Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

Alaïa’s secret trove of designer couture

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 22, 2023 5:00 am

Where would you go to see the finest collection of couture pieces? The Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute in New York? The Victoria and Albert in London? The Palais Galliera in Paris? Yes, they have some of the most important pieces, but apparently not as covetable enough as what many of the curators from these museums have suspected all along and have finally seen for themselves, when the treasure trove of the late Azzedine Alaïa was revealed in its entirety with select pieces chosen for an exhibit, “Azzedine Alaïa: Couturier Collectionneur” at the Palais Galliera.

“For 25 years I saw him at auctions snapping up all the pieces I wanted to buy,” said Olivier Saillard, the exhibit’s co-curator, who used to head the Galliera but is now with the Alaïa Foundation. “He bought more than any museum could have done because his budget was unlimited.”

Azzedine Alaïa with Elle MacPherson wearing the wedding dress he designed for her in 1986

What did such a budget buy? 20,000 pieces by the time the Tunisian-born couturier passed away in 2017, stored in cardboard boxes that were packed floor-to-ceiling at his headquarters on Rue de Moussy. Not one to be known for an extravagant lifestyle, unlike other designers who bought villas and antique furniture and threw lavish parties, Alaïa was very low-key and tight-lipped about his collection.

Could you imagine that what was possibly the most valuable collection of historical garments was owned by a Tunisian immigrant — Azzedine Alaïa— who once worked as a nanny to royalty in exchange for room and board?

Now everyone knows where all his money went: Mind-boggling quantities of rare creations by the likes of Jean Patou and Madame Grès from Europe, as well as American designers like Adrian, Claire McCardell and Charles James. Alaïa is credited for rescuing Vionnet from obscurity thanks to the 250 pieces he owned, which helped mount the first major retrospective of her work in 1991.

Barbara Hutton wearing Balenciaga at the Beistegui ball in Venice, 1951

The designer once paid $215,000 for an embroidered blue jacket from Schiaparelli’s 1938 Astrology collection and obtained a Balenciaga black embroidered outfit called Mozart made for the American heiress Barbara Hutton for the Beistegui Ball in Venice in 1951. Curators have been wondering for years where Hutton’s outfit went and thought it had been lost, but now it’s on display together with the Schiaparelli. 

Charles James

You could not imagine that what was possibly the most valuable collection of historical garments in private hands was owned by a Tunisian immigrant who had his beginnings as a nanny to the children of Countess Nicole de Blégiers in exchange for room and board. Developing his craft while acquiring clients by referrals, he was able to open his couture house at his Left Bank apartment in 1964 and rose in stature to become one of the world’s most revered couturiers.

Gabrielle Chanel, 1930s

Alaïa actually began collecting by accident in 1968 when Balenciaga closed shop and the house’s director invited the young designer to take any garments he fancied. “Apparently he was appalled to see how the clothes of the man he admired were being dispersed,” said co-curator Miren Arzalluz, who is now Galliera’s director. “It provoked a call to save this heritage that was disappearing. No one was archiving anything at the time.”

Jacques Fath and Christian Dior, 1940s-1950s

Today, of course, the historical houses have developed and maintained their archives. Dior opened an exhibition wing of their pieces on Avenue Montaigne, adjacent to their flagship boutique. The Saint Laurent Foundation holds exhibits regularly. “Alaïa, however, is the only designer who collected the works of other designers active since the 1860s. And, I might add, these designers were far wealthier and more famous than he was. He saved a patrimony for Paris,” says Saillard.

Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, SS 2014

Unlike public institutions in France, he didn’t have to prioritize French designers. He was free to follow his intuitions without any constraints, so you see sportswear from the American pioneer McCardell as well as obscure Paris fashion houses like Busvine, which was originally British, and Myrbor, a 1920s label by Marie Cuttoli. There were also pieces from contemporary designers like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Rei Kawakubo and Nicolas Ghesquiere, among others.

Arazalluz observes that “what is most clear from these choices is that he collected with intention. You can say it’s the history of fashion through the eyes of Azzedine Alaïa. It’s the eye on the designers, on the architecture, the colors of the garments.” The designer no doubt also saw in the pieces a reflection of his own passion for technical expertise and mastery in tailoring, measuring himself against the greats in the quest for the elusive perfect cut that governed all their works. He valued the work of designers as much as the craftsmanship of the seamstresses or petite mains who executed the designs.

Paul Poiret, 1920

There are a lot of black and monochrome dresses in the collection, reflecting a taste for more timeless creations. There are few prints because prints can get démodé more quickly. Alaïa always said that working with black forces you to be a better sculptor, leaving no room for error.

Jacques Fath, haute couture evening dress, 1949-1950

The exhibition traces the designer’s path as a collector, opening with a sequence of black Balenciaga pieces, including the embroidered Louis XV-style Hutton jacket. Highlights include a mid-1930s black velvet gown by Madame Grès, a 1950 Jacques Fath gown with knotted taffeta train and a 1936 Jeanne Lanvin column dress that echo Alaïa’s own design decades later. Discovering Charles James at a 1982 retrospective in Brooklyn, the designer recognized a kindred spirit, identifying with the relentless work on the architecture of form, and how he operated outside the fashion system.

He was exhaustive in his collecting approach, thus having 19th-century designs by the likes of Worth, Jacques Doucet and the lesser-known British house of Redfern. Saillard, however, notes that “what stands out is his passion for the ’20s and ’30s, with exceptional creations from forgotten labels like Lenief, Boué Soeurs, Jenny and Augustabernard.

Molyneux, Nina Ricci, Philippe et Gaston, Raphaël

The curators caution anyone looking at the clothes for signs of influence in Alaïa’s own work even if you may see “a number of through-lines in the artistry of Vionnet’s modern cuts, in the techniques of Balenciaga, in the sporty jeune fille verve of Madame Carven’s cotton dresses, and the intense colors of Patou, but that’s as far as it goes. Alaïa was always his own man and he almost never looked back at his own archive.” 

Madame Grès Haute Couture, FW 1980

The late designer’s clothes are definitely collector’s items themselves and should be preserved just as he has religiously been the guardian of all these amazing pieces from the past, allowing us to learn from them today.