Alaia: The King of Cling

Alaia with Giselle in his Atelier in Paris.

In Strasbourg, France on April 3 of this year Michelle Obama broke with tradition when she chose to wear a formal black knit sleeveless dress with a ruffled skirt by designer Azzedine Alaia to the NATO dinner. Much like First Lady Jackie Kennedy did when she met President de Gaulle in France in 1961 with her husband President Kennedy, she too suffered the slings and arrows of her country’s media for choosing Givenchy over an American designer. Mrs Kennedy got away with it though as it was excused as a compliment to her French hosts.

First Lady Michelle Obama in her Alaia with President Barack Obama in France.
Alaia is known for his perfectionism and his sexy hourglass creations made supermodels of Naomi Campbell and Stephanie Seymour. The lycra stretch material he used worked as a whole-body corset which gave form to the entire ensemble but allowed freedom of movement at the same time. His true secret lies in his cut and spiral-like stitches which configure and lengthen the legs, elevate the buttocks, restrain the waist and give support to the breasts. His designs transform any woman who wears them into a goddess.

Alaia flanked by models in his Atelier circa 1990.

Azzedine Alaia was born in Tunisia in 1935 and in 1957 moved to Paris to work in fashion design. His study of sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Tunisia gave him important insight into the human form which helped immensly in his designs. After stints at Christian Dior, Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler, Alaia opened his own atelier in his petit apartment on the rue de Bellechase in the late 1970’s in which he dressed his clients for 20 years.

Spot the supermodels – Carla Bruni and Yasmin Ghauri are there.

His first pret-a-porter collection debuted in 1980  and in 1984 he was voted Best Designer of the Year and Best Collection of the Year at the Oscars de la Mode. He was a massive hit in America where by 1988 he had opened boutiques in New York and Beverly Hills as well as Paris. It was the media who named him “The King of Cling”.

Clients like Madonna, Raquel Welch, Naomi Campbell, Elle McPherson, Stephanie Seymour, Tina Turner and Carine Roitfeld were all devoted to him. Grace Jones was also a devoted fan and wore many of his creations as May Day in the Bond film A View To A Kill.

Alaia fitting Grace Jones.
Alaia all but disappeared from the fashion scene after the death of his twin sister, but he continued to design for a very select clientele. He continues to present his designs when they are ready, not at the biannual events fashion forces dictate.
Alaia in his Paris Atelier with his long-time muse Naomi Campbell.

With the Prada group his financial partner since 2000, and the hiring of 15 staff from the Yves Saint Laurant Couture house (closed after YSL’s retirement in 2002) Alaia is now able to meet the demands of a Pret-a-Porter line, footwear and sunglasses as well as maintaining his distinctive made to measure and in July 2007 he successfully bought back his house and brand name from the Prada Group, his footwear and leather goods division continue to be owned by the group however.

Editorial featuring Naomi, Linda and Yasmin le Bon from American Elle circa 1990.

I remember the above editorial distinctly because I had not seen designs like these anywhere before. The detail and the cut and boy-o-boy, the way they fit! Also I remember being surprised with the frivolity of the models and how Alaia himself was so cute and tiny!

Going through some old magazines got me thinking about my high school graduation formal dress. I spent much of my time designing my dress and scouring magazines to find the perfect look for me.
I knew that I didn’t want to look like anyone else and so that meant wearing something unconventional.

Alaia in his Atelier.

I knew that I had to have an Alaia but short of flying to Paris (an impractical impossibility) I designed a dress based on my favourite silhouette. I found a very talented dressmaker who was as excited as I was to make a pattern and construct my dress, I couldn’t wait! It turned out perfectly and my favourite part was the pleated hem and the sapphire coloured fabric.  The only concession I had to make was that my mother would not let me have it made out of lycra (no cling for moi unfortunately), so I had it made from satin and let me tell you, it may have not been form-fitting back in 1990, but after two babies, not only does it still fit, but it clings like it should now!

Oh how I wish I could show you the dress, but alas I do not have any pictures to show you… I have looked high and low, but to no avail.  Je suis dèsolè!

When my little girls grow up and attend their high school graduation formal, I wonder how far I will have to go to fulfill their couture desires? Will we have to mortgage our retirement fund in order to buy Parisian couture for them?

It would be fun though, wouldn’t it?

Heidi x

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