We were supposed to be watching the video of his latest collection together — Azzedine Alaïa and me.
But even before the first belted safari jacket or cobweb of a knitted dress had hit the screen, Azzedine had other ideas.
He picked up a piece of cloth, scissored it into the shape of a collar, marked the basting stitches and went over to the ironing board.
Alaia re-working a collar pattern
There he stood, a small figure in black from hair through tunic to feet, emerging from a cloud of steam.
“I was just doing a little correction,” said Azzedine, who must be the only designer who is in charge of the entire process, from slicing with those scissors to working with his Italian knitwear people to turn thread into lace.
Behind the seams at Azzedine Alaïa has an element of magic — and not just in puzzling how a shirt can be so sheer when the designer announces it as “knitting”.
The starting point was lunch in the kitchen — a fashion version of feeding the five thousand — with workers, seamstresses, Russian visitors and dogs large and small wandering in and out.
Portrait of Alaia by artist Julien Schnabel
Afterwards, we walked past the fitting room, overlooked by a blood-red portrait of Alaïa by American artist Julian Schnabel. Even the fact that Azzedine’s company is now part of the The Richemont luxury group does not alter the perception that this is a one-man band.
As we progressed through the show space, ringed above with wrought iron, I learnt so much more by touching the fabrics and listening to Azzedine explaining the technique.
Video of the Alaia show
“That is raffia worked inside the tulle, while this one is more opaque and less transparent,” the designer told me, so that I understood the subtlety of the “maille” or knitwear suited for day or evening.
I once — at least a decade ago — called Alaïa “the greatest couturier who never was”. And I still feel that.
The designer’s great skills are in judging proportions, understanding the female body and, of course, grasping the way fashion is moving.
Knit as fine as lace
Take shorts — or rather the hybrid “skorts” to be found in any fast-fashion store. This is how Azzedine makes them: a complex cut of seams and stitches where the magical effect of grace and glamour seems so simple.
I liked longer dresses, not with that heavy-handed Seventies look, but something far subtler — even though there were frills of fringe worked into the skirt.
“People want long hemlines,” said Azzedine, although a minute later he was showing me cute little skirts in red croc.
It is hard to grasp in the show itself the breadth of the Alaïa offering. I was drawn to apparently simple things: tailored shirts, sleek in Japanese cotton or fresh in poplin with lace.
At the end of the studio I pounced on shoes and bags, since this is one of the rare current companies when clothes are the root and accessories flower from that. The lace-cut leather bags were a fine example.
Lace effect bags
Azzedine had one more treat to offer: we went up to the atelier, where the couture seamstresses were creating a great circle of stitched fabric that fell into a wedding gown. (The client’s name is secret.)
Another couture outfit was a little black dress with its surface touched with gilding.
Alaia in his studio
Yet personally, I found nothing more lovely in the vast sweep of his collection than the apparent simplicity of Alaïa’s little white dresses.