Alaïa, and it’s about the couturier: the clothes, the craft, the collaboration. The label sets itself above fads and fashion through the cuts, curves, and ultimately, the man who created it.

The exhibition is elegantly uncluttered and considered. The lady mannequins are lined up like proud Oscar statuettes, his model originally being based on his muse, Naomi Campbell. The exhibition, like the man, doesn’t want the razzmatazz, rather its focus is on the work and that is the star. As Carla Sozzani, another close friend and collaborator who is now heavily involved with the brand, said at the preview, “He wanted to do an exhibition, not about himself but about his designs.” You catch your breath as you discover the pieces, grouped in different settings, near enough to touch, poised on mannequins that highlight a different mood of texture, line, cut and technique, in a careful edit of 60 key pieces taken from his prolific career. Less is more with Alaïa. From the austere long gowns with pleats that don’t seem technically possible and gowns that drape every curve but reveal little, to punched leather and, of course, his cling, the show is a master class in the couturier’s techniques.

Anyone that’s ever worn an Alaïa dress will remember the time they wore it. The occasion. The outfit. The way it made her feel. Alaïa seemed to dress your better self, that confident one, the seductive one, the one who is proud of who she is. At the opening, the Alaïa dresses were there – on the guests – from Sozzani in a red phoenix-like dress, to Charlotte Stockdale, to model and muse Cecilia Chancellor. If you haven’t ever been fortunate enough to wear Alaïa, I would urge you to go and try a piece on. If not, there is this exhibition.

Azzedine Alaïa : The Couturier is on view at the London’s Design Museum now through October 7th, 2018

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