Alaia: the body genius


Hearing or seeing the name "Azzedine Alaia" makes me tingle with excitement as if Christmas came early. Not only because I deeply adore him as a designer, but also because any book or feature is something of an artefact. 

Alaia is not a talker, not when it comes to press and glossy magazines, at least - the decision most likely based on the fact that he has his own world - work, friends, clients, dogs, the couture and the cooking - and feels content and happy in this wonderful bubble called "life".

On the other hand, this was what made my work on the Alaia stories one of the most challenging tasks I've ever had to face for the Biography series. Back then I had every book (in both French and English) and every article ever written about Azzedine Alaia for the past 20 years. It was enough for the write-up, but left me yearning for more, so I kept searching.

This story was published in Vogue in 1985 - four short years after his first collection was revealed to the public in Paris and just a month after he received the Designer of the Year and Collection of the Year awards from the French Ministry of Culture. Reading it made me smile imagining the time when Alaia still required an introduction and also realise that, as far as Azzedine's habits are concerned, very little has changed since then... I loved learning a little bit more about his grandmother, was surprised to discover how some of his early Parisian past was left untold... but at the same time, savoured the moment of Alaia becoming the Alaia. Wonderful article - I hope you will enjoy it, too.

The accompanying photos are chosen by me from various editorials - the original only had a few small black and white images and the time was not kind to them.


... designer Azzedine Alaia, who has gone from cult hero to worldwide sensation by redefining "body dressing" in a unique, powerful way.

by Joan Juliet Buck for Vogue US November 1985

About five years ago, a certain group of French women began dressing as highly sexualised versions of Darth Vader. They wore armoured black leather jackets that swelled at the shoulders and indented sharply at the waist; on their hands were black leather gauntlets that ended in triangular panels shimmering with silver eyelets. Instead of resembling specialists of painful erotic technique just arrived from outer space, these women - journalists and decorators, successful arty types - were confident and attractive, if a little emphatic. The jackets and tight skirts were followed by moulded sweaters high big shoulders, small waists, and crew necks. Then, dresses that cupped the buttocks in no uncertain manner. Later, draped leather mini-skirts, chiffon dresses trimmed with more eyelets, and big shawl-collared coats cinched at the waist. The clothes were shown two years ago in New York, at Bergdorf Goodman's: it was the designer's first show. Then a boutique opened in Beverly Hills; it was the designer's first boutique. Until a few months ago, the designer was still sleeping on a mattress under a table in the small Paris atelier where he started. His name is Azzedine Alaia.

Paulina Porizkova wearing Azzedine Alaia in Vogue US August 1985 (photography: Arthur Elgort)
Azzedine Alaia and his clothes are special. The man is something under five feet, ware, a Tunisian who always dresses in plain black cotton Chinese worker suits. His clothes partake of three basis styles which are the Nun, the Whore, and the Spaceman. Today, American women - painters, and actresses, successful arty types - are wearing Azzedine Alaia with the same panache as the French women. For Azzedine Alaia, clothes confer an attitude that is restrained, sexy, and powerful. They are best worn unadorned. The colours are somber, the shapes provocative, and the flavour bitter in the way liquorice is bitter; dark and unrelenting. A woman in Azzedine Alaia is fragile only from the rear. From the front, she is invulnerable. Some women would prefer it to be the other way around.

"A woman is like an actress, she's always onstage," says Alaia. "She has to look great to feel good. If she's going to wear clothes by a designer instead of just wearing her man's sweater and a pair of trousers - that's all anyone needs - then the clothes hold make something happen, something unexpected. The dress has to be part of her, she has to feel it on her body." His clothes have in common with the corset and tight jeans the fact they provide as much pleasure for the wearer as for the onlooker. Alaia's skirts, moulding sweaters, and posture jackets hold you tight and show you off.

Alaia was brought up by his grandmother in a house in Tunis full of aunts. His aunts embroidered dresses for their trousseaux. "That must have had some effect on me, but I wanted to study art." He dismisses the idea that Aram clothes have no shape: "My grandmother wore a pare, knotted over trousers, and low-cut bodices. As her children and grandchildren, we saw her whole body; in the street no on e saw her because she was veiled. She was free, free in her head." The contrast between the European "woman onstage" and the hidden grandmother who remains anonymous in public delineates the way he sees women.

Alaia in Vogue US May 1984
"When I was a boy, I was fascinated by nuns. I think their habits were entrancing, by the way they walked, with flat sandals and you could just barely see the ankle under the wide gowns. And the white coifs that lit up the face and shaded them like movie lighting. My ideas about French women was that they wore a little black dress for dinner, to which they added pearls or a belt. Arletty, the actress, represented that for me in her old movies."

Arletty was among his first clients. After studying sculpture at the Beaux Arts, he want to Paris and did a rapid apprenticeship; five days at Christian Dior, two seasons at Guy Laroche. Then he established himself in workrooms on the Rue de Bellechasse and began making calm little dresses for wealthier bourgeois women. He will not say how long ago this was - "sometime in the "sixties" - nor will he tell his age. "It wasn't a good period for fashion, but I was lucky to come in on the end of couture. Some clients were very difficult and required endless fittings. They mostly wanted little afternoon dresses, shirt dresses with a bow at the neck, bright colours and prints. Not at all what I liked. I started with one ouvriere and ended up with eighteen. There was one who worked exclusively for one client, who has something delivered to her every day.... These women weren't easy to dress; the work was like sculpture, raising a shoulder, padding hips. I made them look elegant, but I was sick of it. I started by eliminating a lot of cliental then a new group of customers came when I did my things."

