The other day I made a pilgrimage to the Design Museum in Kensington to visit the exhibition of Tunisian-born Azzedine Alaia. He was a designer well known for his beautifully structured haute couture collections and was someone who generated excitement and respect throughout his life.
Alaia was best-known for his sensuous, body-hugging forms and he loved to experiment with the latest stretch materials and tailored leathers. On entering the exhibition you are greeted by this stunning collection, named 'Sculptural Tension'. Alaia originally trained as a sculptor and he always considered his clothing in sculptural terms.
Up close, you can see how he has used silver studs to embellish the inside of the pleats to this animal skin print outfit.
Chainmail links are like chiffon on the dress below, created in 2017 in the last months of Alaia's life.
Alaia used leather constantly throughout his career and his use of it was ground breaking. The 'Revolutionary Skins' section of the exhibition shows one of the first leather garments to gain attention in the fashion world. It's a leather coat from 1981, where steel eyelets were used as the only embellishment, and the powerful style of the coat was to define the style of the coming decade.
The dress below shows how Alaia could use leather in a way that it emulated other lighter fabrics such as chiffon and silk. The ruffle at the shoulder and the beautiful darts at the waist make it hard to believe that this is made from leather.
The 'Exploring Volume' section of the exhibition looks at Alaia's fascination with fashion history and the influences he took from the 17th and 18th centuries. He has re-imagined them using contemporary technologies and attitudes to the body.
As well as having an interest in creating form-fitting shapes, Alaia was also interested in volume and creating sculptural shapes that could redefine a woman's body and he pushed the idea to the extreme. Look up close at the bottom of this dress and you see the amount of fabric that has been expertly inserted into the seam, with an air of lightness and ease.
The dress below has a wonderful form-fitting bodice.
See how each pleat is perfectly uniform. The mirrored plinths make it easier to see the detail.
Black was Alaia's favourite colour and he would often use it on its own, combining a number of fabrics in a single garment to explore their different textural qualities. The section called 'Black Silhouettes' highlights this. I loved the leather dress below where pleats have been created in leather and edged with gold beads.
The simple use of black often meant that the dress became a graphic silhouette and you had to look up close to appreciate the workmanship that has gone into it.
Alaia gave his ideas form by draping, cutting and pinning fabric directly onto the statuesque models he worked with. He combined rigorous technical skills with an understanding of how women want to feel. This is beautifully shown in the red dress below which was in the 'Fragility and Strength' section of the exhibition.
Alaia was obsessed with testing the properties of materials. He gave soft fluidity to leather, and here he gives chiffon strength. These dresses are as powerful as a tailored suit, showing Alaia's technical ability in his use of the fabric. Chiffon is a very delicate fabric and can be difficult to work with but he makes it look effortless.
The final and most dramatic section to the exhibition is the 'Wrapped Forms' section that focuses on his use of stretch fabrics.
These dresses seem simple but each band of fabric is precisely engineered and cut to specific dimensions. The dresses were inspired by Egyptian mummification and join Western and Eastern traditions.
This wonderful exhibition is open until 7th October 2018. I highly recommend a visit.