December 9, 2011 10:04 pm

The allure of Alaïa

A retrospective of the Tunisian designer at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands demonstrates the benefits of taking the long view

This is the time of year when I start to worry that I have tinnitus, thanks to a constant refrain in my ear caused by those in search of party dresses and presents: “What should I buy? There is so much to buy. But there’s nothing to buy. Why is there nothing to buy? What should I buy? There is so much to buy ... ”

It is a great paradox of the fashion world that although a Mount Everest of clothes is produced every season – and there is a continual stream of man-made, new seasons to choose from, starting this week through next year: the “pre-collections” – the majority of people still feel there is so little for them. Somehow, in the midst of plenty, it is possible to feel underserved.

I think it is down to forces that are not unique to fashion: the vogue for short-term thinking, be it politicians who cannot see beyond the next election (stand up, Tea Partiers) or global warming deniers, bankers and businessmen who eschew 10-year-plans for the next quarter’s results.

In the fashion context this has produced a constant pressure for new stuff for new stores, or new seasons, with little consideration to how quickly all this new becomes old, and then how the new old fits in with the old old, and whether the new is really just the old with a different pattern, and whether people are ready for the new to be old, and ... Where was I?

Though there was a brief discussion around the creative and commercial problems this could create at the time of John Galliano’s implosion, his absence from the fashion scene has resulted in an absence of debate. It might be revived this weekend, however, thanks to a show at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands that demonstrates the benefits of taking the long view.

Azzedine Alaïa dress

Azzedine Alaïa in the 21st Century is the second retrospective of the Tunisian designer who lives and works in Paris that the Dutch museum has curated (the first, which focussed on Alaïa’s work in the decades of his rise to fame, especially the 1980s, opened in 1997 and later went to the Guggenheim Soho). Though it covers only the past 10 years (shown right, couture winter 2011), it is an effective rebuttal of the idea, beloved of today’s global brands, that you need to continually and dramatically change your offering to keep customers engaged. This argument, upon which most of the modern runway industry is built, is largely based on fear: that doing the same thing over and over will lead to consumer boredom (forget that people keep bemoaning the lack of consistency), that it will fray loyalties and thwart growth. And yet here is a decade of work that does not include aesthetic whiplash, sneakers, homewares, jewellery, denim, a second line or any of today’s myriad and ubiquitous brand extensions. Instead, there are just dresses and coats and skirts and shirts (and a shoe or two) all in the same minutely-considered vein.

. . .

Unlike the recent Alexander McQueen show “Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, this is not a bells and whistles adventure through someone’s phantasmagoric imagination; rather, it is a tutorial in what happens when an exacting mind relentlessly works a few ideas to their natural extreme – a case study in just how far basic cloth such as knit, wool, cotton and skins can be pushed so that it transforms into something completely other. Indeed, it more closely resembles the work of another obsessive product creator – Steve Jobs, as described in Walter Isaacson’s biography, another man addicted to the long view – than that of other fashion designers. These clothes are all of a piece, as opposed to various pieces of one bizarre puzzle, and they evolve into one another almost seamlessly. As a result, though the exhibit doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle showmanship of “Savage Beauty”, it will seduce the connoisseur. The more you see, the more you learn and the more you want to see. You become aware that similar does not mean the same, and ideas evolve. Pointedly, the years the exhibit covers are all years in which Alaïa did not show on the catwalk calendar. Yet these years have also been termed the “Alaïa renaissance”, a time, after a quiet period in the 1990s, in which the designer was raised to icon status by his peers and his business exploded (he’s sold so well that recently he was given the huge former Prada space at Barneys’ flagship store in New York).

This might lead one to think that he might be held up as an example to his peers, except that the general reaction, when faced with the reality of Alaïa’s success, is not to stop and consider what it means – that giving designers the time and space to work through their ideas could ultimately mean everyone profits – but rather to dismiss it as a one-off; to shrug shoulders and say: “Well, that’s fine for him, but he’s a genius/one-off/makes up his own rules.” To see him as the exception that proves the rule, as opposed to the model of an alternative kind of rule.

It’s an excuse that has always seemed a bit odd, suggesting as it does that other brands do not consider their designers to be geniuses. But even if this is true, that still doesn’t negate the fact that their clothes might not be better if given a longer gestation. I’m pretty sure there would still be plenty for people to buy for Christmas – in the long and short-term.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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