The Master

Azzedine Alaïa Retrospective Opens at Palais Galliera in Paris

A new exhibition at the Palais Galliera in Paris pays homage to the legendary designer Azzedine Alaïa. Sarah Moroz reports.

The Palais Galliera, Paris’s most famous fashion museum, has reopened its doors after four years of closure for renovations. And, this week, it’s back on the cultural scene with bang with a tribute exhibit to legendary designer Azzedine Alaïa. Or, as Olivier Saillard, the curator of the exhibit and the director of Palais Galliera calls him: Monsieur Alaïa.

There’s certainly good reason that Alaïa is spoken of so reverentially: the couturier is a kind of style sensei, a horse-whisperer of the female form. His made-to-measure garments were inspired by and brought to life on the haunches of the most legendary, glamorous figures: Louise de Vilmorin, Arletty, Greta Garbo in the1960s and 70s, and a slew of marquee supermodels such as Stephanie Seymour and Veronica Webb.

Basically, to employ the bons mots of Cher Horowitz: he’s like, a totally important designer.

Alaïa's early schooling was as a sculptor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in his native Tunis—on the side, he sewed for a local dressmaker to pay for his education and supplies, and eventually moved to Paris in the 1950s. This background in sculpture seems self-evident, given how attuned the designer is to every curve of the body, and every furrow of the fabric around it.

The Palais Galliera is graced with high ceilings, and feels grand and worshipful, a St. Sulpice church for fashion devotees. The actual surface area is rather small (500m2, or 5832ft2), but this works in the exhibition’s favor: as Saillard points out, these dimensions allow it to be “more concentrated, more focused” on the garments—the presentation is as minimal and regal as the pieces themselves. There are 74 dresses altogether: the designer asked Saillard to do a first pick, which Alaïa then whittled down and edited, restoring the pieces in the final selection so they would be at their most beautiful. The walls are painted a solemn Bordeaux hue to let the garments resonate all the more boldly. In the catalogue, Saillard writes of Alaïa’s approach: “There is little room for adornment. It is tolerated for structural value only.”

And then there are the dresses, each a sophisticated statement piece, collectively a magnificent display of workmanship and femme fatality. There’s the glimmering mini-dress once worn by Tina Turner, dripping with chains of metallic beads; in a similar beaded style, there’s a Josephine Baker–inspired black bra and miniskirt, favored by Naomi Campbell (both circa 1989). There’s a netted graphic textile, of tiny cuts of leather fastened with metal, fashioned into a crop top and skirt. There’s a playful cream-colored mini-dress, thick wool and elastane knit with a heavy pleat in skirt, cinched with a studded box leather belt. There’s a zippered wool crepe dress, embroidered with basting thread for a playful geometric effect, perhaps one of the most wearable creations. There’s the infamous bandage dress, inspired by Egyptian embalming techniques—all sex and body—with thin cuts on the side, like blinds left open just a peep. One of the most exquisite showpieces is a hooded acetate jersey dress, crimson, backless, belted: Little Red Riding Hood gone forest pinup. Though an expert manipulator of textile, Alaïa obviously champions what’s underneath it: le corps. There is nowhere to hide in his clingy dresses; they’re mercilessly corporeal and unabashedly va-va-voom.

A handful of garments are presented at the neighboring Musée d’Art Moderne, in the Matisse Room. This cavernous hall is airy and spacious, enabling maximum dramatic effect. There’s a whole other dimension of magic at work here by seeing the dresses adjacent to another maestro—Henri Matisse. Two of his large-scale paintings from the 1930s are a brilliant partnership with Alaïa couture, the leaping figures in Matisse’s two canvases, La Danse and La Danse Inachevée, adding vigor to the silhouettes of the mannequins. This is Saillard’s forte: he is an expert at making exquisite connections between fashion and art, indeed enveloping fashion history in art history. He has done so many times before. In fact, while Palais Galliera was closed for all those years—“it was like a punishment for me,” Saillard says—he curated a Madame Grès exhibit at Musée Bourdelle in 2011; an incredibly gorgeous display of draped dresses placed among hulking statues by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle in his namesake museum. It was during this exhibit that Saillard decided he wished to have Alaïa as the inaugural exhibit for Palais Galliera. (Indeed, one of Alaia’s Grecian robes du soir on display here is exactly evocative of a signature Madame Grès creation.)

How involved was Alaïa himself in this exhibit? “Very,” Saillard says. In fact, “he canceled his collection.” (The designer is not showing along with other designers here this week. Instead, this exhibition is, in a way, his collection.) In fact, Alaïa only presents when he feels ready, indifferent to and untethered by the cyclic schedules drawn up by the Fédération Française de la Couture. Alaïa’s approach, alluded to on one of the panels, is that: “a good idea should not perish in favor of the seasons, which endlessly interlock in vain.” Thus he creates “in total independence.” Or, as Saillard says simply of the designer: “He’s beyond.”

(Palais Galliera, Musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris, open September 28 through January 26.)