Inside Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier exhibition
By Danielle Wightman-Stone
9 May 2018
On May 10, the Design Museum opens its first fashion exhibition in it’s new home in Kensington, with a show dedicated to Tunisian-born master couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who died suddenly in November 2017. This isn’t however a retrospective of the designer’s life and career, instead ‘Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier’ is a celebration of the legendary designer’s craftsmanship and love of haute couture traditions.
Conceived and co-curated by Alaïa himself, prior to his death, with Mark Wilson, chief curator of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, the exhibition, the first-ever UK show dedicated to the couturier, is about the study of technique and craft. It features more than 60 rare and iconic examples of couture pieces including his trademark zipped dress, the bandage dress, the corset belt, the stretch body, and perforated leather, spanning from the early ‘80s to his last creations seen in 2017.
Everything about the exhibition has had the late designer’s touch, right down to the how the pieces are grouped, with each of the 11 themes focusing on technique, rather than certain collections or year of construction. There’s a section on the influence of Spain with flamenco dresses that are embroidered in metallics from 2011, his revolutionary use of leather, including a coat studded with eyelets that he presented in 1981, as well as a series on his famous bandage dresses ‘Wrapped Forms’, which debut in 1986.
In the exhibition guide, Alaïa explains how the bandage dress came about: “‘I had used stretch materials for years to shape the inside of garments I made for private clients. Then I just started using them on their own.”
Design Museum opens Azzedine Alaïa exhibition co-curated by the late master couturier
There’s also a section dedicated to Alaïa’s interest in ‘Timelessness’, including his now classic Tina Turner dress from 1989 made of strands of gold beads, while ‘Decoration and Structure’ shows off Alaïa’s use of lace and perforated fabrics, such as broderie anglaise and punched or laser-cut leather.
Other areas showcase Alaïa’s favourite colour black, with a series of ‘Black Silhouettes’ featuring gowns of different textual qualities from sequins to leather, pleating and zips, and there’s a large display showcasing the designer’s exploration of volume, where the couture pieces showcase his fascination with pushing garments to the extreme with voluminous ballgowns, using the qualities of the fabrics themselves over internal structures such as boning or petticoats.
On his ballgowns, Alaïa states in the guide: “Making the right volume is a technique that is just as complex as any other. It demands good mathematics.”
The big selling point for this exhibition is that you can see Alaïa’s craftsmanship up close, with each piece having a 360 degree view, and you can see why the designer was known as the master of cut and fit and affectionally known as a ‘perfectionist’. The Design Museum really has placed the technique as the focus of this thoughtful celebration of the couturiers amazing career and love of fashion.
The designer also wanted to ensure that each piece was showcased in the best possible light, which meant that all the pieces have been recut and made by Alaïa specifically for the exhibition, to fit the elongated silhouette of the mannequins, which Wilson, explained on a walk-through the exhibition, was done as it made the looks “more glamorous”.
Alongside the incredible couture fashion, the exhibition also features a series of specially commissioned architectural screens by artists that Alaïa “admired and befriend” stated the exhibition guide, including Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Konstantin Grcic, Marc Newson, Kris Ruhs and Alaïa’s partner of many years, Christoph von Weyhe. Each of the screens complement the couture pieces perfectly, with the metal and glass taking inspiration from the designs themselves, with one of the standout pieces being by Newson, which measures 10 metres long by 3.5 metres high.
Wilson, added: “The screens were Alaïa’s vision, and each artist was important to him, and the result is very fitting for the Design Museum.”
There is also a detailed timeline into the couturier’s life and career highlighting key moments such as moving to Paris in 1956, designing clothes for legendary French actress Arlette-Leonie Bathiat in 1960, and Naomi Campbell making her catwalk debut for the fashion house in 1986, as well as business details such as the Prada Group acquisition of the label in 2000 enabling it to expand for the designer to then buy back control in 2007 to join the Richemont Group.
Encompassing the exhibition is a backdrop of photography illustrating Alaïa’s life, with ket pictures from photographer Richard Wentworth revealing the busy process of making the garments, which he took after getting rare access to Maison Alaïa in Paris between January 2016 and July 2017.
To attract a wider audience, the Design Museum is also exhibiting two of Alaïa’s gowns in the public foyer, alongside a photography exhibition featuring work by Peter Lindbergh and Paolo Roversi.
Azzedine Alaïa: The Couturier runs from May 10 - October 7, 2018 at the Design Museum in London.
Images and video: by Danielle Wightman-Stone
In honour of his life and career, FashionUnited has created a timeline of the milestones in Azzedine Alaïa life and career.