ALAIA, REMEMBERING THE DESIGNER WHO TOOK TIME
26 February 1935 - 17 November 2017
Azzedine Alaïa was couture’s rebellious outsider even as he became one of its institutions over 60 years of creativity. He was self-taught, originally from outside Europe, a hands-on craftsman uninterested in fame, wealth and, especially, branding. In a business in which casual cruelty is the norm, he was kind; he helped newcomers, kept open house to a diverse, elective family at his Paris workshop, and ran a salon in the old French sense, as a meeting place for culture and cultures.
Alaïa, who has died aged 82 (although he often gave his date of birth as 1940, which would have made him five years younger), created clothes to match that profile: classical goddess-wear, body-fitting yet flattering, dramatic but not theatrical. His clingy 1980s dresses looked better in, and on, the flesh than in photographs. Anyone who handled his work sympathised with Alicia Silverstone’s spoilt little madam in the film Clueless, wailing at an armed mugger “You don’t understand, this is an Alaïa” as she refuses to fall to the dirty ground. Though Alaïa’s garments were so soundly constructed that the outfit’s feathers would hardly have been ruffled anyway.
Alaïa had learned his skills the slow way. He was the son of a Tunisian wheat farmer; he and his twin sister, Hafida, spent summers at the farm (his first perfume recreated the scent of its sun-heated brick splashed with water) and the rest of the year with their maternal grandparents in Tunis and at the seaside town of Sidi Bou Said. His grandmother and aunts formed his tastes, along with his family’s midwife, who also worked as a dressmaker, in whose house he read fashion magazines and catalogues from Paris department stores.
She encouraged him to go to the École des Beaux Arts, in Tunis, to study sculpture. Nuns taught Hafida to sew and she passed on the skill to her brother so he could support himself, finishing hems for five francs a time for a boutique. Wealthy, couture-wearing customers sought out a more glamorous employer for him, and then persuaded him to leave for Paris in 1957. It was the worst possible time to migrate from North Africa. A promised job at Christian Dior lasted five days, until his papers were found not to be in order. Alaïa never forgave Yves Saint Laurent, who had taken over the house.
He was rescued by two aristocratic women, who ignored his doubtful status and took him in as an au pair for their families, and to sew their dresses; he began to make gowns for the novelist Louise de Vilmorin, who introduced him around artistic Paris. Commissions multiplied until he could afford his own tiny flat, where he designed for the film star Arletty (a plain black dress with a zip that coiled snakelike round her body), Greta Garbo, the Rothschild family, and dancers at the Crazy Horse cabaret, who taught him all about concealing and revealing skin.
Alaïa worked in the houses of Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler, but his real gift was for personal couture, in which the designer knows the client’s character as well as appearance. His experiments in technique were unending (“Because,” he said, “I’m always an apprentice”); he started with a little light shirring to gather fabric and ended seasons later with a dress so densely ruched it stretched from a teeny tube on a hanger to a full curved body.
He did not wait for textile salesmen to bring novelties, but went direct to the factories to research, which is how he refined the fine viscose jersey he latticed into ribbon dresses. Process was Alaïa’s passion; his desk tinkled with pins that he used to assemble and fit prototypes; he cut and sewed in his atelier all night, then pressed the finished piece himself.
Alaïa opened his own house in 1979, and produced his first ready-to-wear collection – rubber trenchcoats, sexy streetwear – for Charles Jourdan in 1980. Buyers did not like it, but Elle magazine did, whereupon Barneys, the New York department store, bought the lot and remained stockists of his line – when there was stock. Alaïa was frank that “it’ll be ready when it’s ready”.
His ease with powerful women was suddenly exactly right in the 80s; he was unafraid even of that terror of couture, the female behind – he clad one tightly for a mail catalogue ad that featured on the back of Parisian buses, and attracted thousands of orders. Alaïa’s own tiny figure, clad in black Chinese jackets changed four times daily because of fabric fluff and pet hairs, darted among towering women, including Grace Jones (he designed costumes for her tours, and in the Bond film A View to a Kill), Tina Turner (for her comeback album, Private Dancer), Madonna, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. When Campbell arrived in Paris as a lone 16-year-old, he gave her a safe place to doss down in his workshop premises and a wardrobe: she called him Papa and, father-like, he told her what time to be home.
Alaïa never played the Paris game by its rules. He showed outside the formal season at the old Marais warehouse he had moved to in 1980. He had converted it into atelier, shop, home, hotel, store for his collection of 20th-century couture and bistro (he cooked expansively), also loaning it as a gallery space to designers including Vivienne Westwood.
He withdrew from the fashion schedule in the mid-90s, following Hafida’s death, but kept his private customers and any outlets prepared to accept deliveries as available. Yet he remained profitable and coolly rejected invitations to take over as replacement designer for other houses, including Dior, since he thought it a brutal life on a treadmill.
Alaïa’s dresses became more visible again after Prada acquired a stake in his company in 2000; he bought it back in 2007 and sold it on to the Richemont group, which owns Cartier and Chloé, on condition he could work at his own pace, without publicity or ads. There were new strong women to be clothed, including Beyoncé, the Kardashians and Michelle Obama. His final show, in July, was his first for five years.
He was made a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in 2008. He is survived by his partner, the painter Christoph von Weyhe.
• Azzedine Alaïa, fashion designer, born 26 February 1935; died 17 November 2017