The Quiet Master

Film | In a new untitled documentary, the fashion insider’s designer Azzedine Alaïa is revealed, but only just

Azzedine AlaiaAzzedine Alaïa at his drafting table. Photo: Joe McKenna/Consulate Film

There are designers and there are designers, but none so unconcerned with the drama of the fashion world and its pursuit of excess as Azzedine Alaïa. His refusal to genuflect to the fashion system, whether in Paris or elsewhere, sticking to his own world in his atelier in the Marais, a historic part of the capital in the 4th and 5th arrondissement, makes him as much a mystery as a marvel.

In this new, 26-minute, black and white short made by the Scottish stylist Joe McKenna, considered one of the most respected in the business, who once published his own now-very-collectible and hard-to-find, two-issue (1992 and 1998) magazine called Joe’s, Mr Alaïa is put in the spotlight, but it is friends, models, journalists who are doing the shining. Filmed over a few years in the designer’s atelier during Mr McKenna’s free time, the film feels like an extended trailer than a major oeuvre, snap shot than biography.

Yet, it’s a pleasurable film, if only because there is no moving picture material out there on Mr Alaïa. Any reveal is better than none. Much has been said of the designer’s skill—how he drafts and cuts his own patterns, how, at one time, he even sewed the dresses himself—and why those who wear his designs become life-long fans, but very little is offered about the processes behind those undeniably beautiful clothes, or about the thinking of a quietly defiant man. In this respect, we still know very little of Mr Alaïa’s motivation and inspiration.

Azzedine Alaïa Couture 2011Two of the outfits from the couture 2011 show that appeared in the film. Photos: Azzedine Alaïa

Although the lens trails its subject, the camera does not capture Mr Alaïa saying anything to it. Instead, designer Nicholas Ghesquiere (the only male interviewee), stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele (who styled Anna Wintour’s first US Vogue cover in 1988 that saw a Christian Lacroix couture top paired with jeans), the ex-stylist, ex-fashion editor (British Tatler and Vogue), and now architect Sophie Hicks, still-practising stylists Grace Coddington and Katie Grand, journalists Cathy Horyn, Vanessa Friedman, and Suzy Menkes, and models Naomi Campbell (who calls Mr Alaïa “papa”) and Veronica Webb do the talking.

These are people who doubtlessly and ardently admire him and are intensely protective. Ms Campbell even revealed that Mr Alaïa took her in after she lost her possessions during a sojourn in Paris in 1989, and that he still avails a room in his residence to her. Although we’re told that Mr Alaïa “has a temper”, like many passionate artists, we’re not shown an instance other than his throwing a hanger at an assistant, when he lost composure to rage. Or, if fury or self-control has influenced his designs. Through these intimates, we are seduced into believing Mr Alaïa has no shortcoming.

This is a film strictly for followers of Mr Alaïa’s work—a celebration of the female form and an extolment of sexiness with none of the perverse expression seen in fashion today. It is also for fashion culture buffs who may be thrilled to see some rare footages of old Azzedine Alaïa shows (“another echelon” for Cathy Horyn)  in which supermodels of the ’90s gravitated (somewhere in there is also the now-reclusive Grace Jones). It sometimes feels like a knowing nod among friends for more friends rather than a vivid disclosure for the uninitiated, of the man and his creative output. And a substantiation of the already known fact that very much of Azzedine Alaïa’s designs start at the drafting table—a mark of a true couturier.

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