Born: Tunis, Tunisia, circa 1940. Education: Studied sculpture, École des Beaux-Arts, Tunis. Career: Dressmaker's assistant, Tunis; dressed private clients before moving to Paris, 1957; part-time design assistant, Guy Laroche, Thierry Mugler, 1957-59; au pair/dress-maker for the Marquise de Mazan, 1957-60, and for Comtesse Nicole de Blégiers, 1960-65; designer, custom clothing, from 1960; introduced ready-to-wear line, Paris, 1980, and New York, 1982; opened boutiques, Beverly Hills, 1983, Paris, 1985, and New York, 1988-92.
Exhibitions: Retrospective, Bordeaux Museum of Modern Art, 1984-85; Retrospective, New York, 2000. Awards: French Ministry of Culture Designer of the Year award, 1985. Address: 18 rue de la Verrerie, 75004 Paris, France.
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Dubbed the King of Cling by the fashion press in the 1980s, Azzedine Alaïa inspired a host of looks energizing High Street fashion, including the stretch mini, Lycra cycling shorts, and the bodysuit. His designs were renowned for displaying the female body and, accordingly, bedecked the bodies of off-duty top models and stars such as Tina Turner, Raquel Welch, Madonna, Brigitte Nielson, Naomi Campbell, and Stephanie Seymour. Alaïa's clothes caught the mood of the times when many women had turned to exercise and a new, muscled body shape had begun to appear in the pages of fashion magazines. Many women wanted to flaunt their newly-toned bodies, helped by recent developments in fabric construction that enabled designers to create clothing to accentuate the female form in a way unprecedented in European fashion.
Prior to his success in the 1980s, Alaïa studied sculpture at the School of Beaux-Arts in Tunis. He moved to Paris in 1957 and lived in a tiny apartment on the Left Bank, paying his rent and bills by babysitting while pursuing his dreams. He apprenticed to Christian Dior for five days before landing a two-year stint (1957-59) as a part-time design assistant for Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler. He also served as an au pair and dressmaker for the likes of the Marquise de Mazan and the Comtesse Nicole de Blégiers (1957-65). He began designing private works in 1960, and his elite clientele eventually expanded to include Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Cécile de Rothschild, and French film star Arletty.
Following in the footsteps of the ancien régime of Parisian haute couture, Alaïa is a perfectionist about cut, drape, and construction, preferring to work directly on the body to achieve a perfect fit. Tailoring is his great strength—he does all his own cutting—and although his clothes appear very simple, they are complex in structure. Some garments contain up to 40 individual pieces linked together to form a complex mesh that moves and undulates with the body. The beauty of his design comes from the shape and fit of the garments, enhanced by his innovative use of crisscross seaming.
His method of clothing construction includes repeated fitting and cutting on the body. His technique of sculpting and draping perhaps comes naturally to him, since he studied sculpture at L'École des Beaux-Arts in Tunis, but also owes much to Madeleine Vionnet, the great tailleur of the 1920s, famed for the intricacies of her bias-cut crêpe dresses that molded closely to the body. Vionnet applied the delicate techniques of lingerie sewing to outerwear, as has Alaïa, who combines the stitching and seaming normally used in corsetry to achieve the perfect fit of his clothes. Combined with elasticated fabrics for maximum body exposure, his garments hold and control the body, yet retain their shape.
Although, at first sight, Alaïa's clothes seem to cling to the natural silhouette of the wearer, they actually create a second skin, holding in and shaping the body by techniques of construction such as faggoting. This body consciousness is further enhanced by using materials such as stretch lace over flesh-colored fabric to give an illusion, rather than the reality, of nudity.
Alaïa introduced his first ready-to-wear collection of minimalist clothes in 1980 and continued to work privately for individual customers until the mid-1980s. Although his clothes are indebted to the perfection of the female body and indeed, at times, expose great expanses of skin, he manages to avoid vulgarity with muted colors and expert tailoring. He introduced riveted leather, industrial zippers, and a wide range of fabrics, including lace, leather, polymers, silk jersey, and tweed.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, Alaïa vanished from the fashion scene, although in an August 2000 interview in Harper's Bazaar, Alaïa insists he "never went anywhere." In 2000, he burst back into the limelight with a new collection. The new look was a drastic departure from his previous sexy, on-the-edge designs. This collection, described as "much more sober, almost Amish in comparison" by critics, has as its centerpiece the pleat, accentuated by long, Alpine-inspired flower-printed skirts, girly knit dresses, and bead-bedecked leather pleated kilt-style skirts. His classic designs of the 1980s are also being adapted by designers such as Helmut Lang, Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez, Nicolas Ghesquíre, and Rei Kawakubo for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, and Loewe. Alaïa also had a retrospective exhibition in September 2000, with an all-star cast turning out to honor him, including fellow designer Calvin Klein, supermodels Stephanie Seymour, Iman, Heidi Klum, and Naomi Campbell, as well as Jocelyne Wildenstein, Polly Mellen, Kate Betts, Daryl Kerrigan, Amanda Lepore, David LaChapelle, and Sigourney Weaver.
In a surprising move, Alaïa joined forces with Miuccia Prada's label as a designer, joining Lang, and Prada herself. Alaïa will continue to handle all distribution in France from his boutique in Paris, and Prada will handle his worldwide distribution.
Alaïa shows regularly but nevertheless seems above the whims and vagaries of the fashion world, producing timeless garments, rather than designing new looks from season to season, and inspiring the adulation of enthusiastic collectors that was once reserved for Mariano Fortuny.
updated by Daryl F.Mallett