The Year of Alaïa

Each season, Azzedine Alaïa waits until the end of Paris Fashion Week and the departure of the international style circus, to show his new collection. It’s an original strategy, and one that reflects his ambiguous relationship with the modern fashion world—a world where more is always better and creativity runs on a tight schedule.

There have been years when Alaïa bypassed shows altogether, preferring to work at his own pace and virtually ignore the press. Now under the wing of the Richemont group, which also includes Cartier, Alaïa says he’s entirely free to manage his business.

Alaïa’s ideas are anything but small. The much-discussed new Alaïa boutique at 5 rue de Marignan is actually a three-story pierre de taille building in the heart of Paris’s “golden triangle,” a stone’s throw away from Christian Dior‘s headquarters on avenue Montaigne. When renovations are completed next fall, it will be a couture house with clients visiting by appointment. The enormous space makes one wonder if Alaïa is also hoping to house the planned Alaïa Foundation here,  a space devoted to the house’s archives and Alaïa’s personal couture collection. Or perhaps a golden-triangle outpost of his private residence, the Hotel 3 Rooms, attached to his headquarters on rue de Moussy in Paris’s Marais and furnished with pieces from his own Jean Prouvé collection.
It’s going to be a busy year for the designer. In another landmark move, it was announced in January that Alaïa has signed a 13-year fragrance and cosmetics license with Beauté Prestige International. In September, Paris’s Galliera fashion museum will re-open after four years of renovation with France’s first Alaïa retrospective, curated by Olivier Saillard. But before that, there’s the costumes for Mille et Une Nuits, a ballet based on A Thousand and One Nights by Angelin Preljocaj in Aix-en-Provence at the end of April. In May, Alaïa will design costumes once more, this time for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s comic opera. The production, which will be performed at Frank Gehry‘s Walt Disney Concert Hall, also feature sets by Prtizker-winning architect, Jean Nouvel. About his costuming assignments, Alaïa says only that he enjoys getting away from fashion, and that it is much more challenging to design for opera than for ballet.

Azzedine Alaïa’s clothes put the women who wear them on another plane, but they also have a special effect on the observer. There’s a certain lightness—beyond time, but of the moment—inherent to Alaïa’s design that convinces with every sculptured curve that the female body is the most beautiful work of art in the world. Watching his Fall/Winter 2013 girls glide by at a private viewing at Alaïa’s headquarters, with their impossibly long legs, peach-like derrieres, wasp waists, proud dancer’s chests, rounded shoulders, and pulled-back or bobbed hair, one find oneself sitting up straighter and coming to the conclusion that less really can be so much more.
Alaïa himself is a firm believer in this minimalist philosophy. He simplifies his designs, at least on the surface, through a constant search for new, lighter construction techniques and a strict editing process. So it was with a twinkle in his eye that the designer told us this all-knit collection was one of his smallest to date. “There’s no wovens because there just isn’t enough time,” he explained. “With more shows coming up in a few months, there’s hardly time to do anything. It’s not good for designers. They can’t be creative every two months.”

But Alaïa is managing nicely. Now in his early 70s—he cannot remember his precise age and maintains that the records have been lost—his new collection looks particularly fresh, with new empire-waist baby doll dresses and tunics over matching leggings covered in Lurex polka dots. The glittery dots also appear on sleeveless dresses. “Sleeveless dresses for winter because apartments are so overheated today,” observes Alaïa. The collection’s curveball comes in the form of polka-dot knit gloves that reach up towards the shoulder to expose an alluring slice of upper arm. It’s a romantic look, but on reflection, it’s also Alaïa’s clever way of making sleeveless wearable for ladies of all ages. “The gloves are in knit, so they’re not hard to slip on,” he explains. “When you’re young, you can take them off whenever you want, but when you’re a bit older you keep the gloves on.”

Other ingenious inventions include a new, two-layer knit with a dark mesh exterior that allows colors to show from underneath like a stained-glass window; a jerkin-type sweater with a small, ruffled edge, which combines with a matching full skirt for a ballerina-style dress; and more one and two-piece full-skirted dresses, banded with body-tracing eyelet knit lace panels, or embellished with zigzag topstitching down the torso and bordering the skirt to draw attention to flattering curves. Alaïa finishes off many of these full skirts with a stiff, suede bow belt, a throwback to the days of demure couture and a nod to girlish, Sunday best dress-up—notably less vixenish than his designs usually are.

After the show, when everyone had passed through backstage to congratulate him, it was time for lunch. A meal chez Alaïa is invariably a family affair, served at a large glass table in the kitchen behind his showroom. Assistants, friends, and those with whom Alaïa is working on special projects traded gossip and discussed travel plans.

As soon as Didine, Alaïa’s willful Saint Bernard, had settled on the blue mattress in the corner of the room with his two Malteses, Anouar and Waka Waka, lunch began in earnest. A young architect from Jean Nouvel’s office was there with his girlfriend, eager to hear Alaïa’s recommendations for their first trip to Venice. Alaïa began reminiscing about an adventure he had with his good friend Carla Sozzani of Milan’s 10 Corso Como. Sozzani had made all the plans for a trip with Alaïa to Vienna, but as soon as they landed there, the gray sky made him pine for Venice. So Sozzani, being a resourceful and long-suffering friend, got on her cell, booked the next flight and whisked them to the city of the Doges.  There ensued a search for the best Bellini, which they discovered on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Danieli. The Danieli’s peaches are the freshest.