Azzedine Alaïa, the Tunisian-born couturier known for his masterfully crafted body-con dresses, has died. He passed away today in Paris at the age of 82, reportedly from heart failure. All those who knew him—and those who simply admired his unparalleled understanding of women, craft, and clothing—are in mourning.
Alaïa, who worked for Christian Dior, Guy Laroche, and Thierry Mugler before launching his own line in the 1980s, was renowned for so many reasons. He designed unforgettable looks for stars including Grace Jones, Greta Garbo, and Tina Turner. More recently, the likes of Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna have reached for his wares. He defined the body-con look of the 1980s, his at once sculptural and second-skin leather or stretch-knit confections earning him the nickname “The King of Cling.” He continues to inspire fashion’s biggest names, like Nicolas Ghesquière, Alber Elbaz, and Marc Jacobs. He’d host intimate lunches for creative friends at his Marais home-cum-headquarters, his brood of cats and dogs running free while his guests laughed and ate. He said “no” to trends and industry nonsense, focusing on his clients and impeccable work. And he ignored the fashion calendar, only showing when it suited him—when he felt he had something new to say. Alaïa’s final runway outing—staged at his atelier during the Fall 2017 Haute Couture shows in July—came after a six-year hiatus. Naomi Campbell, who referred to the designer as “Papa,” and Karlie Kloss walked. In the audience sat his fashion family—Stephanie Seymour (whose wedding dress he designed in 1995), his close friend, stylist Joe McKenna (whose documentary on the designer is a must-see, and can be viewed here), Rossy de Palma (one of his many muses), Farida Khelfa (who was famously photographed with the five-foot-three designer leaping into her arms), and Jean-Paul Goude (the artist responsible for that iconic image) were all front row. They whooped and hollered as Alaïa’s exquisite, textural, metal-laced looks strode past. It was explosive, and while there were no lavish sets or hot young starlets, it was one of the most exhilarating shows I’ve ever attended.
Most of all, Alaïa was known for his love of women. He saw fashion as a vehicle to lift women up, and always designed with the female body in mind. You’d think that would be standard practice in women’s fashion—it’s not. And the fact that his clothes were always about the woman wearing them, rather than pushing a personal aesthetic agenda, was one of the many things that set Alaïa apart. “’I work for women,” he told The New York Times in 1987. “I only think for them. If I didn’t like women, I wouldn’t do this job.”
I can attest that an Alaïa garment—whether it’s a skirted leather coat, one of his signature skater dresses, an uber-tight turtleneck dress with swooping seams, or a leopard-print catsuit—makes you feel unstoppable. The way it holds the body and compliments curves magnifies a woman’s confidence and inner power in a way few—if any—other outfits can. Yes, his clothes are sexy, but there’s never a sense of objectification or vulgarity—only strength and sensuality. Also, they’re so damn comfortable—and flattering. I swear there’s magic woven into every piece.
Anyone close to Alaïa will tell you how kind he was. For instance, when Naomi Campbell began modeling in Paris at age 16, he effectively adopted her, putting her up in his own home and, as the pair detailed in a 1998 interview with The Independent, keeping her out of trouble. “Azzedine saw something in me and taught me to have confidence… He really taught me everything about the business, and also taught me even more important things about life—to be yourself, to do things with integrity and to do things from the heart,” Campbell recalled. “Whenever I came to Paris, I would stay with him. He gave me my own room and I still have it. My mum didn’t want me to go to discos and he never used to let me go.”
Fashion Unfiltered’s own Prosper Keating experienced his kindness firsthand. “I met him for the first time when he invited me over to dinner on my birthday,” Keating said. “My wife had been working with him and wanted to get home to see me. Azzedine wouldn’t hear of it and so I ended up sitting next to him at the table in his kitchen, completely under his spell, listening to his stories. What a birthday treat that was! Even bumping into Azzedine in the street and exchanging a few words was nothing less than special. What a lovely man he was. A real gent.”
While he worked with some of the world’s brightest stars, Alaïa wasn’t one for the spotlight. In 1991, Suzy Menkes wrote, “If there were any justice in this (fashion) world, Azzedine Alaïa would be a worldwide household name, instead of a cult hero.” Sure, he was name-checked in Clueless (“Oh no, you don’t understand, this is an Alaïa,” Alicia Silverstone’s red body-con-clad Cher professed at gunpoint. “It’s like, a totally important designer.”), but his refusal to give in to gimmicks and mass production prevented him from reaching celebrity status. In short, he never sold out—he kept his craft pure, and in today’s fame-hungry fashion world, that’s pretty admirable.
What’s more is that, even as he rose to “fashion” fame, he remained his humble, hardworking self. “Fame has not changed him at all,” Campbell noted in that Independent interview. “He still works the same way he did the day he started. He has to look at every pattern. He still goes over everything; every single thing.” If you were lucky, you could see Alaïa running around his 7 Rue de Moussy boutique, as I did last summer. He flashed a smile to the shoppers while carrying dresses into a fitting room. Come on—how many other designers would do that?
Today is a deeply sad day for fashion. Our industry has lost one of its greatest talents. Just as there is nothing quite like an Alaïa dress, there is no one quite like Azzedine Alaïa. He will be missed but never forgotten, his memory immortalized in each of his stitches, pleats, and grommets. And every time an Alaïa dress is zipped, he’ll continue to bring women joy.