Couturier Alaïa is celebrated across Paris in two excellent exhibitions

18 February 2024, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews the ALAÏA / GRÈS. AU-DELÀ DE LA MODE exhibition at the Fondation Azzedine AlaÏa, Paris, and the Palais Galleria’s recent AZZEDINE ALAÏA, COUTURIER AND COLLECTOR exhibition.

The groundbreaking work of two legendary masters of sculpting, fabric, cut and couture have come together for the first time ever at the Fondation Azzedine AlaÏa in Paris. The Fondation’s latest exhibition celebrates the shared talents and visions of Madame Grès (1903-1993) and Azzedine Alaïa (1935-2017) and the dialogue between these two design greats is masterfully explored by globally renowned fashion curator and Director of the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation, Olivier Saillard.

Although there is no evidence that these two design greats crossed paths, their designs most likely did, and their shared formal principles, cutting techniques, colour preferences for dress are explored across 60 designs currently on show. Creations are placed side by side for the first time, across two rooms with multiple themes, exploring these shared principles.

"Once you find something that is personal and unique, you must fully exploit it and pursue its realization without stopping, until the very end" Madame Grès once said of her process. To this, Alaïa later responded, "When an idea imposes itself on you, you have to lasso it, turn around it, and never deviate from it."

The seemingly simple creations of Grès and Alaïa hide an inherent complexity in their cut and design. They were both guided by the properties of fabric throughout the design process, whether it was Grès’s innovative use of jersey or Alaïa’s knitwear designs.

Grès said of her process, “You can tell the soul and character of a fabric by touching it…When I drape a mannequin in silk for example, the fabric responds in my hands and I try to understand and judge its reactions. That's how I give the dress an outline and a shape that the fabric itself would like to have."

Sculpting was a key secret passion of both creatives. As the exhibition details, Madame Grès’s parents would not allow her to train as a sculptor, so she learned the rudiments of cutting and sewing in three months and for the rest of her life maintained the paradox of a virtuoso artist who had invented her own techniques. While a student in the sculpture department at the School of Fine Arts in Tunis, Alaïa revealed his extraordinary skills by secretly making sewing samples his sister had been told to produce for school. He soon became a much sought-after private dressmaker. Grès and Alaïa thus dreamed of their future profession, which involved sculpture and sewing in equal measure. As Alaïa said “I wanted to do sculpture when I was at art school. That’s where my interest in the body comes from”.

Both designers clearly preferred to work in monochromes, in particular intense black and plaster white. Interestingly, the exhibition notes, Grès’s real name was Germaine Krebs, and she adopted the name of a sedimentary rock whose colour variations are endless; "Grès" means sandstone and it is also a partial anagram of her husband Serge's name. She had pure white showrooms to resemble Athenian temples and over her five decade career she punctuated her collections with long white, ivory or beige jersey dresses with clear Ancient Greece inspirations. Similarly, Alaïa compared his dresses to bas-relief sculptures that were designed to be timeless through ultra-precise tailoring and highly skilled techniques.

In the upper level of the exhibition space the addition of a large porthole window allow visitors to see Alaïa’s own studio for the first time. “Since 1987, it is here in the place familiarly known as his studio that the couturier invents, conceives, cuts and molds the dresses that constitute the timeless architectures of fashion…In this peculiar den where rolls of fabric muffle voices and footsteps, entire and notorious collections have been realized, eternal dresses have been born thanks to the great art of Alaïa, the last reigning couturier. Already 5 years have passed since all here was brought to silence and covered with white dustsheets. Not a single garment, or sketch, tool, pin, or needle has been touched. It is now time to draw back these veils of discretion and reveal once more to the public, the atelier, fortress of ideas and imagination, of the couturier,” Saillard shares. Here, viewers can see pattern pieces, fabrics, boxes of trims, feathers and epaulettes, mannequins, work tables and much more evoking the vibrant creative studio experience.

Importantly as this exhibition explores, Alaïa was not only an expert in cut but he was also an expert collector. Alaïa commenced collecting in 1968 after Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his fashion house and went on to collect a wealth of designs from the birth of haute couture in the late 19th century to a who’s who list of his design contemporaries. He was driven to collect the work of those he admired and acquired one of the world’s most important private collections of garments and fashion with over 15,000 pieces.

Notably, Alaïa collected 700 dresses by Madame Grès that are now owned by the foundation. A selection of these pieces and photographs are on show now for the first time. His collection forms the heritage of the Fondation that today, as per his wishes, bears his name.

“For many years now, I’ve been buying and receiving dresses, coats and jackets that reflect the glorious history of fashion. It has become part of my corporate attitude to preserve them, a mark of solidarity with those who, before me, knew the pleasures and demands of the scissor. It is my personal tribute to all the crafts and all the ideas that these garments embody”, Alaïa shared.

Members of the public also had the chance to see items from his vast collection in a fantastic exhibition at Palais Galleria, AZZEDINE ALAÏA, COUTURIER AND COLLECTOR. Running from September to 21 January, the exhibition was organised in partnership with the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa and curated by Miren Arzalluz, director of the Palais Galliera with Oliver Saillard.

At the Palais Galleria, nearly 140 pieces were on show on loan from the Fondation charting the course of Alaïa’s personal collection. He was the world’s foremost collector of some of the most prestigious couturiers, including Worth, Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paul Poiret, Gabrielle Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli and Christian Dior. Contemporary fashion he collected included pieces by Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler and Yohji Yamamoto, which are were all on show in this exhibition. He also collected works by dressmakers and creations that were noteworthy testimonials to the activity of ateliers.

Spread across several rooms and separated by designer or design house, it is clear to see his respect for technique, and how cut and drape inspired him. Not only eveningwear, but also coats, suits and daywear formed part of his collections. This includes riding habits by the Busvine house (1881-1951) as well as many military uniforms whose cut and adornments he valued.

In both exhibitions, garments are shown without protective glass, allowing a remarkable up-close experience for viewers, and in the Fondation, innovative room design sees black tape used throughout on walls to create an illusion of black metal frames.  

Interestingly, Alaïa never showcased his expansive personal collections during his so these two exhibitions offer a glimpse into the mind of a couturier and his inspirations, as well as an in-depth retrospective of fashion history.

ALAÏA / GRÈS. AU-DELÀ DE LA MODE runs through 4 July 2024.

Sign up to receive occasional updates

Please indicate your consent to our use of cookies

Some cookies are required for our site to function. Optional cookies are used for functionality (remembering recently visited pages) and performance (Google Analytics). Visit our privacy and cookies page to find out more, and manage your consent at any time.