Long live the family

The house of fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa in the Parisian district of Marais has become a public and yet very private memorial site. In this column Mademoiselle Lili is paying homage to this.

When we heard the news last November that Alaïa had died, Paris’s clocks seemed to stop for a moment. Shock swept through the fashion world. He was one of the last remaining old-school couturiers who worked his way up from the bottom of the ranks due to his talent with a needle and thread. A man who always saw himself as a craftsman, tailor and not as a designer. He flouted the industry’s rules that dictated you should launch more collections every year in order to maximise profits. His two shows a year always took place outside official Fashion Week, and, only once the master was finished and satisfied.

Since 1991, he had lived and worked in a large townhouse in the middle of the Marais district. His studio, apartment and offices were located there. The house included the famous kitchen-cum-living room, where I was once lucky enough to sit at the table. Because whoever wanted to talk to or work with Alaïa first had to eat with him and his family. This included his partner, German painter Christoph von Weyhe, his friend and fashion entrepreneur Carla Sozzani, his employees and an alternating line-up of celebrities such as Naomi Campbell who called him “papa” since he took her under his wing at the tender age of 16. The fashion designer from Tunisia, who grew up without a father under the tutelage of strong women, had put together a different type of ‘big family’ whom he constantly gathered around him, seated on the white chairs around this table. The single black chair was reserved for him, a little man who always wore the same black Mao suit.

The hall where he staged his fashion shows is today an exhibition venue that is open to the public. This, not only represents a living tribute to his fashion, but also to his sense of family.

Every exhibition preview is attended by his expansive ‘chosen’ family who remain friends even after his death. “The cliché that people in the fashion world only have superficial relationships simply isn’t true”, states von Weyhe. “At least, not when it comes to us”.

The current exhibition “L’alchimie secrète d’une collection” shows how much the house itself influenced Alaïa’s unique and timeless style. During the long-term renovations of the former home of the Bishop of Beauvais, with his archaeological curiosity, the couturier found clues that indicated that it was in this house that the middle-class Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson was given her societal education and learned the rules of etiquette of the royal court. The lady who was later known as “Marquise de Pompadour” and became the world-famous mistress of King Louis XV. Since his childhood, Azzedine Alaïa had been fascinated by her life story. Consequently, the spring-summer 1992 collection ­– the first he designed in his new rooms in Paris’s Marais district – celebrated an interpretation of the silhouette of the 18th century: Narrow waists, long skirts, low-cut décolletés and peplums. Instead of lace, he used perforated leather – as a corset, belt or bustier. Today, the collection is regarded as one of the most emblematic of his entire oeuvre. And the house of Alaïa is regarded as a stronghold for the most loyal fashion family in the whole of Paris.

“L’alchimie secrète d’une collection” is open daily from 11 am to 7 pm until 6 January 2019, 18 rue de la Verrerie, 75004 Paris