New Paris Exhibition Focuses on Alaïa the Collector, Not the Designer

PARIS — In fashion circles, it’s an open secret that Azzedine Alaïa’s private collection of vintage clothes largely eclipses that of most major museums. 

“For 25 years, I saw him at auctions snapping up all the pieces I would have liked to buy,” said Olivier Saillard, director of the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa. “He bought more than any museum could have done because his budget was unlimited.”

By the time he passed away in 2017, the Tunisian couturier had amassed a trove of 20,000 pieces, including unmatched quantities of creations by the likes of Jean Patou and Madeleine Vionnet, but also U.S. designers like Adrian, Claire McCardell and Charles James.

Now his fabled collection is getting its first major show, with an exhibition at the Palais Galliera featuring 140 items that provide a condensed history of fashion, from Charles Frederick Worth, the English designer considered to be the father of haute couture, to contemporaries like Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo.

Titled “Azzedine Alaïa, couturier collectionneur” (“Azzedine Alaïa: Couturier, collector”), the show will run at the Paris City Hall-backed fashion museum from Sept. 27 until Jan. 21, 2024. It comes a decade after the major Alaïa retrospective held there in 2013, when Saillard was head of the institution.

Saillard has since passed the baton to Miren Arzalluz, who previously ran the Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation, and the two jointly curated the Alaïa exhibition. 

“It’s an honor,” she said of being the first museum to show Alaïa’s hidden treasure. “This collection is highly anticipated. Everyone knows about it, everyone has heard of it, everyone has imagined it. It’s already legendary.”

Describing it as “probably the most important private collection in the world,” Arzalluz noted the designer enjoyed a freedom rarely afforded to public institutions, gathering pieces by marquee names like Balenciaga and Chanel as well as little-known houses whose output would otherwise have been lost.

Madeleine Vionnet

Madeleine Vionnet “Petits chevaux” haute couture evening dress, circa 1924.

Courtesy of Patricia Schwoerer/rgmparis

The garments, stored in cardboard boxes, were packed floor-to-ceiling in his headquarters on Rue de Moussy in Paris. 

The figures are mind-boggling: 500 designs by Adrian, 900 by Madame Grès, the subject of a smaller exhibition currently on display at the Alaïa foundation, and more than 250 by Vionnet, whom Alaïa is credited for rescuing from obscurity by helping to organize the first major French retrospective of her work in 1991. 

He once paid the equivalent of $215,000 at the time for an embroidered midnight blue jacket from Schiaparelli’s 1938 Astrology collection, which is one of the star pieces in the exhibition.

“Even when things were going badly, when his house was in danger of going bankrupt, he was in the auction room buying pieces by Paul Poiret. While other designers purchased houses and furniture and threw parties, he only bought dresses,” said Saillard. “He was truly a staunch preservationist and historian.”

Arzalluz compared Alaïa’s zeal to that of Maurice Leloir, the painter whose collection of historical costumes forms the basis of the Palais Galliera collection.

“That’s what is really fascinating: France’s fashion heritage owes its existence not to the world of museums or academia. It’s really due to private, passionate collectors who had the sensibility and the commitment to take that leap,” she said.

Alaïa caught the bug in 1968, when Balenciaga closed his haute couture atelier and Madame Renée, who headed the workshop, invited the young designer to salvage fabrics. Instead, he preciously conserved the dresses he found.

An exacting technician, he valued the work of designers as much as the craftsmanship of the seamstresses, or “little hands,” that executed the designs.

“There are a lot of black and monochrome dresses in Azzedine’s collection, which reflect his taste for more timeless creations. There are very few prints, because prints go out of fashion more quickly,” noted Saillard. “He always said that working with black fabric forces you to be a better sculptor. It leaves no room for error.”

The exhibition mirrors Alaïa’s path as a collector, opening with a sequence of black Balenciaga designs, including an embroidered Louis XV-style jacket worn by Barbara Hutton to the Beistegui Ball in Venice in 1951.

Charles James haute couture evening dress, circa 1950.

Charles James haute couture evening dress, circa 1950.

Courtesy of Patricia Schwoerer/rgmparis

Highlights include a spectacular black velvet gown by Grès from the mid-1930s; a sculptural Jacques Fath evening gown with a knotted taffeta train dated around 1950, and a slimline 1936 Jeanne Lanvin column dress with graphic straps that echo Alaïa’s own designs decades later. 

He discovered the work of Charles James during a 1982 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, and recognized in the Anglo-American designer a kindred spirit. “He identified with his relentless work on the architecture of form, and also with the way that he operated outside of the fashion system,” Saillard explained.

Alaïa snapped up the entire archive of designers like Adrian, as well as the personal wardrobe of Mademoiselle Jack, a house model for Patou in the 1930s. He was exhaustive in his approach – hence the 19th century designs by the likes of Worth, Jacques Doucet and the lesser-known British house of Redfern.

But what stands out is his passion for the ‘20s and ’30s, with an exceptional group of creations by almost-forgotten labels such as Lenief, Boué Soeurs, Jenny and Augustabernard. The catalog of the exhibition, which also features documents from the period, will no doubt prove an invaluable resource for fashion students and researchers.

Saillard dreams of one day putting together a comprehensive, annotated listing of all the items in Alaïa’s collection. “But we’ll need 20,000 pages,” he said with a laugh.

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