Review of the Haute Couture Fashion Week of Cathy Horyn in Paris: Alaïa

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: courtesy of ALAÏA

The story of how little Tunisian-born designer Azzedine Alaïa became a French fashion giant – one of the most original and influential in all of fashion – is well known. But here’s a little-known fact to savor: Alaïa arrived in Paris in 1956, around the age of 20, but did not have her first show until 1982. And not in Paris, but at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Alaïa’s sultry black clothes were first discovered by French editors, including Carlyne Cerf of Dudzeele, but it was Bill Cunningham’s photos, taken by editors outside of Paris salons, that sparked the explosion. The reason Bergdorf was able to claim it is why American retailers were supreme: people were religiously buying from stores. Equally important, a designer has had time to develop their skills. This is no longer the case.

Carla Sozzani told me this story on Sunday evening in the paved courtyard of Alaïa’s house House. A former editor herself, Sozzani is the founder of the Corso Como boutique and was close to Alaïa. Since her death in 2017, she has headed the foundation which has its enormous archives as well as the building that housed her studio, workshops and living quarters. She and curator Olivier Saillard regularly organize exhibitions of her work in the cavernous wrought-iron room that once served as an exhibition space. A selection of works by Alaïa from the 80s is currently on display as well as photographs by Peter Lindbergh.

Photo: Courtesy of ALAÏA

Of course, I didn’t come to Paris to see Alaïa’s old clothes. I came to see the new creations of his successor, Pieter Mulier, and also to see the fall haute couture collections – the first live shows in over a year. Estates are very important in fashion, perhaps because since the mid-90s, when groups like LVMH started buying out fashion houses, they have been the model. Find a talented young talent to enhance your dusty name. In recent years, a social media presence has been a plus. Watch the immense success of Virgil Abloh, the male designer of Louis Vuitton, who just opened a boutique near Place Vendôme for his Off-White label and gave a live show on Sunday with a performance by MIA It was not haute couture, but it was certainly an attempt to appear more grown-up and polished, and it mostly worked, thanks to the minimalist electric-colored sheaths with a stiff flap on the sides or some sort of built-in bustle.

The Alaïa brand is totally different. For a designer, it is both a dream job and a nightmare, because his shapes, his silhouette, were so individual, the result of decades of refinement. Are you just reproducing the strong, slightly rounded shoulders of her coats, their pinched waists? What about her sultry knits, including her famous mummy and so-called bandage dresses that caused a stir in the ’80s and’ 90s? And how do you capture that subtle, magical sex appeal that runs through all of her work, which the late writer Ingrid Sischy probably best summed up when she called it “Follow me, boy”?

In my opinion, Mulier’s first collection seemed more strategic than emotional. It took place on the street outside the house, in part to meet COVID rules – you don’t have to wear masks outside – and in part to project a democratic vibe. (It is also true that the Alaïa Foundation, as the owner of the building, did not grant Richemont, owner of the label, access to the wrought-iron exhibition space, although this could change at the end of the day. future.) Mulier said he was struck by the “democracy” of Alaïa’s collections, which he designed for women of all ages and all body types and has hosted a eclectic array of individuals, from politicians to dressmakers.

Mulier also felt, he told me, that many young people do not know Alaïa. As he said, “They know the picture but not the work.” He didn’t look at the archives, but after being hired, in February, he started shopping for vintage pieces to add to his visual knowledge of Alaïa. He also borrowed the original sales books from the Alaïa Beverly Hills boutique in the heyday of the 1980s from the foundation to see what people were buying. “They inspired me so much,” he said. Again, that was the democratic element.

I must say, however, that the Sunday evening scene in rue de Moussy was strange, for various reasons. Somehow nothing had changed – familiar looking people were gathering again for a show. But in another way, everything had changed. We were back in the world, but at the same time we were groping towards it. The old jocularity, the easy familiarity before the show, was not quite there. At least the kiss was gone, thank goodness.

Photo: Courtesy of ALAÏA

Perhaps in a similar vein, I sensed that people wanted to like Mulier’s clothes – the crisp new take on the mummy dress with streamers, the fluffy pastel coats, the hooded bodycon dresses à la Grace Jones (a client of Alaïa) – but I did not. I don’t quite like them. To be fair, he was showing his clothes to the toughest group – publishers, stylists, designers and friends who knew not only the man but the clothes. Inside and outside.

I think overall Mulier, who spent about 15 years as Raf Simons’ right-hand man, did a good job. He met his mandate, which was to introduce Alaïa to a new audience, shaped by the fast, crisp and simplified imagery of the digital age. It was a reductive vision of Alaïa, potentially shaped for e-commerce. The Alaïa company only has a few outlets of its own, in Paris and London; and some of its business partners, notably Barneys, are bankrupt. It really is a new world.

As much as I loved rediscovering familiar ground – I spent many happy evenings in Alaïa’s kitchen and watching him work in his studio, a cat lying on his table – it was also disconcerting. I was wondering if it was a good idea to host a show and dinner, steps away from Alaïa’s work, the amazing mid-80s coats on display in the exhibit, the perfectly cut mesh mini dresses. Because it was no accident that these things seemed perfect. Alaïa has spent hours and hours, sometimes weeks, finding the fit, the right line.

And this is becoming less and less possible today in haute couture. Alaïa knew it and fought for it, earning much less money than other luxury brands to have freedom. to design.

I brought up this telling difference in clothing in the show with Mulier, and he agreed but said, “It took him 14, 15, 16 months to make a jacket, and we don’t live in this world anymore. Granted, but a lot of Alaïa’s competitors still care about the perfection of subtle details. And for this price, customers expect it.

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