Azzedine Alaïa has always been smaller in stature. A look back shows countless photos of the Tunisian designer smiling up at the world’s top supermodels. Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Karlie Kloss, they’ve all towered over him, affectionately wrapping an arm around him or resting an elbow on his head. (Campbell, in fact, even calls him Papa.) Yes, he’s always been small, and sweet—but more importantly, he’s always been mighty.
Famously nicknamed the “King of Cling,” Alaïa was one of the first to bring us the icons of ’80s style: bustiers, bondage dresses and hip-hugging leggings. For a man described as shy and humble, you’d be hard-pressed to find a designer more in tune with sex, sensuality, and the female form.
It started innocently enough. At 15, a family friend enrolled him in art school. He studied sculpture, but in order to pay for supplies, Alaïa and his sister helped out at a dressmaker’s shop. At the time, seamstresses worked anonymously, designing perfectly cut dresses for their loyal clients. With his devotion to detail—and a dash of his evident charm—it wasn’t long before Alaïa gained a following. Women would come from all over to his tiny Left Bank apartment, and Alaïa, in a way, would “sculpt” them. The experience? Transformative. The looks? An homage to femininity. An appointment with Alaïa was a secret status symbol.
Alaïa’s first capsule collection in 1979 was rejected by the male designer who commissioned it. It was deemed too tough—all leather and hardware—and too sexy, with broad shoulders and waif waists. But women felt differently. Here was a man who not only understood the female form, he adored it, and designed to empower it. Impressed, Nicole Crassat, the editor of French Elle, put a dress on the cover and even began visiting for personal appointments herself.
Like a groundswell, Alaïa pieces—including his signature cut-out shoes and handbags—weaved their way into the New York fashion scene. Insiders were buzzing: Bill Cunningham snapped them for WWD. Renowned retailers came knocking. Even the world’s biggest models, who rarely left the States, showed up in Paris to walk for him, asking only to be paid in clothes.
Yet despite the accolades, fans, and famous faces in his front rows, Alaïa stayed true to his humble self. He resisted the limelight—and financial rewards—choosing instead, as he says, to stay poor. Then, following the death of his sister in 1992, Alaïa stepped out altogether, favouring his friends, his family, and his dogs over fashion. The King of Cling was, in a way, gone. But, certainly not forgotten.
It was eight years before Alaïa began to show again. Ever a master manipulator of fabric, he continued to give new shape, weight, even texture, to the materials we thought we knew—bucking trends, and certainly, the clock. Rushing to show for regular seasons is just not him. Instead, he works painstakingly by hand, taking months, even years, to complete a single piece. Never satisfied until his vision lives, his art perfected.
For Fall 2017, celebrating the 35th anniversary of his brand, he presented a collection of flouncy and feminine ’60s-inspired sportswear. Of course, even with ath-leisure inspired looks, his signature edge was never far from sight: hole-punched leather, stud-laced dresses and boots, and zippered blouses. Because, as ever is the case for Alaïa, feminine is inextricably fierce, and pretty, is pretty mighty.