In memoriam: Azzedine Alaïa, the King of Cling (and what it tells us about the fashion industry)

There is probably no word less apt to be associated with this Kat than “fashion.” That does not keep him from taking an interest in the industry and the larger-than-life figures that populate it. In the fashion world, none was more idiosyncratic about his craft than the late Azzedine Alaïa, who passed away on Saturday at the likely age of 77. His improbable rise to the top, his long-life commitment to the “Sinatra doctrine” –he did things “his way”, and what his life story tells us about the fashion industry, merit recollection by the IPKat.

Alaïa was born in Tunisia, the son of a wheat farmer, an unlikely environment from which to climb the ladder of fashion success. How he left the farm, secured a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tunis, found a series of skill-enhancing sewing and clothing-related endeavors in Tunis, leading to his relocation to Paris, is testimony that luck is often central in life, but even more so how one takes advantage of such luck.

Once in Paris, he worked at Dior for a brief time, moving to Guy Laroche [Mrs. Kat reminds that this Kat has some Guy Laroche-branded pants in his closet; maybe he does not give himself enough fashion credit?], and Thierry Mugler, until he set up his own workshop or, as called in Paris, an “atelier”, in a smallish flat in Paris. From there he specialized in discretely designing clothes for the elegant and notable (Greta Garbo was said to have come for his services incognito). Over the years, his customers are reported to have included Grace Jones, Tina Turner, Raquel Welch, Janet Jackson, Naomi Campbell, and Shakira.

Alaïa came to the forefront in the 1980’s; he was the master of designing clothes in a clinging style that earned him the sobriquet, The King of Cling. His ability to do so with leather was the stuff of legend. It is said that anyone could recognize an instance of Alaïa-designed, body-con clothing. All of this took place against the backdrop of his unique view as to how clothing design should be carried out. As noted by The New York Times, he—
"… dedicated his life to belief that fashion was more than just garments; to him, they were as much an element of the empowerment of women and a broader cultural conversation."
Stated otherwise, "[h]e used leather and knits to shape and support the body, transforming it into the best version of itself."

His design approach dovetailed with the rise of the supermodel in the early 1980’s, such as Naomi Campbell (he was notably much shorter than they), which in retrospect was, in a consummate example of a double entendre, a perfect fit (another instance of making his own luck). wrote of his design work for these supermodels as follows:
“Seemingly destined to wear and inspire his clothes, these Amazonian-like heroines were custom-built for a bold era of exaggeration and excess. Not only could they handle the curves of the fast-paced times, but could throw some themselves.”
He did all this while remaining his own man. It began with his usual attire, a black, high-necked Chinese garment. In particular, he was known for not playing by industry rules, whereby one is expected to deliver in accordance with a predetermined schedule. This was not for Alaïa, who would only present when he felt he was ready. It is said that he resisted the expectation to produce collections, this despite his commercial relationship with the Prada group (in 2000) and later with the Richemont group (in 2007). Against that background, Wikipedia reports that Catherine Lardeur, the former editor-in-chief of French Marie Claire, is quoted as saying that—
"Fashion is dead. Designers nowadays do not create anything, they only make clothes so people and the press would talk about them. The real money for designers lie within perfumes and handbags. It is all about image. Alaïa remains the king. He is smart enough to not only care about having people talk about him. He only holds fashion shows when he has something to show, on his own time frame. Even when Prada owned him he remained free and did what he wanted to do."
Whether this is a compliment, a criticism or merely an observation about Alaïa is left for the Kat reader to decide. Surely the tension between creation and commercialization lies at the heart of fashion. Whether or not "fashion is dead" would seem to depend on where one places himself or herself on the continuum between these two competing poles. [This Kat recalls a recent meeting with a young designer, who wanted to hear about what she could do to protect her creations. After an hour of conversation, she looked at this Kat with a sense of resignation, stating that "really all I want to do is design."]

In considering Alaïa, one must also ask: should the fashion designer be measured only in terms of his or her ability to get the most sartorially out of his supermodel client? This Kat discussed a while ago the fashioning challenge in meeting the needs of women who are not models ("The illusion of design and design of illusion"). What was suggested was that a different approach to the fashioning craft is called for. This Kat wonders whether Alaïa, as the King of Cling, should, could and/or would ever have taken part in such a conversation.

Photo on upper right by ellenm1 is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

Photo on bottom left by Gaz is licensed under GNU Free Documentation license

By Neil Wilkof
In memoriam: Azzedine Alaïa, the King of Cling (and what it tells us about the fashion industry) In memoriam:  Azzedine Alaïa, the King of Cling (and what it tells  us about the fashion industry) Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, November 20, 2017 Rating: 5

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