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Ten things you need to know about Azzedine Alaïa

We remember some of the legendary designer’s most iconic moments – including that Clueless cameo and dressing Grace Jones’ Bond villain

With the passing of Azzedine Alaïa, the world is a decidedly less beautiful place. Designers often profess their love for women, which is confusing when you consider the often horrid, torturous get-ups they put them in. Alaïa was different – he not only loved women, creating for them clothes which enhanced their beauty and dignity, but he seemed to love all people, and animals too. Creating a gang of folk both two-legged and four in his Paris atelier, he is remembered just as much for his kindness as his outsized talent.

The Tunisian-born designer’s legacy reaches far beyond fashion – with his love of artists of all kinds, he spread his energy throughout the cultural sphere. Here we celebrate some of the moments, both serious and with the tongue in cheek spirit he was famed for, that cemented Alaïa’s status as the designer’s designer, friend to many, and a true legend.  


Perhaps nobody is linked more closely in the public imagination to Alaïa than Naomi Campbell, the supermodel from South London. Campbell has recounted how she met the man she came to call ‘Papa’ a few times over the years, but the story goes something like this, and is indicative of his vast kindness. On her first day working in Paris, aged only 16, Campbell had all her money stolen. A friend brought her to Alaïa’s house in the Marais for dinner, where he fed, watered and clothed her. Despite not understanding each other at all (Naomi not speaking French, Alaïa not speaking English), they got along instantly, recognising each other as kindred spirits, and Alaïa phoned her mother to ask if she could stay with him from then on. In the designer’s vast elected family, Campbell occupied a special place, more daughter than friend. “In the beginning, Naomi just slept on a mattress. But she would escape through the window to go out clubbing with other girls. So I put her in the room above mine to keep an eye on her,” Alaïa told the Independent in 1998.


Naomi wasn’t Alaïa’s first muse, however. Arriving in Paris in the 1950s after studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tunisia, his talent was quickly recognised by a group of women who adored his simple, unaffected approach to couture. They included The Countess of Blégiers, Louise de Vilmorin, and the actress Arletty, but most notably, the infamous Greta Garbo. For Garbo, he created some of his most simple work – A-line coats and straight pants to conceal the notoriously private actress. Garbo’s severe, silent beauty and angular, monochromatic dressing remained an inspiration for the designer throughout his career.


It was in the 80s however that Alaïa first broke into the public consciousness, with his hyper form-fitting dresses and bodysuits. ‘Body-con’ is almost an insult now, but when Alaïa first envisioned his jersey creations, they were the height of modernity and sexuality. Their success was based on his knowledge of tailoring and of fabric – indeed, the jersey he used was his creation alone (it was also a stroke of dressmaking genius). Obviously, the perfect bodies for his creations belonged to none other than the supermodels, and images of Linda, Christy, Naomi and friends clad in body-skimming leopard print have been seared into fashion history. See also; Stephanie Seymour, another of the designer’s long-term muses.


Alaïa wasn’t always in the secure position it now sees itself – after the death of his twin sister Hafida, Alaïa withdrew from the schedule and the fashion press and only created for a handful of clients and stores. A partnership with Prada in 2000 allowed him to build a successful line of accessories (those perforated tote bags and towering, often patent crocodile platforms), which put the business on surer footing. He bought the business back in 2007, later selling a portion to the luxury group Richemont on the understanding that he would not have to follow a schedule or produce advertising. He did, however, produce a scent, reminiscent of water hitting hot bricks in his native Tunisia.


Speaking of leopard print – Alaïa is famed for the pets, as much as the company, he kept. Didine is chief among his animal companions, an enormous St Bernard bigger than the man himself. There’s also two Maltese terriers gifted by Shakira (!) and Naomi, called Waka Waka and Anouar respectively, and a host of cats and sometimes birds. Didine sleeps on a mattress, which Juergen Teller has taken a particularly fetching shot of Stephanie Seymour rolling about on.


Aside from his incredible designs and his personal generosity, what made Alaïa a real independent was his rejection of the fashion calendar and his disdain for the fashion system in general. Alaïa seldom showed during fashion week. In his opinion, the clothes were ready when they were ready, and the chosen few editors still made the pilgrimage to his shows, whenever they were (in recent years, usually a few days after Paris Fashion Week had finished). This extended to production – Alaïa designs showed up when they were finished, not when stores needed them. This seemed to infuriate everyone apart from department store Barneys, who stuck with him throughout the leaner years. Alaïa believed the key to creativity was time – perhaps the only true luxury.


One of Alaïa’s most iconic dalliances with pop culture were his outfits for Grace Jones, as May Day, in the 1985 Bond classic A View to a Kill. Jones is extravagantly empowered and exudes sex in a hooded Alaïa bandage dress, so unlike the usual (and usually white) Bond girls. She’s also demonically evil, trying to repeatedly kill Bond in between doing things like jumping off the Eiffel tower, before ultimately sacrificing herself to save his life. Off-screen, Alaïa and Jones were firm friends, and she even carried (yes, carried) the designer onstage in 1984 to receive the Best Collection of the Year at the Oscars de la Mode. If Bond ever were to be played by a woman, which we hope is soon, an Alaïa dress would be a fitting equivalent to the iconic tux.


Alaïa had an impish wit and refused to keep quiet about what was bothering him about fashion (and everything else). This lead to great, long-running fall-outs with WWD, Vogue, and in particular Yves Saint Laurent. Saint Laurent hired him at Dior for only five days after he arrived from Tunisia – they let him go upon finding out his papers weren’t entirely in order. Alaïa, understandably, never forgave Saint Laurent, and let everyone else know it.


One would be remiss to speak of Alaïa’s vast contribution to culture without mentioning Clueless, the 1995 film in which his name is uttered as if he was God. “This is an Alaïa!” announces Cher when held up in gun point, absolutely livid, so loathe is she to sully her dress by lying on the (admittedly filthy, Los Angeles) floor. With this scene, Alaïa was enshrined in pop culture as the chief outfitters for princesses around the world.


From his not so humble beginnings outfitting Greta Garbo, Alaïa went on to have his clothes adored by just about every woman in the public eye with half a clue, as well as women in every sphere of life. Michelle Obama was a notable Alaïa devotee, as were Rihanna, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and assorted Kardashians. The key to Alaïa, however, was that he made women feel their best whether they were world famous or not, whether they were possessed of Kim Kardashian West’s body shape or a more angular shape, like friends and muses Farida Khelfa and Sophie Hicks. Truly, the mark of a great designer is to be able to dress anyone and make them feel their best self. Perhaps no one will ever reach the design heights that Alaïa did, but hopefully, they can take inspiration from the principles that shaped guided both the man and his work.