Alaia designed bold clothes for women

Designer Azzedine Alaia and journalist Rula Jebreal at the Venice Film Festival last year.
Designer Azzedine Alaia and journalist Rula Jebreal at the Venice Film Festival last year.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • The world learnt of designer Azzedine Alaia's death in Paris last Saturday, when it was announced by the French Federation of Haute Couture and Fashion. He was believed to be 77, although there is some disagreement about his age.

Even if you do not follow fashion, you would probably recognise his influence. It was inescapable and enduring.

He was known for his love of the female form and his celebration of its curves. His dresses, particularly his classic knit ones, swooped in around the waist and then flared out sensually around the hips.

He defined sex appeal in the 1980s with his bandage-style dresses that emphasised the waist, drew the eye to the bosom and made the hips look utterly wondrous. His moulded corsets were as elegant and precise as modern sculpture. His knit dresses swaddled the body like a custom-made cocoon. His clothes could make a woman look ready for battle as well as desirous of an embrace.

His clothes were sexy; they were bad-a**. They made a woman look dangerous, powerful and sometimes, just a little bit scary. Which is often precisely what a woman needs to be.

Because of Alaia's technical skill and eye for proportion, his clothes were never tawdry. Instead, they were masterful.

Models Naomi Campbell and Stephanie Seymour were particularly close to him and, in many ways, personified an idealised version of the woman in his mind's eye.

That woman was beautiful, of course. She was not a fragile-looking waif. She did not have the proportions of a teenage boy. Like Campbell and Seymour, this fantasy woman had fully blossomed into adulthood. Her magnetism was based on an interior life - perhaps chaotic, surely passionate - as much as it was on her splendid bone structure.

Alaia, who was born in Tunisia, built his business in Paris. Diminutive and almost always seen in dark Chinese pyjamas, he apprenticed at Guy Laroche, worked at Christian Dior and founded his own house in 1980.

Over the years, his work attracted fans as diverse as singers Tina Turner, Madonna and former United States first lady Michelle Obama.

He never had an enormous business (one estimate had revenue at about US$71 million, or S$96 million), but it was admirable.

It was not the size of his company that was the envy of so many designers. It was the manner in which it operated.

Alaia had, through force of will and the magnitude of his own talent, managed to disengage from the fashion system. He presented his collections to the media and to retailers when he felt it was ready, and not when the industry calendar said it was time.

He remained close to the design process, refraining from outsourcing the hands-on part of the work to a raft of assistants. An Alaia dress had been touched by Alaia himself.

His clothes were relevant, but they were not trendy. In his world, trends seemed frivolous and bothersome. He was focused on making his own aesthetic voice as articulate and eloquent as it could possibly be.

As a result, he was widely admired by a host of designers, from Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons to Raf Simons.

Alaia provided evidence that if what a man creates is compelling and well-crafted, original and valuable, people will come. And they will come back.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2017, with the headline 'Alaia designed bold clothes for women'. Print Edition | Subscribe