Alaïa, Azzedine

Alaïa Azzedine. French designer of Tunisian origin. Alaïa arrived in Paris in 1957 as an apprentice sculptor after graduating from the Ecole des Beaux Arts.


Alaïa, Azzedine (1940-2017). French designer of Tunisian origin. Azzedine Alaïa was born on February 26, 1940 in Tunis, into a family of farmers. Alaïa left for Paris at the age of 17 with little money and lots of dreams. Moreover to earn a living, he started working as a babysitter.

His childhood in Tunis runs smoothly and leaves a happy memory in him, despite the fact that his mother was gone and his father worked a lot in the fields. It was his grandparents who took care of him. He often went to the cinema with his grandfather, with his grandmother he spent hours in the kitchen, preparing banquets for the numerous guests. Then there was his twin sister Hafida, a sweet girl who worked as a seamstress and who teaches him to hold needle and thread. His aunt was also an important and inspirational figure for Alaïa’s creativity. In fact Alaïa wore French style with a red coat with astrakhan lapels.

He became a great name in fashion in the 1980s, thanks to an unmistakable style, while remaining a tireless craftsman. His passion for sculpture contributes to the three-dimensional feeling of his dresses, which so often emphasize the back and the bottom. “They are the core of feminine seduction,” he likes to say.

The French designer, Azzedine Alaïa.

Alaïa’s women

There are many female figures who have marked the life of the great designer. The rigorous elegance of the sisters of Notre Dame de Sion to whom he gives the first drawing. The models of Dior and Balmain that he discovers on the pages of fashion magazines in the studio of Madame Pineau. Moreover a midwife in the neighborhood where the young man earns some money by putting pots of water to boil on the fire.

Carla Sozzani having dinner at Alaïa;s.

The kitchen as a creative environment

The kitchen, as already mentioned, is an important place for Alaïa. This is where he spends a lot of his time cooking with his grandmother. And it is precisely here that he begins to compose his first creations, which take sculptural forms on the clients for whom he sews. His kitchen, with a steel top and two large perfectly lit tables, has for years been a crossroads where you can eat good culture and ideas, where culinary dishes and stratospheric leaders came to life. A place open to all, ready to welcome new guests at any time, as the grandmother had taught Azzedine. Her secret was to mix the seamstress and the journalist, the noblewoman and the artist: a way to keep all her affections together.

Azzedine Alaïa in his kitchen.

It is the grandmother, behind his father’s back, to pushed the talented boy to enroll in the Academy of Fine Arts. So Azzedine studied sculpture, began to take an interest in the body and its forms and learned notions that would prove to be precious for her. future. He meets Leila Menchari, who will design the Hermès shop windows for thirty years. Together they dream of Paris and decide to reach it, full of hopes, dreams and little money in their pockets. There they rent a chambre de donne, a small studio flat at a low price.

Women’s tailor

Azzedine starts working for Dior, but the experience lasts just five days. France is at war against the Algerian separatists and those who, like him, come from the Maghreb are not at all well regarded. He just has time to pass Marlene Dietrich, who gets out of her car with her beautiful legs. Then he understands that the only thing he really wants in life is to dress women. Also he meets the Marquise of Mazan and the Countess of Blégiers, for whom he begins to babysit. But when the children are asleep, he sews the dresses that noblewomen wear at dinners and theaters. His fame begins, as does his love affair with the German painter Christoph von Weyhe, who will remain by his side until the last day.

Alaïa in his atelier, 1983.

Alaïa first atelier 

In 1965 he opened his first atelier, a 140 square meter space, in rue de Bellechasse, on the Left Bank. Here he placed sewing machines everywhere, even in the kitchen and bathroom. He begins to break down and reassemble Madame Vionnet and Balenciaga dresses.

The study of the history of costume and tailoring in the 1900s, from Madeleine Vionnet to Poiret and Balenciaga, taught him the principles of the highest style.

The atelier became the destination of a cosmopolitan pilgrimage thanks to the most sophisticated word-of-mouth. During these years he attracted and won a young and avant-guard clientele with his wrapped knitted black dresses, zipper-shaped jackets, belts and gloves in studded and open-work leather.

Alaïa receives dozens of sophisticated women from all over Paris by appointment. Among these Dietrich, Garbo and Arletty, who becomes one of her closest friends. His garments are born by observing the bodies of the women he is in front of.

In 1980 he presented his first Collection and in 1982, a presentation at the luxury store Bergdorf Goodman in New York opened the doors of America to him and brought international success.