The chauffeur-driven cars of the older clients disappeared, and instead the ladies of the avant-garde started coming. They piled into the tiny showroom for informal shows on the model Zuleika, a small woman with short blond hair and well-worn face. And the real Azzedine Alaia style came forth.

Azzedine Alaia in Vogue UK January 1986 (photography: Eddy Kohli)
"I prefer the woman to be seen rather than the outfit. Her head, her body, the hands - the garment is there to cover her, to underline something, and make her beautiful. The moment when a woman can show her body is so short; they have to make the most of it. A young woman with bare shoulders, a low cut top, that's a gift of nature. After that, you start to cover it a little. Then the woman functions with the spirit rather than just the body; as she evolves, she learns so many things."

"I don't draw, just quick sketches to remember. I work late at night, after eleven, when there's no noise; and the next day I make the toile on Zuleika. I know I have to go around the design, drape on the body. The waist, the curve of the back are important. I don't like hidden legs. I make cut-outs because a hand on the waist, the contact of skin is important. But," he adds, "I'm not obsessed with things like that. I'm chaste and very jealous and shy."

Alaia designs 1981-1986
Asked about the leather, the tough streetwalker look of some of his clothes, he evades the issue: "I don't provoke. You have to cheer women up, make them feel good about being women. If a woman wears something a little coquina, a little mischievous, people will look at her differently. A tight dress will make her feel held. Some women I see undressing here quite naturally, and other remove just one thing and you feel odd. It's all in the head."

"I didn't mean the silver eyelets to be tough" he says, cradling his tiny dog Patapouf in his arms. "It's been done before; the Moroccans made belts that way. I liked it: it shined, it was like embroidery. Leather has a strength that stays with it; I like my clothes to age well. Leather must be fragile on the hips and waist. I like women with his shoulders, but shaped. Women always make you think they'll faint, but they're stronger than men."

"I like simple fabrics knits that are made for me in Italy, leather, rayon because it moves well. Women are paying more attention to their bodies, even French women, and we're all narcissistic. We all went to be shown off."

For himself, he likes only the Chinese suits. "In an ordinary suit and tie I'd look like a little macho, I'd be ridiculous" he says. He wears rubber-soled Chinese slippers at all times, and claims the snow can't hurt them because he doesn't go very far when he goes out. He is moving to the Marais where he will have four floors and a real kitchen, so he can cook; but he says he doesn't want to grow too big because that would be temptation.

Last winter, the Museum of Modern Art in Bordeaux gave him a retrospective: the curator, Jean Louis Froment, throughout Alaia's clothes tied in with a major show of minimalist art, if you'll pardon the oxymoron. It was Alaia's second show, and for it he convinced thirty models to come to Bordeaux; tall black Americans, the Algerian Farida, delicate French girls. Andree Putman, dressed in Alaia, watched the show from behind the Mallet-Stevens chairs she has made popular. Thierry Mugler, an early supporter, cheered him on. Backstage, Alaia gave orders to the hairdressers to leave the models' hair and faces as they were, and set to ironing the more complicated garments. A few starting items, such as a raw crocodile skin jacket and another made of elephants, were laid over chairs.

Azzedine Alaia in Vogue UK January 1986 (photography: Eddy Kohli)
Seen together, the five years' output of Azzedine Alaia was less alien than individual pieces. Veiled women, in hooded beach coats, followed revealed women, in cunning chiffons, through the spare arches of the former warehouse that makes up the Museum. The people of Bordeaux watched with interest; some wondered how people could dress like that. Later, at a dinner given by Philippine de Rothschild at Mouton for Alaia and his entourage, the thirty models spread out through the wine cellars. Almost all of them had chosen to wear the simplem moulding knit dress that is a nun from the front, a hooker from the back, a spaceman in the distance; the plainest, simplest, and most provocative Alaia of all, next to the designer himself.

Photo source: Harper's Bazaar Mexico 2008, Paulina Porizkova wearing Azzedine Alaia in Vogue US August 1985 (photography: Arthur Elgort), Alaia in Vogue US May 1984, Azzedine Alaia in Vogue UK January 1986 (photography: Eddy Kohli), Alaia designs 1981-1986, Alaia in Vogue US March 1989, Alaia in Vogue US March 1989, Azzedine Alaia in Vogue UK January 1986 (photography: Eddy Kohli)


  1. Amazing clothes!

    Sarah x

  2. I understand that this designer evokes a Christmas feeling in you, dear Natalia as I agree that the creations are definitely adorable. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful impressions of the work <3
    xx from Germany/Bavaria, Rena

  3. I love the first picture! The gown is breathtaking!

  4. I always adore how fashion designers play with shape and figure. :D


  5. Great article! He is a true talent and every single one of his creations is a masterpiece.

    Bella Pummarola

  6. Я никогда раньше не слышала о Аззедине Алайа, спасибо за приятное знакомство, Наташа! Его модели просто гимн женственности, выразительности и изящности.
    "Women always make you think they'll faint, but they're stronger than men." Как точно подмечено!

  7. Azzedine Alaia is such a fascinating personality. This isn't always true of someone just because they stay out of the public eye, but in his case it certainly is.