Exhibition Review: Azzedine Alaïa: "Je Suis Couturier"
Association Azzedine Alaïa (Paris), January 22-June 10, 2018
After moving to Paris from Tunis in the late 50s and working his way through the fashion hierarchy from costume designer to tailor at Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler in the 1970s, Azzedine Alaïa opened his own fashion house in his Parisian apartment in 1979.  His eponymous label faced great success as he dressed celebrities from Grace Jones to Michelle Obama, creating boundary-pushing garments that earned him the name “The King of Cling.”  However, his brand later faced difficulties when Alaïa refused to follow the fast-paced trend cycles, leading to the selling of his rights to the label.  When Alaïa bought back the rights in 2007, he concurrently founded the Association Azzedine Alaïa with his partner Christophe van Weyhe and friend Carla Sozzani.  Opening his brand to new generations through archives of his clothing, patterns and fashion literature, the Association would promise to create a legacy for the esteemed label and continue to spark interest even after the designer left.  However, Alaïa never followed through with making use of the space in this way; following his death in November of 2017, it was fitting that the Association took the opportunity to celebrate the designer and launch his original vision for the space.
The exhibition titled Azzedine Alaïa: “Je Suis Couturier” opened on the main floor of the Association on rue Verriere January 22, 2018. The wall text at the front of the exhibition quotes the late designer, stating, “I want to create a Foundation like a Maison in my home in the Marais.” This made it clear that the intention of the exhibition was to not only pay homage to the designer, but to also fulfil his wish for establishing the association in the way he intended.
The exhibition was curated by Olivier Saillard, former curator of the Palais Galliera. This was a fitting choice given that Saillard worked alongside Alaïa at the Musée de la Mode de Marseille when Alaïa was president.  He also curated a retrospective of the designer in 2013 at Palais Galliera, providing him with an intimate knowledge of Alaïa and his work.  Saillard selected forty-one dresses, each reflecting the most important facets of Alaïa’s career; only dresses were shown because they were the garments Alaïa mastered during his career. The items were predominantly black and white, a testament to his background as an artist, and spanned various textiles from cotton to leather to show the designer’s ability to perfect any fabric. This focus on craftsmanship was enhanced by the viewer’s ability to come close to the garment rather than the regulatory arms-length, allowing one to closely apprehend the minute detailing that established Alaïa as a true couturier. This was most notable in the inimitable draping of a white hooded dress from his 1986 Couture collection and precise details of an intricate black leather gown from his 2013 Couture collection.
When entering the exhibition space, viewers are briefly introduced to the life of Alaïa via a wall text behind the cashier. The placement makes it difficult to read, as one must focus on paying to enter rather than reading. Nevertheless, the experience of entering the exhibition is powerful. Three pods, each containing three garments, line the middle of the room, each dress mounted in individual alcoves with custom transparent mannequins cut to fit the dresses perfectly, enhancing the display of detail and craftsmanship in every piece. Presenting the garments in this way removed the sense of the body from the pieces while still displaying the movement and form intended by Alaïa. The absence of a physical body had an eerie effect of embodying the designer himself, rather than the wearer, demonstrating the way he intended for the garments to look. All of these features aided in the exhibition’s intention to pay tribute to the designer and act as a sort of eulogy to his work. Unfortunately, the mirrored surfaces placed between each garment have the effect of re-inserting the body—the patron’s body—into the exhibition.
The way the garments were displayed did not feel like a shop window as retrospectives often do. The lighting and display lent a cinematic feeling to the exhibition, especially with pieces such as the black column dress with a deep décolleté reminiscent of red carpet looks of eras passed, and demonstrative of the the sophistication and elegance of Alaïa’s work. Saillard’s selection of garments was thoughtful, creating a cohesive experience for the visitor. However, the order in which the garments were placed seemed to lack structure; they were not chronological, nor placed by colour or textile. A few garments felt out of place among the predominantly black and white pieces. One that stood out dramatically was a long red chiffon gown from the 1996 Spring-Summer collection. The unfortunate decision not to provide captions with each garment left confusion surrounding this strangely ostentatious choice that contradicted the catalogue’s explanation that colour ages and dilutes the intention of the garment. Perhaps if the catalogue provided greater explanation the viewer may come to better understand Saillard’s selections. Nevertheless, the presentation was clearly personal and, for being limited to forty-one pieces, provided an excellent glimpse into Alaïa’s career.
For an exhibition that was created in only a few short months, the overall execution was impressive and provided an elegant tribute to an iconic designer. Indeed, had Alaïa insisted he did not want a formal memorial when he passed away. Though the exhibition was small and the presentation at times felt haphazard, it was an exciting introduction to what will come of the Association Azzedine Alaïa.
 Veronica Horwell, “Azzedine Alaïa Obituary”, The Guardian, November 20, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2017/nov/20/azzedine-alaia-obituary.
 Samantha Raphelson, “Azzedine Alaïa, French Fashion Designer Known as “The King of Cling”, Dies”, NPR, November 20, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2018 https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/11/18/565089502/azzedine-alaia-french-fashion-designer-known-as-the-king-of-cling-dies.
 Jack Sunnucks, “Ten Things You Need to Know About Azzedine Alaïa”, Dazed, November 21, 2017. Accessed Febrary 29, 2018 http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/38144/1/ten-things-you-to-know-about-azzedine-alaia-naomi-campbell-clueless-grace-jones.
 Tina Isaac-Goizé, “Inside “Je Suis Couturier”, a 41 Dress Azzedine Alaïa Exhibition at His Marais Headquarters”, Vogue, January 20, 2018. Accessed February 28, 2018 https://www.vogue.com/article/azzedine-alaia-je-suis-couturier
 Godfrey Deeney, “Azzedine Alaïa: Je Suis Couturier”, FashionNetwork.com, January 22, 2018. Accessed March 2, 2018 http://us.fashionnetwork.com/news/Azzedine-Alaia-Je-Suis-Couturier,938972.html#.WpmV8hPwbq0.
 "Alaïa." Palais Galliera Musée de la Mode et de la Ville de Paris. Accessed February 28, 2018. http://www.palaisgalliera.paris.fr/en/exhibitions/alaia.