When Naomi Campbell walked on to the catwalk in July to start the first couture show in six years by Azzedine Alaïa – the man she calls “Papa” – no one had any inkling this would be his last presentation. Rather, I was transported back to another era.
It was the Eighties and out of the height of that orgy of opulence strode the very first supermodels: Naomi, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Claudia Schiffer and their colleagues were like an army taking on the fashion world.
Alaïa collected these independent beauties with a new spirit, encouraging them to wear his clothes with pride.
And what clothes! The body-hugging dresses gave Alaïa the nickname, 'the King of Cling'. Knitted dresses transformed lithe bodies into writhing serpents; the black leggings and body suits that were the Alaïa signature formed the base for curvy coats or fitted jackets made from crocodile.
For the Autumn/Winter 2017 couture season, Azzedine was back, displaying with verve a new passion for pattern, from Naomi’s black and white fluffy shearling coat to red outfits embroidered with folklore designs.
New ideas flowed in, from high-rise turbans twisted in plastic to furry coats with rose embellishments, extending to boots. Surfaces were indefinable, with swirling weaves on cloth and the animalistic effect captured by leopard-patterned boots. This was a true winter collection, with knitted dresses tailored to the body in a fit-and-flare effect.
It is a myth to claim that Alaïa, born in Tunis and a student of sculpture at its School of Fine Arts, had ever moved off-stage. Or that he lost interest in inventing new shapes and showing his clothes. Or even that he was really a ready-to wear designer whose body-skimming dresses were produced by an Italian factory.
'I have been doing couture since the inception of my career – much longer than ready-to-wear,' Alaïa said as he showed me the workrooms on the third floor of his building in the Marais district of Paris. They were filled with tables bearing scissors, paper patterns and pins. That is where the tiny figure of Alaïa, whose embrace in the long arms of Grace Jones is part of fashion folklore, worked on his creations all alone in the middle of the night.
'While I enjoyed and still do enjoy doing ready-to-wear, my roots are in couture – all my clothes are first made by myself, all patterns are traced by me and then developed by my couture ateliers,' he said, explaining that 30 people are dedicated to the hand craft.
I remember when Azzedine, with his naughty, plump-cheeked smile, took me up to the atelier. A gathering of seamstresses was working on a single bridal dress, whose lace train stretched from end to end of the room.
In July, when we crowded into the baking hot iron-and-glass showroom for the Autumn/Winter presentation (Azzedine produced his collections to his own timetable), I thought of how many times I had sat around Azzedine’s kitchen table while his partner Christophe von Weyhe kept control of the long-haired dog. The conversation was always in many languages: Carla Sozzani would translate for photographer Arthur Elgort while international stylist Carlyne Cerf, her voice rising from a growl to a screech, would convey the latest gossip to Azzedine. He would be smiling, or just occasionally look thin-lipped and solemn.
As Naomi started the show, wearing a turban covered in plastic, the crowd roared with approval. In front of me were the former First Lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy; documentary producer and former model Farida Khelfa, whose family were originally from North Africa, like Azzedine; and Nicolas Ghesquière, Creative Director of Louis Vuitton.
If the audience leapt with joy at the bright colours for coats and dresses, we also sighed with delight at the black dresses, woven in lace and knit to play peek-a-boo with the body, or boldly mixing leopard patterns that might be glimpsed through black pleats. Long or short, there was a gleam to the materials, with a V-neck velvet top and glimmering long skirt on Naomi for the finale.
Everything fashion loved was there, including shoes, gaining a powerful place for Alaïa in collaboration with Ferragamo, while the company as a whole has been supported by the Richemont luxury group since 2007. This couture show was the 10th anniversary of the collaboration.
After prolonged clapping and cheers, Azzedine, as ever, did not come out, believing that the praise should go to his atelier, not just to himself. Backstage, the designer sat, a small figure in his eternal uniform of black cotton Chinese pyjamas, smiling shyly at this sweet moment of success.
Dear Azzedine, your friends – and the entire fashion world – will miss you so.