Alaïa and Balenciaga, a brilliant association

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Azzedine Alaïa photographed in 1988, © Jean-Baptiste Mondino

I was invited to a rare birthday party recently and the hostess, a very elegant International personality, was wearing a beautiful claret velvet dress. I thought it might be a vintage Givenchy but it looked more modern… and it was by Azzedine Alaïa, from one of his last collections, as she confirmed. It could also have been by Balenciaga. This is what the new show at Association Azzedine Alaïa, on rue de le Verrerie, is all about: the classical couture cut and shape of the contemporary designer. And the way the exhibition is set, with very light translucid partitions in veil is magical. One walks into a strange foggy atmosphere to discover the sharp sculptural dresses and coats patiently collected by the late designer.

Balenciaga, couture Fall Winter 1948, coat in copper red taffeta, black chenille embroidery, tailored and flared goussets, large pointed collar

When Cristobal Balenciaga suddenly closed his couture house in 1968, because he could not relate to the new ready-to-wear fashion launched by Saint Laurent among others, his general manager, Mademoiselle Renée, called Azzedine Alaïa who was starting to be well known among a small circle of couture clients, and offered him whatever model he liked. She thought he would use the material to create his own dresses but not at all: he religiously kept dresses and coats and enriched the collection with more items which Balenciaga’s clients gave him. He would exchange a newly cut dress made to measure for the lady and keep her precious out of date pieces. This is how he came to own so many examples of the Spanish designer’s couture.

Alaïa, Couture, Fall winter 2003

When you enter the gallery set in former warehouses of Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, you walk in a maze of transparent coton partitions. The lighting with very white neons is extraordinary and there is a feeling of being on the stage of a mysterious opera. Besides the extraordinary decor of the show, there is a new development in the gallery : you can walk into the boutique from the exhibition space and even climb a funny industrial staircase which leads you to a room with videos of Balenciaga in his studio.

The Azzedine Alaïa boutique adjacent to the gallery

The show starts with velvet dresses in red, grey and green, from 1988, and moves onto black wool suits by Balenciaga in 1940, long dresses or cocktail dresses, leather boleros from 1989, and embroidered little vests in velvet. There are 56 pieces altogether which are shown in pairs most of the time, thus emphasizing the parallels between the two designers’ style. Olivier Saillard, who orchestrated the show, has again found a way of renewing the interest for both couturiers.

Boleros and vests as seen through the clever veil partitions which create mystery

The visit is like walking through a foggy maze where suddenly a perfectly sculpted dress appears clearly. I loved discovering Alaïa’s classical coats which dialogue with Banlenciaga’s.

The show goes on until June 28 at 18 rue de la Verrerie. Do not miss it, it’s really fun. And there is now a little restaurant in the courtyard as well as a trendy book shop.

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