- Pamela Elizabeth Grimaud
French fashion designer, of Tunisian birth. Alaïa is renowned for his ‘second skin’ fashions and masterful cutting techniques (see fig.). Christened the ‘King of Cling’ by fashion journalists, Alaïa rose to prominence in the 1980s following years of realizing commissions for a loyal and select clientele. His designs are modern, overtly feminine in their celebration of the female form and, in Alaïa’s own words: ‘not sexy, voluptuous’. Alaïa’s sculpted fashions have been known to render other designers’ fashions unwearable—they simply feel too large in comparison.
Born in southern Tunisia, Alaïa was raised by his maternal grandparents and at the age of 15 undertook the study of sculpture. Realizing soon after that sculpture was not his calling, and serendipitously passing a dressmaker’s window on his way to classes, he saw a sign for an assistant. He was hired for the task of finishing hems at five francs apiece. Alaïa rose quickly to become a favourite of Tunisian high society, copying for the local clientele the work of the great couturiers (and thereby giving them exposure). In 1957, he moved to Paris, working for a brief period at Christian Dior, and then on two collections at Guy Laroche. Alaïa quickly garnered private commissions within Parisian high society and between 1960 and 1965 lived as combination cook, child sitter, housekeeper and dressmaker for the Comtesse Nicole de Blégiers. He also worked for other designers, creating the prototype for Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian-inspired shift dress. He opened a small salon on the Left Bank, soon frequented by a private clientele, growing to include names such as de Rothschild and the elusive Greta Garbo. Alaïa then moved to the Marais district.
In the 1970s, Alaïa responded to the emergence of a young, discriminating audience by focusing on ready-to-wear fashions. In this period he designed for Thierry Mugler and produced a group of leather garments for Charles Jourdan (1883–1976). In 1981, he introduced his first collection, rapidly gaining an international fan base. Performers such as Tina Turner and Grace Jones, as well as a number of leading models, became closely linked with his sculptural, body-moulding designs. These relied on stretch fabrics, leather and ‘a spellbindingly complex web of near-invisible seams. This was—and remains—the ultimate second skin’ (Frankel, p. 54). Alaïa, who has referred to himself as a bâtisseur, or builder, owes much of his technique of sculpting and draping to Madeleine Vionnet, renowned for the intricacies of her sleek, bias-cut gowns of the 1920s and 1930s. The principles of corsetry also lend themselves to Alaïa’s quest for perfect fit; some of his garments contain up to 40 individual pieces. Fashion aficionados credit him with an uncanny ability to incorporate a trend at least one season before others. Still, his masterful skill and dedication to craft reveal his reverence for tradition.
In the 1980s, Alaïa opened boutiques in Paris, Beverly Hills and New York. In 2004 he unveiled a discrete boutique hotel, 5, Rue de Moussy, adjacent to his studio. In the 21st century, his work is still carried by loyal outlets, with only a handful of pieces on offer at one time. Alaïa abandoned a schedule of bi-annual collections and chose to produce pieces at his own unpredictable pace.
In 1985, Alaïa was awarded the French Ministry of Culture’s Designer of the Year Award. His work has been featured in numerous retrospectives, including those at the Musée de l’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux (1984–5), the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands (1998), the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2000) and in the exhibition Radical Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (2001). In 2000 Prada purchased 100% of Alaïa’s label, selling it back to him in 2007 under amicable terms, while maintaining a license to produce Alaïa-branded footwear and leather goods. In October of that year Alaïa secured the financial backing of Companie Finançiere Richemont, with plans to create an Alaïa Foundation chronicling the couturier’s archive, which also contains the work of Vionnet, Cristobal Balenciaga and Charles James, among others.
- G. Y. Dryansky: ‘Emerging from the Shadows of Paris’, New York Times (12 Aug 1984), SM50
- S. Frankel: Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers (London, 2001)
- P. Golbin: Fashion Designers (New York, 2001)
- T. Benbow-Pfalzgraf, ed.: Contemporary Fashion (Detroit, 2/2002)
- V. Steele, ed.: Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Detroit, 2005)