“Today the Galliera is exhibiting sculptures,” says fashion curator Oliver Saillard of the inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Palais Galliera in Paris, reopened this week after a four-year hiatus. “Though of a different kind, ones in fabric, cut on the round, in silk chiffon; statues of jersey and zippers; each outfit emphasising the fact that fashion created by the great designers is not ephemeral.”

The silk sculptures Saillard refers to are by Azzedine Alaïa, the Tunisia-born, Paris-based fashion designer who famously drapes leather like muslin, celebrates the female silhouette with body conscious dresses and who, says Saillard, operates at a level “above haute couture”. Seventy-four Alaïa dresses are on display in a retrospective with sceneography by designer Martin Szekely. The exhibition continues across the road in the Salle Henri Matissse at the Musée d'Art Moderne where among a series of show stopping dresses are three that were created by Alaïa especially for the room and which create a dialogue with Matisse’s La Danse, 1931 and Daniel Buren’s Murs de Peintures, 1995 - an easily missed but unmissable finale!

With highlights including a bra top and fringed skirt crafted from gold chains that is instantly recognisable as an outfit worn by Tina Turner, the exhibition comes to life by conjuring iconic images of Alaïa’s famous muses. Other dresses in the show were worn by Grace Jones and Rhianna.

In a purposeful break from tradition, the retrospective is organised not by time (it includes designs from the eighties through to 2013) but by theme: masterful draping, leopard print, leather, felted wool, and white shirts among others. Saillard explains: “Alaïa is against time; he is timeless,” referring not only the designer’s enduring creations but also his refusal to adhere to the fashion calendar. Having presented his first collection in 1979, in 1987 Alaïa made the unusual decision to remove himself from fashion week, staging catwalk shows on his own terms – usually a week or a month after all the others and even missing certain seasons.

Indeed, it is Alaïa’s signature approach to fashion that is celebrated at the Palais Galliera. “The dresses he shapes and sculpts, with their strong relationship to the body, have in the opinion of many costume historians changed notions of femininity to such a point that Alaïa can be considered the source of some of the 1980s main fashion changes,” says Saillard. “He broke away from all the preconceived ideas of the previous decades – the soft shapes and full skirts – to create a new body-conscious silhouette.”

Considered to be as groundbreaking as earlier couturiers such as Madeleien Vionnet, Cristobal Balenciaga and Madame Gres, Alaïa is as much about technique as he about style. His work with stretch knits in particular has been pioneering. The master of style defines his mission simply: “For me, haute couture is not merely a question of techniques and labels, there has to be a spirit of innovation.”

Azzedine Alaïa on his favourite materials

“Materials have also been very important to me. Leather is a material I sometimes
wanted to make more feminine, more delicate, more fragile. I treated it in the same
way as other haute couture fabrics, whether for evening or day wear. Denim is a
contemporary material in which I like to cut refined dresses that are comfortable,
like an old travelling jacket. I mould it like a bas-relief. Very early on I also used
lots of crepe de Chine which, because it is transparent, gives us a glimpse of the
tone of the skin. I have used studs, button holes and nails – these commonplace,
utilitarian materials – on garments with very refined and sumptuous fabrics. A
huge variety of jerseys have figured in all my creations. For me, stretch knits are a natural byproduct of couture jersey. Rather than use only its elasticity, which hugs the body naturally, I wanted to use it as a fabric that I could cut and model around the silhouette. I cut it, pinned it and assembled it. I worked with the Copini company in Italy, conducting painstaking, innovative research in order to find downy felted wools capable of lending relief and depth to garments.”

Azzedine Alaïa
September 28 – January 26, 2014
Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris
10 Avenue Pierre Ier de Serbie, Paris 16eme