Women are his inspiration and his mission is to empower them through his clothes. Even though the skin-tight dresses and skirts transmit sexuality the body is almost fully covered. He wants women to look their best, and they do. When Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista started working for him, they did so for free in return for clothes that were the most flattering they had worn.
Alaïa adjusting Grace Jones’ dress before a shoot
Alaïa became interested in making clothes from a young age while living with his grandparents in his hometown of Tunis. He was reading Vogue magazines and was fascinated by them and started working as a dressmaker’s assistant. Soon after he dressed private clients in his hometown until moving to Paris in 1957.
He studied sculpture in the local École des Beaux Arts, where he lied about his age in order to get in.
Sculpture at first glance is irrelevant to dressmaking, but later on in his life he managed to combine the two forms of art; skin-tight dresses, hugging the body in all the right places that made him known as the “King of Cling” after his first show in 1980.
He was a key figure in the Lycra revolution and that is not the only thing he is well known for. He has also worked for very important designers, including Guy Laroche, Thierry Mugler and Christian Dior. His first inspiration came from the great Madeleine Vionnet.
In-house model, Zuleika Ponsen
Unconventional and driven could also be used to characterise Alaïa – showing his collection only when it is ready and not conforming to the fashion schedules, because as he says “When it’s not ready, it’s not ready. Why get stressed about it?”.
He is not interested in publicity as much as making clothes, which is also why after the death of his sister he disappeared from the fashion scene for several years and only catered for private clients from his Marais workshop and studio. And that’s the magic of his art, clothes take their time to develop fully and nothing is rushed, just for the extra press coverage. He has a loyal clientele that early on in his career included Greta Garbo, who asked for oversized cashmere men’s coats, as well as Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and Louise de Vilmorin.
Final look of his A/W 2011 Couture show, his first show after 7 years of hiatus
Several museums have presented his clothes such as the Guggenheim in New York (2000) and most recently the Galliera Museum in Paris that opened after four years of hiatus with a retrospective dedicated to Alaïa’s work. The Prada Group (which is now only in charge of his footwear line) will create an Alaïa Foundation in Paris to preserve the archive of all past and future work. When that happens, he will be the second designer to have a museum dedicated to him, the first being Yves Saint Laurent. He has also received the Best Designer of the Year and Best Collection of the Year award by the French Ministry of Culture in 1984 as well as the Legion d’honneur (2008), which he allegedly turned down because he doesn’t like decoration except on women.
His greatness is unequivocal and he has stayed true to his values in his 40-year long career.
Alaïa, bustier dress, couture A/W 2003, by Patrick Demarchelier
With Naomi Campbell
Jacket, couture S/S 2003, shot by Paolo Roversi, 2013
From the Galliera Museum exhibition: