Azzedine Alaïa at Holland’s Groninger Museum
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Azzedine Alaïa can be counted on for never doing anything one would expect, besides producing painstakingly beautiful clothes, something aficionados have come to count on since he began working for private clients on Paris’s rue de Bellechasse in the 1970s. The fact is, his stubborn refusal to pursue fame and fortune in the usual way has succeeded brilliantly. Just don’t try to follow in his disarming footsteps, because he is the only talent capable of flourishing along such a long and winding road. And we do mean flourishing because Alaïa, is currently producing some of his best work to date after more than thirty years in fashion. He is also the most independent major designer in the world today, has ‘it’ girls of all ages swooning, and shows no signs of slowing down. A case in point is ‘Azzedine Alaïa in the 21st Century,’ an exhibition covering this oeuvre from 2000 through to his most recent AW11 couture collection, his first catwalk presentation in eight years, held last July.
The show at Holland’s Groninger Museum, which opened last weekend and runs through May 6, 2012, is the follow up to its 1997/98 ‘Azzedine Alaïa in the 20th Century.’ It begins with a luscious circle of velvet evening slinks before slipping into metallic-shot knits with cascading mini ruffles, anatomically seamed leathers, bugle beaded second skin swimsuit dresses, zipper sheaths, white eyelet lace concoctions, savage python and crocodile tailoring, bias chiffons and the Mongolian lamb fur, a focal point for much of the AW11 couture collection, which Alaïa manages to turn into hourglass powder puffs.
Last Saturday evening’s opening was the chance for Alaïa’s ‘intimes,’ led by the splendidly curvaceous Naomi Campbell who calls the designer “Papa”, dressed in a wine-coloured wool suit, edged in tufts of lamb fur, to pour over everything he has done for the past decade shown on invisible plexiglas mannequins. Olivier Saillard, Director of the Galliera Museum (Parisian Fashion Museum), was there with his friend; the elegant Nathalie Ours; Marie Rucki of Paris Fashion school Studio Berçot; notables from Groningen and artists from Amsterdam with Dutch children running after M. Alaïa for an autograph. Dior’s Camille Miceli, who designs the house’s costume jewelry collection and Dior PR Mathilde Meyer put on their best Parisian, Alaïa-clad vamp routine. Good friends Marc Newson who recently had his own show at Groninger, Mehmet Arici and the faithful Carla Sozzani of Milan’s 10 Corso Como, dressed as usual in Alaïa, looking like a Venetian, blonde Olive Oyl.
The show includes no running commentary from infatuated models, historical context, or films shedding light on how Azzedine Alaïa, notorious for spending sleepless nights in the atelier making all of his own patterns by himself, lives his life. The only thing in these colorful rooms are his bodiless clothes, like pieces of wearable sculpture which tread an intriguing line between femme fatale, dolls clothes and communion dresses. This exteriorized, exaggerated anatomy, Alaïa’s built-up, ultra-femininity, reveals as much as it hides. Ultimately his clothes are the best, perfectly-dressed way, to give the world the impression it has seen you naked.
The prize from this show is the silver, crocodile-textured catalogue from Bai Publishers. Visuals from the three shows, including the reprisal of the first one staged by the Brant Foundation at Guggenheim, SoHo in 2000, give a complete, meticulously photographed overview of Alaïa work. Included is a forward from the curator Mark Wilson and interviews with Alaïa from Stephanie Seymour Brant whose modeling career he launched when she was a teenager, and French biographer Anne Cohen-Solal who uncovers how Alaïa discovered a rare Coptic head in the window of an antiques store, just one more amazing story in the life of this mysterious designer.
Groningen, three hour’s drive from Amsterdam, is a lively college town far off the style radar, with an Alessandro Mendini mosaic-covered museum that looks like Kubla Khan’s pleasure domesurrounded by a gingerbread village. American curator Mark Wilson, responsible for both shows, is a maverick. “I don’t want to say Azzedine was our first fashion designer because I think of him more as a sculptor,” Wilson explains, he was also the first to produce a show on Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf. Wilson has considered Alaïa a friend since the first show in ’97. “I love Azzedine,” he says. “He opened his house for me, he cooks for me and takes care of me when I’m in Paris.”
When plans fell through for an Alaïa show with another organisation, Wilson called to ask Azzedine if he would like to return to the Groninger, and he said yes. That was just 18 months ago, after the two had decided to structure the exhibition by materials and had chosen the pieces, Wilson said certain items began to go missing. Eventually he found that Alaïa had pulled them one by one to refit everything perfectly in his atelier for the show’s mannequins.
After the opening, everyone headed back to Groningen’s Hotel de Ville which is filled with lazy, overstuffed sofas and a roaring fire like the living room of a comfortable Dutch home. There they talked about beautiful women, and the first time they wore, or saw someone wearing Alaïa, while nibbling old Gouda, shooting Russky Standart Premium and a bit of singing and dancing to Egyptian love songs until 3:30 in the morning.
Azzedine Alaïa runs at Holland’s Groninger Museum from now until 6th May 2012.
Text: Rebecca Voight
Group photography: Marten de Leeuw
All other images courtesy of the Groninger Museum.