Few designers can say their influence was so far-reaching that Greta Garbo came knocking on their door demanding a new outfit – but that was Alaïa. More than just a clothes-maker, Alaïa was a creative genius, close collaborator, and friend— powering iconic fashion moments and redefining modern haute couture.
On this day, 5 years ago, the world lost not only one of the greatest couturiers of all time, but a cultural icon for fellow Tunisians like myself. Walking down the well-trodden cobble streets of Sidi Bou Said, my family homeland, Alaïa’s humble roots were not too dissimilar from my own. For the people of Tunisia, he proved that the country was not just a manufacturer of clothes but rich territory for creativity.
Over the course of his 40-year long career, Alaïa did not hew to the fashion calendar. Dabbling with texture, shape and proportion, he is perhaps best recognised for his curve-hugging signature looks which were famously worn by Madonna, Naomi Campbell, and Grace Jones. In celebration of his life and legacy, we pay homage to the legendary designer.
The Tunisian teen
The son of a local wheat farmer, Alaïa grew up in the idyllic blue and white suburb of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. With a keen eye for detail, the young creative spent his days leafing through his grandmother’s coveted Vogue magazines and sculpting at École des Beaux Arts in Tunis. It was here that his passion for design truly took momentum, and with the encouragement of his family, he began dressmaking for the affluent neighbourhood ladies.
Azzedine takes Paris
It wasn’t long before the budding designer moved to Paris in 1957, eager to hone his craft he worked under the legendary Christian Dior, Thierry Mugler and Guy Laroche - though he only lasted one week at Dior, claiming “they must not have liked my face!”
This didn’t deter Alaïa, who in 1979 opened his first atelier in his studio apartment on the infamous Rue de Bellechasse, whilst designing elaborate garments for dancers at Crazy Horse. In 1980, he presented his debut ready-to-wear collection. His leather and lycra custom-made dresses, princess-line jackets and rubber trench coats garnered him immediate success and a host of clients including the ladies of Rothschild, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
When Alaïa met Naomi
Though Alaïa had many muses, his friendship with Naomi Campbell was undoubtedly one of his most treasured. Before she was known as the supermodel she is today, Campbell was the 16-year-old south Londoner who lost all her money on her first day in Paris. With a generosity that was so innate, Alaïa decidedly took Campbell under his black chinoiserie-cloaked wing, phoned her mother and ensured her that Naomi was well-clothed, fed and sheltered.
“In the beginning, Naomi just slept on a mattress. But she would escape through the window to go out clubbing with other girls. So, I put her in the room above mine to keep an eye on her’’, the north African designer famously told The Independent in 1998. To Naomi, Alaïa would always be her ‘Papa,’ a friend and father-figure amidst the vacuous industry.
King of Cling
Even if you don’t know Alaïa by name, the chances of you recognising his signature designs are high. With exquisite body-skimming dresses that hugged the figure like a second-skin, the beloved designer earned the nickname “King of Cling”. Predating Kim K’s booty-enhancing shapewear line Skims, Alaïa’s oeuvre has long proven to be far ahead of its time. The inventor of the bandage dress, his influence can be seen not only in what we wear, but how we interact with our bodies. Fashion expert Uschka Pittroff fabulously said “wearing Alaia is like being in a man’s embrace”— passionate, sensual and all consuming. To put it plainly— there is no one as devoted to fashioning the female form than him.
May Day, May Day
One of Alaïa’s most memorable flings with pop culture was when designing outfits for disco legend Grace Jones. In her first acting role, A View To Kill (1985), Jones stars as deadly henchwoman May Day dressed head-to-toe in an Alaïa hooded bandage dress. Complete with a toxic barbed butterfly, her weapon of choice, Jone’s subversive get-up is a refreshing deviation from the previous damsels in distress associated with the Bond franchise. Behind the scenes, the queen of androgyny was a close friend of Alaïa. She even carried him onstage, a whole foot taller than him, to receive the 1984 Best Collection of the Year at the Oscars de la Mode.
Alaïa’s animal kingdom
Besides dressing the exotic creatures of fashion’s elite, Alaïa was also a devoted animal lover and had 8 dogs and cats over his lifetime. The 5 ft 2 designer was rarely seen without Didine, a ginormous Saint Bernard and faithful friend by his side. Much of the garments created incorporated his love for nature and the animal world— adapting their characteristics to the female form. Alaïa crafted exquisite crocodile skin coats and skimpy leopard print bodysuits worn by supermodels Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Helena Christensen.
A great artist is never satisfied
One of fashion’s greatest iconoclasts, Alaïa rejected the idea of new trends and instead, presented his collections on his own schedule without adhering to the industry’s strict and infallible calendar.
In 2008, the design maestro turned down one of France’s greatest distinctions, Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. Reportedly, he even declined an offer at Dior, following the sudden departure of John Galliano in 2011. “It’ll be ready when it’s ready” was the resounding motto of Alaïa, who was willing to forego the conventional schedule of the industry and reveal his work once he himself was satisfied.
Whilst gone, Alaïa will never be forgotten and will forever be rooted in our hearts. In honour of his passing five years ago, we salute him, his uncompromising approach to design, rebellious spirit and boundless creativity.