Azzedine observes, loves women, is interested in them to the point of forgetting about himself. In fact, he apparently dedicates little time to choosing his clothing items: he almost exclusively wears trousers and a turtleneck or shirt, preferably with a Korean collar. All strictly black. He doesn’t like being called a stylist, he prefers to be called a tailor. While Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Guy Laroche founded their own brands, the Tunisian designer goes his own way with visits by appointment and handmade to order garments.

Azzedine Alaïa and Carla Sozzani

Only in 1981 Thierry Mugler managed to convince him to make the leap. Her atelier is so small that Azzedine has to show models on the street. In the meantime he meets Carla Sozzani, director of Vogue Italia, the “soeur italienne”, who will greatly influence his personal and working life. In 1979 Carla released a special piece on the tailor in Vogue and flies directly to him in Paris. To thank her as she deserves, Azzedine Alaïa wants to make her a dress. From that meeting an intense and devoted friendship will arise between the two, made up of mutual admiration and respect. In 1980, he presented his first collection. In 1982, a fashion show in the Bergdorf Goodman luxury department store in New York opened the doors to America and international success.

Azzedine Alaïa and Carla Sozzani.

Azzedine’s models

In 1985 he moved from rue de Bellechasse to an old youth hostel in the Marais district, restored by his friend the architect-designer Andrée Putman. In 1990 he “fell in love” with an ex-industrial workshop in rue de la Verrerie. He transformed it into an atelier with the help of the American artist Julian Schnabel.

Here he met a number of particularly interesting people, such as Farida Khelfa, his first model, collaborator and muse. Jean Paul Goude becomes his trusted photographer and introduces him to ex-girlfriend Grace Jones. It was she who accompanied Alaïa to the Opéra Garnier in 1985 to collect two fashion Oscars.

Azzedine Alaïa and Farida Khelfa, 1986.

Azzedine Alaïa and Naomi Campbell

In 1987 Naomi Campbell parades for Alaïa, he is credited with having discovered the talent of the Black Venus. The stylist becomes the mentor and guide of the young model, just over fifteen. He takes care of her, takes her to live with him in his apartment. Additionally he teaches her the trade, bearing, elegance through films such as Women by Geirge Cukor and films by Josephine Baker. Naomi appears in the latest Haute Couture 2017-2018 collection, beautiful in a long black dress with a white coat with black motifs. But Naomi is not the only talent he finds. Indeed he deserves the credit for having launched models of the caliber of Linda Evangelista and Inès de la Frassange.

Azzedine Alaïa and Naomi Campbell.

The body sculptor 

Furthermore Azzedine won the nomination of “sculptor of the body”.  He chooses to complete his clothes on customers so that they fit perfectly. He also collaborates with some low cost brands. Among these Les 3 Suisse, La Redoute, Tati, for which he creates the iconic checkered line, sold for a few francs at the time and now on sale for thousands of euros in Vintage stores.

The creative freedom of Alaïa

Throughout his career, Azzedine Alaïa remains faithful to his idea of ​​fashion. Cut, material and fluidity. These are its rules. The love for his work kept him awake whole nights, prey to moments of strong creativity, in which he was lulled by documentaries on animals, which he loved so much. But the fashion system is rigid and pretentious, these are the years of great brands and collections punctuated by precise and repetitive appointments over time. Proudly out of the system, Azzedine declares: << I take off when I’m ready >>. And so, often, his collections come out two months after the others. Without getting involved in the trends of the moment, without worrying about what’s in fashion and what isn’t, without looking at the work of colleagues. But, in spite of his great success, the French-Tunisian designer has maintained his distance from organized fashion, the financial market, and show business.

When Gianfranco Ferrè leaves Dior, Alaïa is offered the role of creative director, but refuses because this would mean closing his atelier, which in the meantime has moved to the Marais, between rue de la Verrerie and rue de Moussy, in an old hostel renovated by architect and designer friend Andrée Putman. He will do the same after the defenestration of John Galliano in 2011.

The return to the catwalk

In 1993 he gave up the runways and the presentation of collections. Indeed he didn’t like to have to comply with a calendar set by the Chambre Syndicale which, in Paris, is the law for fashion.

15 difficult years pass between one proposal and another, but one of great rebirth. If Alaïa had initially rejected that world and its jet set, remaining firm in his convictions; later he is cut off, until he disappears completely from newspapers and tabloids. Then his depression worsened with the death of his beloved sister Hafida. We are in the mid-90s and the maison, which has given up on fashion shows, is now proceeding wearily, without major revolutions, manufacturing pieces on request for a limited clientele and producing a ready-to-wear line. Providential intervention by his friend Carla Sozzani who finally encourages him to take back his life and career.

Then in 1997 the Dutch Museum of Groningen, designed by Alessandro Mendini, dedicated a large exhibition to him. It showcased works by Andy Warhol, Picasso, Schnabel, Basquiat, and César near his clothes.

Prada group acquisition

In 2000 Azzedine Alaïa signed a partnership agreement with the Prada Group and in 2002 returned to the French high fashion catwalks. Patrizio Bertelli, head of the Prada Group, announces the purchase of a majority stake in the French firm. Indeed having worked for Prada resulted in a regenerative effect for the designer. In fact, in July 2007, bought back his own house and brand, despite the fact that the footwear and accessories division continues to be owned by the Italian group.

Then the great Tunisian tailor returns one last time in July 2017 with his high fashion collection, after six years of total absence from the catwalks. Naomi Campbell opens and closes the show.

The man who has spurred hundreds of women to be proud of themselves and their bodies returns to the catwalk with his usual taste. It re-proposes the snug models that earned it the nickname “King of Cling”: knitted dresses transform the agile bodies of the models into sinuous snakes; black leggings with matching minidress become her signature, also offering the basis for her “curvy” coats and screwed crocodile jackets. Indeed his clothes are designed to lengthen the legs, emphasize the waist and breasts, lift the butt. He chose fabrics that adapt to shapes, to underline and enhance them. Shapes that seemed to balance the strong push towards new values. Additionally with practices of approach to the fashion object that promise distinction, the perfection of harmonious asymmetries, minimalism full of energy.

Forever Azzedine Alaïa

Azzedine Alaïa, instinctive and fanatic of perfection, tirelessly creative, died in Paris at the age of 77, on 17 November 2017.

He has never bowed to commercial logic and the frenetic rhythms dictated by fashion. A discreet, sensitive and extremely creative man, shy, lover and loved by women, many still mourn his death.

Fondation Azzedine Alaia

Azzedine Alaïa’s life was filled with art, fashion, design, architecture, music theatre and all things creative. Indeed he was an avid collector with a true collector’s compulsion. Starting in the 50s, Alaïa cruised the flea markets, buying pieces by designers like Jean Prouvé, decades before anyone else took notice. Their interest in pure form reflected his own sculptural inclinations.

In 2007, Alaia along with his friend, Carla Sozzani and lifetime partner Christoph Von Weyhe founded Association Azzedine Alaia to preserve his work and large holdings. Then the association later became Fondation Azzedine Alaia, located at his headquarters in Paris. It preserves and exhibits, his works along with his art works from his personal collection.

The museum comprising of two exhibition galleries and a bookstore, took shape one year after Alaia’s death. Fondation Azzedine Alaia was recognised by decree of French ministry of interior as an establishment of public utility in 2020.

Some dresses exhibited at the Foundation Azzedine Alaïa.

Furthermore the first exhibit curated by the foundation took place in 2018. As an ode to the late Alaïa, the exhibition featured 41 dresses design by him. The exhibition took place at the foundation headquarters in Marais, giving the visitors a glimpse of the fondations’s progress.

Alaia & Balenciaga – Sculptors of form

Developing on Hubert De Givenchy’s nascent idea, the exhibition displayed Cristobal Balenciaga and Azzedine Alaiïa’s designs on parallels. The philosophical similarities between both the designer, despite the fact that they never met, silver lined the exhibit. Curated by Olivier Saillard in early 2020, the showcased intended to create a ‘conversation’ fuelled by the passion both designers shared for fashion. Alaia collected several designs by Balenciaga over the years.

Taking Time

A posthumous book featuring the conversation between Azzedine Alaïa and his friends was published in 2020. Titled as ‘Taking Time’, the compilation began in 2013, years before Alaïa’s death. Reportedly the designer didn’t wish to write a memoir. Instead he wanted to bring together conversations that happened over time, that serve as both a self-portrait and a manifesto. Additionally the foreword for this book was written by Naomi Campbell. It was compiled by French writer Donatien Grau and published in both French and English. Additionally Taking Time also features words by actress Charlotte Rampling, filmmaker artist Julian Schnabel and designer Ronan Bouroullec.

The cover page of “Taking Time”.

Azzedine Alaia – The Editions

Paying tribute to Azzedine Alaïa’s legacy, a wardrobe consisting of 30 looks ranging from 1981 to 2017 was showcased alongside Alaïa’s Spring 2021 collection. The emblematic wardrobe was launched with an artistic performance, hosted by Naomi Campbell. The Editions would continue with pop ups at key retail destinations, including their flagships stores in Paris, Dubai and London.   

One of the pieces presented.
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