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“ALAÏA BEFORE ALAÏA”: Who is the Man Behind Quintessential Paris Couture?

“A human being is not a machine. Especially when it comes to creating."

Mondrian Inspired Dress

In the Azzedine Alaïa Association’s newest exhibit, “Alaïa Before Alaïa,” the prolific designer’s beginnings and influences are parsed, highlighted, and brought to the forefront of his brand in relation to his ultimate success and domination of the fashion industry as we know it.

Many a curator at this foundation have created exhibits underscoring Alaïa’s career-long craftsmanship, creativity, and continued influence, using his clothing as the story. This exhibit tries to get at something deeper, though: who is Azzedine Alaïa, and where on Earth does this type of artistic brilliance start? How is it fostered? And who helped him solidify it? Alongside the dresses at this exhibit, exquisitely fashioned onto plexiglass mannequins to achieve the effortless elegance that Alaïa is known for, are the inspirations behind these pieces. Mostly all women, these muses, ranging from actresses to designers to friends, all had some hand in creating the pieces we see before us today.

Alaïa started to rise to notoriety in the 60’s, after joining Guy LaRoche’s studio. With this creative collaboration, he designed some of the dresses the defined 60’s mod fashion, and directly propelled the rise of the color-block dress modeled after Yves Saint Laurent’s 1966 Fall/Winter color block dress. The original dress was seen as more of an art piece rather than wearable fashion due to the print being directly inspired by Piet Mondrian’s 1930’s art pieces; the 1966 dress itself was not received well by critics. But, as time wore on and mod took hold of Europe especially, stars like Twiggy gave the style its legs. This 1960’s collection features shift dresses with color-blocked patterns in red, white, tan and black, giving it the signature Alaïa feel. One dress in particular from this collection that completely embodies Alaïa is a simple tan shift with a bold black cross pattern, a black stripe across the hem, and a simple red shoulder in the top right block. This design is integral to the development of Alaïa’s personal touch of classic and elegant futurism that he carries throughout all collections.

Alaïa was inspired by the golden age of Hollywood, and many of his pieces in this exhibit focus on his take on the silhouettes of the iconic dresses from this era. The first piece I was particularly drawn to was a 1993 curve-hugging, purple and cream knit floor-length gown with a soft feel and look to it. The way it drapes and hangs because of the weight of the knit is fantastic, but it doesn’t visually read as heavy fabric. It slinks around even on the stationary mannequin. With the herringbone V that the purple stripes create all meeting in the middle for one figure-defining line, one can’t help but to think of Claudette Colbert’s classic gown in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra. His take on this timeless film costume achieves the effect of an almost futuristic interpretation of ancient royalty, and completely redefines the concept of what a couture gown can be. One can imagine this dress being featured in a space-opera-esque motion picture that depicts a character with the same spirit as Cleopatra herself.

The dress that I felt completely captured Alaïa’s legacy was the one that you first see when you walk in. This long, black dress is modeled after Rita Hayworth’s iconic evening gown from the 1946 film Gilda that solidified the image of a femme fatale as we know it. Alaïa was beyond inspired by this scene in particular, in which you see Rita Hayworth dancing seductively and stripping down. He wanted to take this idea and use the piece and the spirit to create something of his own. This dress has a plunging neckline, like the one suggested in the stitching from the original dress, and features pinnings up and down the hem of the dress. This intricacy of stitching along with the delicacy of the gown presents a stripped down, prototypal version of this iconic moment, yielding yet another iconic moment in time.

All of Alaïa’s pieces benefit the other, all of them build off of each other. While the styles of collections may be vastly different at times, it is his spirit that remains to create the distinct look of Alaïa. This exhibit was by far the most moving and inspiring that I have seen so far, and compelled me to try on a dress in the Alaïa London location that reminded me strikingly of the Cleopatra inspired dress. The bodice at the top of this dress, although black, was eerily similar to the one showcased in the exhibit. Feeling the fabric, the quality of the craftsmanship, the care that goes into these designs, completely solidified by love and unconditional regard for Alaïa as a man, mind, creative, and visionary of our time.


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