It’s been exactly ten days since the great Tunisian-French couturier Azzedine Alaïa has departed us. The depth of Alaïa’s achievements and the uncompromising position he took to attain them make his loss one of great human and artistic importance. The way the man known as the last couturier led his life courageously confronts and questions our current world functioning. Alaïa’s attitude can be resumed into one sentence: value needs time. Anything of true worth, whether an artistic creation or human relationship requires time. Alaïa, a man of few words, had expressed this thought even more succinctly: “Taking Time”. This will be the title of a book to be published by Rizzoli next fall recording his conversations on the subject with Jean Nouvel, Claude Parent, Bob Wilson, Marc Newson and Bianca Li among other influential contemporary minds. Hopefully this last testament will safeguard his legacy. Until the publication of the precious manuscript here are some of the valuable lessons his life has taught us.
1-Taking time doesn’t mean being inefficient
Increasingly, the functioning of many industries delegitimizes those who take time by presenting them as ‘slow’, ‘inefficient’, ‘lacking rigor’, ‘incapable’ or worse ‘lazy’. This oversimplification is inaccurate as it is in fact those who take time that understand its value. Evidently to accomplish anything you need a great degree of commitment, discipline, and organization, however if your accomplishment is to have any substance, time is a non-negotiable. In many fields taking time has become an impossible option, and therefore greatness disappears. In the fashion industry Vanessa Friedman deplored in The New York Times “the impossibility of being creative on a hamster wheel of a schedule that demands a sprint from collection to collection (eight a year! more! plus social media and packaging and stores and ad-campaigns and so on). The inhumanity – that is how he saw it – [Alaïa] of forcing everyone to show after show after show without time to eat, or talk, or digest the aesthetic feast arrayed before them. The way it resulted in the increasing disposability of product and people.” Alaïa’s clothes took time to be made, which is why they are eternal in style and uncompromisingly great in their quality.
2- Taking a different route makes it more interesting
Multidisciplinary educations are more accepted in society thanks to daring minds like that of Apple creator Steve Jobs who dropped out of college, or Linkedin co-founder Reid Hoffman who mastered in philosophy, or Che Guevara who went to medical school before starting a revolution. That being said miscellaneous backgrounds are still somewhat viewed as an exception to the obeyed ‘study-what-you-want-to-become’ rule. Like these notorious creators, Alaïa took a different path to get to his destination. Unable to study couture or fashion at a public institution (it was unthinkable for a man to do so in Tunisia at the time) he studied sculpture at the Beaux Arts instead (while his sister taught him to sow behind closed doors). “My sculpture teacher taught me to travel around the model and embrace all different perspectives”, Alaïa said in an interview. This unusual training informed his execution method, where armed with a needle and a thread he legendarily sowed his dresses directly on his mannequins or clients to closely study how the fabric ‘fell’. Like a craftsman working clay, bronze or marble, Azzedine worked leather, chiffon, silk and galocha so the fabric looked alive, becoming part of the model’s movements. Alaïa’s background in sculpture taught him exactly what he needed to make his creations his.
3- Discipline should be found in freedom
Alaïa was a free man in all respects and did things his way. This attitude placed him as an outcast. Unlike his fellow designers who consistently showed their collections at Fashion Week, Alaïa refused to submit to any time pressure imposed by the industry. A collection was finished when he said it was, and when it was he would informally invite by text those he agreed to have at the showroom to see the collection. As Friedman recalls: “Sometimes he would have a show the week after the season had ended, and everyone had left Paris. Sometimes it was two weeks. Sometimes it didn’t happen at all. Last July , it actually happened during the official season and attendees leaving the previous show were so scared of missing it that they abandoned their town cars and jumped on the metro because they feared getting stuck in traffic.”
Similarly, Alaïa’s designs never followed a particular trending look, “I work for women without thinking about fashion or what is in vogue, I only think about making women beautiful and elevating them,” he said in a French video interview, gratefully adding that women had taught him everything.
Money wouldn’t buy his freedom either, at the beginning of the 2000s when most luxury houses were being bought by major groups like LVMH or PPDR, Alaïa kept the rights over his name and accepted only a controlled partnership with Prada and later Richmont. He could have made a lot of money but chose instead to keep his artistic integrity.
4- Stay Humble
Azzedine Alaïah started from almost nothing. When he arrived in Paris in the 1960s in the tense aftermath of the Independence War of Algeria, he was hired at Christian Dior but the house had to fire him after 5 days because his papers weren't in order. For a time he made his designs from a 'chambre de bonne', one of the extremely small rooms that are found under Parisian Haussmann style buildings’ roofs, commonly used in the 1830s to host the staff of bourgeois households, now mostly used by students. It is through hard work and opportune encounters that he gradually built his fashion house. His success never took away his humility or generosity. He was genuinely interested and engaged in other people, which made him always well surrounded. He knew how to take care of people: he hosted Naomi Campbell in his house three years at the beginning of her career, regularly invited people to dinner in his kitchen after interviews or even after his own shows, and often cooked meals himself. Everyone sat at his notorious kitchen from Kanye West to the garbage man. As Grace Coddington of Vogue said, “he mixed everybody together and somehow made it work, because he was the one in the middle.” Alaïa was not only a great talent he was also a great human being.