Azzedine Alaia couture on rare display in Dutch show

Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaia, whose army of devotees have spared him the need for runway shows, put a decade of his creations on display in a rare show in the Netherlands this week.

Azzedine Alaïa
Fashion Designer Azzedine Alaia, Photo: Corbis Images

A coy man who shot to fame in the 1980s with his clingy, glamourous creations adored by fashionistas and celebrities from all walks -- including the likes of Michelle Obama, Alaia's friends describe him as "free", the rare designer who has secured a place in the fashion galaxy without runway shows or magazine spreads.

"He doesn't appear in American Vogue and he has no problem with that," smiled the Paris art gallery owner Didier Krzentowski at the opening of "Azzedine Alaia in the 21st century" on Saturday night in the northern Dutch town of Grongingen.

"He is free from constraints. That is what true luxury is about."

The Paris-based creator draws very little, preferring to drape and cut his clothes himself, late into the night. For the Groningen show -- which runs until May -- his collections are grouped by type of material: velvet, cotton, leather, chiffon, skins...

"What type of wool is this?" asks a woman before a row of coats in the "fur" room, all with corseted waists girded by elaborate leather belts.

"Mongolian lamb," comes the soft reply from Alaia, clad in his signature Chinese suit, before he vanishes into the crowd on the arm of the ex-super model Naomi Campbell -- who towers inches above him, and calls him "papa".

"I've known him since I was 16," she told AFP afterwards, wearing a wine-red Alaia dress with swishing little skirt, saying she felt "blessed" to own many of his designs.

-- Caresses for women --

The couturier carried out all the alterations for the exhibit himself to ensure that each lithe silhouette was perfectly fitted to its see-through mannequin.

Alaia's women are anything but androgynous, with bias cuts that hug the waist.

"If a couturier is someone who reshapes the body, then Azzedine is the only one today who can do that," said Olivier Saillard, a historian of fashion and admirer of the designer's "poetry" and "incredible technical mastery".

Newly appointed head of the Musee Galliera fashion museum in Paris, Saillard hopes to bring the show from Grongingen to the French capital.

"We never get to see his work," he said of the designer, "a real creator who picks up his scissors and cuts a dress himself," but whose rare shows are reserved for friends and clients.

For Saillard, Alaia's dresses are timeless, working in elements of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s design.

"It is a very intelligent synthesis of couture, without being showy. He is so good at what he does that he does not need to say so."

The result, in his view, is "from afar, enchanting, up close the craftsmanship is dizzying. But it always stays sensual. Alaia loves women. His clothes are caresses for the ladies."

Alaia's clients couldn't agree more. "I have worn nothing else for the past 30 years," said Mathilde de Rothschild, a French socialite.

"Each season I look at what all the others are doing, and think I am going to switch. But then I never do in the end, the only time I stray is when I buy a pair of jeans."

"In Alaia, you resemble no one else," she said. "You see his hand right away in the cut. It's elegant, feminine, sexy but never vulgar."by Gersende Rambourg

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