Azzedine Alaïa: Secret Historian of French Fashion and Craft

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Azzedine Alaïa: Secret Historian of French Fashion and Craft
Who knew that hidden away in fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa’s atelier in the Marais district would be a collection of 20,000 pieces from other designers that he had accumulated for almost 50 years? Alaïa started his collection in 1968 with designs from Cristóbal Balenciaga and it became a hobby and passion for showcasing his admiration of the high level art and craft in clothes design.   The acquisitions expanded to include early haute couture designers from the late 19th century to Alaïa’s contemporary couturiers and ready-to-wear. Ultimately, it became a historical collection that highlights fashion’s changing styles, the craft and art behind design and, importantly, preserves fashion’s heritage.  Cristobal Balenciaga, robe de cocktail, printemps-été 1960. © Patricia Schwoerer / rgmparis No one ever saw the full extent of Alaïa’s collection in his lifetime. For the first time, 140 exceptional pieces shown on mannequins can be seen at the Azzedine Alaïa, Couturier and Collector exhibit at the Palais Galliera (Musée de la Mode) in Paris. The exhibit presents the history of fashion from Charles Frederik Worth to Jean-Paul Gaultier and is presented from the point of view of the clothes. The focus is not just on each designer’s style but on the art of fashion design itself. The beauty of each garment is seen in the construction and technical skills required in cutting, sewing, seam structure, color, texture and managing how materials from velvet to cotton are folded and hung. The result is seeing the creative, technical art behind excellent design.   This is seen in how skirts flow, how sleeves are designed – from puffy to sculptured, how bodices emphasize different parts of form and the sheer creativity of design that will provide the wearer with an exclusive image and style. The dresses range from the socially restricted designs of pre-WWI to the imaginative designs of contemporary designers who used zippers, box forms, raw edges, bias cuts and other creative ways to make the wearer look unique and classy. The exhibit makes it clear that the garments Alaïa collected were because he understood and respected the craft of making clothes which is key in developing the art of any dressmaker’s design and style.   “Azzedine Alaïa, Couturier Collectionneur” at the Palais Galliera. © P.CANINO Alaïa came to appreciate the craft in dress design as a young boy growing up in Tunis, Tunisia. His glamorous twin sister inspired his love of couture and a friend of his mother fed his creativity with copies of Vogue magazine. He worked as a dressmaker with his sister to pay for school supplies when he attended the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts. After graduation, he began working as a dressmaker’s assistant and in 1957 moved to Paris to work in fashion design.  He worked as a cutter and tailor starting with Christian Dior, but he had to leave when the Algerian War began. He then worked for Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler until he opened his own atelier in the late 1970s where he privately dressed members from the so-called jet set including Greta Garbo and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild. He used this time to study how clothes were made by taking them apart and putting them back together including those by Madeleine Vionnet and Cristóbal Balenciaga.    

Lead photo credit : AZZEDINE ALAÏA, COUTURIER AND COLLECTOR Exhibition, © Gautier Deblonde

More in Azzedine Alaïa, exhibition, fashion, Musee de la Mode, Museum, Palais Galliera

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Intrigued by France since her first stroll along the Seine, Martha and her husband often travel to Paris to explore the city and beyond. She lives part-time on the Île de la Cité and part-time in the San Francisco Bay Area, delighting in its strong Francophone and French culture community. She was a high-tech public relations executive and currently runs a non-profit continuing education organization. She also works as the San Francisco ambassador for France Today magazine.


  • Jeanne Crockett
    2023-12-21 10:41:37
    Jeanne Crockett
    Marvelous write-up of a great show! The displayed collection is amazing in its breadth and this was only a tiny part of his decades-long quest. Where in the world did he store all these garments?


    • Martha Sessums
      2023-12-21 02:35:54
      Martha Sessums
      I was told he stored the garments in a special metal storage area with drawers and rods in his atelier in the Marais. I’m sure it too up a lot of space.