The Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, reopened its doors after a four-year renovation, in the end of September 2013 with a grand exhibition dedicated to the Tunis-born fashion couturier.
If you pronounce the name ‘Azzedine Alaia’ to me, you may hear in return a series of onomatopoeia such as ‘oh’ and ‘ah’: I’m quite a devotee of the man and to me, visiting an exhibition dedicated to his work was just the cherry on the cake of my admiration.
Olivier Saillard, the museum’s director and the exhibition’s curator, chose about seventy garments to illustrate the couturier’s career that began in 1979, when pushed by his friend Thierry Mugler, Azzedine Alaia presented his first collection.
The designer’s work is often described as being timeless, he who also plays his own rules, refusing to respect fashion calendars and shows his collections at his own pace. To highlight the permanency of his creations, Olivier Saillard therefore decided to display the garments by types, refusing any idea of chronology: bandage dresses, African influences, zips, black tailored outfits…And as though to emphasize this idea of continuity, the garments were all placed on a lengthy line: a sort of endless procession of dresses standing tall at the visitor’s level. No glass cases surrounded the dresses which was such a refreshing display solution that bore a double significance: it evoked the initial objective of the Palais Galliera, destined to present the Duchesse Galliera’s collection of sculptures – echoing the palace’s 19th century aesthetic brought back to life with its Pompeiian red walls and dark wood carvings. The display also obviously recalled Azzedine Alaia’s creation that resembles sculpture – the designer had initially studied sculpture in Tunis and has since applied this art to his craft, renown for his garments that mould the body.
Thus, thanks to this display, you could read the story of Alaia’s exploration of the female form and his definition of beauty and sensuality while you could also observe a personal take on fashion’s history – Azzedine Alaia is a costume collector and has taken inspiration from such designers as Madeleine Vionnet, Alix Grès and Cristobal Balenciaga with whom he shares technical skills: influences visible in his mastering of drapes and tailoring.
Almost like an evidence, the garments were all presented on ‘invisible’ hollow mannequins that emphasized on the clothing and nothing else as well as they assisted on showing how Azzedine Alaia’s garments shape the body and its forms – although we are placed in front of unreal headless silhouettes.
Alaia is the master of the clear-cut and simplicity was therefore the connecting thread of the whole display: simple mannequins, a simple scenography mounted by the furniture designer Martin Szekely and simple documentary aids ( only discreet labels under the clothing).
I yet agree that the work of a designer such as Azzedine Alaia aims to purity and needs to be presented with a certain modesty but how can the woman’s body be absent from a tribute to a man who has worked his whole life through in celebrating it? Azzedine Alaia declared himself ‘I’d rather people remark the woman than her clothes’. Well, the woman was nowhere to be seen within the display. Or only through its forms…Although it may have polluted the very plain scenography desired by the curator, videos and photographies of women and models wearing the couturier’s creations would have at least brought a little more flesh…And speaking about models, if there is one designer I closely link to supermodels, it is Alaia: I wanted a Naomi or a Stephanie! The sexiness of the creations was still highly visible but it looked like a robotic sex-appeal. Here the discourse had been reversed: visitors were invited to focus on the clothes only not all the tricks behind, including the – fake – body wearing them.
The exhibition was pursued at the Musée d’Art Moderne, just opposite the Palais Galliera, where were displayed in the Henri Matisse room, eight exclusive garments commissioned for the display. This incursion into the world of art, was justified as Azzedine Alaia is a renowned art collector (he even owns a gallery), is a former sculptor and has often proposed cross-discourses with contemporary artists such as Dan Flavin or Julian Schnabel. And we’ve come full circle! Azzedine Alaia’s whose garments are displayed like art objects, like sculptures…was placed on the same level as artists, the fashion designer therefore disappeared behind the artist.
And, as Emma in her post about the Henrik Vibskov exhibition wrote, I regret not seeing more of the fashion designer, especially in a fashion museum. We celebrate Azzedine Alaia as such a fine craftsman, I wish I could have seen more of his creative process, a pedagogic ‘behind-the-scenes’…All the elements that make the richness of fashion and its procedure, were hidden here behind an aesthetic and artistic concept.
Although I was thrilled being able of observing such beautiful and fine pieces, I was disappointed to be confronted to an almost stereotyped ‘fashion as art’ concept placing aesthetic above education and most of all, I highly deplored that the ‘absent body’ debate took place here: Azzedine Alaia’s work is on the contrary about the present body.
I wish we could have seen more of his parallels with other designers and artists by proposing analogies: his designs compared to those of his 80s power dressing contemporaries, the influence he has on a younger generation, art works that infused his creations and most of all his inspirations – he who was the first to discover Madeleine Vionnet’s cutting techniques….How wonderful it would have been to confront their designs!
Do read Emma’s post I refer to as she raises an interesting debate I thought it would have been redundant doing so here.
Saillard, Olivier. Alaia. Paris: Paris Musées, 2013.
Wilson, Mark. Azzedine Alaia in the 21st century. Thorn: BAI, 2012.
Gaines, J. and Herzog, C. Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body. London: Routledge, 1990.
Robinson, J. Body Packaging: a guide to human sexual display. Los Angeles: Elysium
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Harvey, J. (2007) ‘ Showing and hiding: Equivocation in the relations of body and dress.’ Fashion
Theory, Vol.11 (1) : 65-94.