The late Azzedine Alaïa founded his maison in 1981 on Paris' left bank, where he presented his first Spring/Summer '81 ready-to-wear collection. In the decade that followed, the Tunisian designer established a reputation as the master of cut with his clothes that sculpted and cinched the woman's body, defining a clear image of femininity. 'For me, fashion is the body' he once said.
Since his passing in November 2017, the Alaïa studio team have kept the flame burning. Following the recent announcement that Pieter Mulier is to take to the helm as creative director, what does this mean for the legacy of the 'King of Cling'?
Alaïa loved women. Cathy Horyn notes in Joe McKenna's 2017 documentary about the designer that women neither intimated nor formed the basis of fantasy for Alaïa. His clothes were made for the women who wore them and he had an unparalleled level of discipline when it came to garment construction; special seams across the bum for instance to help sculpt fabric to wearer. You'd also be damned if you expected him to show a collection before he felt it was done absolutely right, even if that meant reworking an idea multiple times - something today's brutal fashion calendar hardly allowed for pre-pandemic. His absolute devotion to his craft, together with designs such as Grace Jones' iconic hooded ribbon dress, or the zip dress included in the Met's 2020 exhibition About Time: Fashion and Duration, have ensured that Alaïa lives on both in the fashion history books and in the wardrobes of women today.
The designer's right hand woman, Caroline Fabre Bazin, has stayed on in the years since Alaïa's death as the house's Heritage and Editions director. The studio's most recent S/S 21 collection focused on 40 items from the house archives with the inclusion of a dedicated Editions line. Their focus has been on how to make the past modern - the task which faces any designer at a heritage brand. From details including fine-gauge knits and the leather technique Alaïa pioneered, charnière (interlacing leather seams by hand), to the bodycon stretch silhouette complete with wraparound zip first unveiled in the A/W 91 collection, from collection to collection the Alaïa Maison work with modern techniques such as 3-D printing to revitalise methods, fabrics and silhouettes from the archives.
It couldn't be a better set up for Pieter Mulier who will make his debut for S/S 22. Mulier has over 25,000 archive pieces to work with; Alaïa always kept one of each design, including all the prototypes which never made it to the runway and original patterns, establishing the Association Azzedine Alaïa foundation in 2007. These relics will surely form the essential building blocks to Mulier's take on Alaïa. New designers at a heritage house like this one are usually expected to stay close to the brand's DNA, in the beginning at least. How to make the past modern is, after all, part of fashion's essential nature.
The late designer's penchant for contemporary art and sculpture is also expected to be a reference point for Mulier, who studied architecture at Belgium's Royal Academy before embarking on a career in fashion where he worked for many years alongside Raf Simons, which saw him go to Jil Sander, and be named design director at Dior and global creative director at Calvin Klein. Throughout, Mulier oversaw a multitude of artist collaborations with the likes of Sterling Ruby and the Andy Warhol foundation. During his own lifetime, Alaïa's work was featured in multiple international exhibitions, paralleling his work with the likes of Warhol, Picasso and Christoph von Weyhe. Alaïa, who was a trained sculptor, kept a space open in his maison for exhibitions, so whether Mulier's hand dabbles into this side of affairs will be of great interest.
What's most exciting about the appointment is that Pieter Mulier is set to step out of the shadows. The designer is yet to develop the cult of personality that surrounds other creative directors in fashion today, although ever since Raf fans first eyed Miuler up in the 2015 documentary Dior and I, the promise of a new Belgian to devote ourselves to has hung in the air.
In a statement, Mulier said: 'It is an absolute dream to join this prestigious maison, its beautiful ateliers and its talented team. Always ahead of his time and open to all arts and cultures, Azzedine Alaïa’s powerful vision has served as an inspiration, as he always sought to give the necessary time to innovative and enduring creation.'
By the sounds of it the designer plans to stick to Alaïa's internal show schedule. One can't help but think of Simons' abrupt Dior exit in 2015 due to the demands of showing 20 collections a year.
It also will be interesting to see the women Mulier surrounds himself with; there's certainly the possibility for new house muses to be born from the ashes. Alaïa was surrounded by a cohort of extended family including Farida Khelfa, Campbell and Carine Roitfeld. Meanwhile, stylist Joe McKenna, who first teamed up with Alaïa in 1988, has continued to work on the lookbooks since his passing. Whether Mulier plans to keep him on has not yet been confirmed.
Owned by the luxury group Richemont since 2007, we can ultimately expect the non-conformist nature of Alaïa to live on. Richemont, who own jewellers Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels have been hedging their bets in the fashion sphere as of late. Most recently they put their money on Alber Elbaz's long-awaited return to fashion by investing in his startup AZ Factory; a direct to consumer ready-to-wear offering unveiled on the couture calendar last month. Last year, they named sustainably-minded Uruguayan designer Gabriela Hearst at Chloè, and teamed up with the Chinese technology company Alibaba to invest in Farfetch, which is fast becoming fashion's leading online retailer. Richemont seem to have an enthusiasm for letting brands do things their way, also finding new, modern solutions in the business of fashion as they try to play with the big dogs, LVMH and Kering - but it might just pay off.
Pieter Mulier makes his debut for S/S 21, the date is yet to be announced.