Palais Galliera, Paris,
28 September 2013-26 January 2014.
Heading to Palais Galliera from Metro Franklin D. Roosevelt, I turned off avenue des Champs Elysées down rue de Marignan towards avenue Montaigne. Towards the bottom of rue Marignan a building caught my eye: a four story block, the windows of the lower floors boarded over, the upper floor windows revealing signs of construction work, the interiors in an indeterminate state between demolition and restoration. On either side of an entrance roughly blocked with white painted boarding were two stone plaques, each engraved with the word ALAÏA. A Google search confirms that this is Alaïa’s new premises. The designer, who electively operates outside of the established fashion system, is leaving his long-term location in the Marais and relocating to the historic centre of Parisian couture. The Marais building will be reconfigured as an institute to house his personal fashion collection.
Palais Galliera, too, has undergone extensive renovation, reopening with an exhibition devoted to Azzedine Alaïa – his first major retrospective in Paris. Inaugurated in 1895, this purpose-built museum was designed by architect Paul-René-Léon Ginain for Maria Brignol-Sale, Duchesse de Galliera, and shows the influence of classical and renaissance styles. Closed to the public since April 2009, work has improved both the back of house and public areas, notably restoring the ornate tiled floors and frescoed ceilings of the exhibition galleries.
The freshly cleaned stonework of the Palais gleams in its newly landscaped grounds: entering the majestic Salon d’honneur the visitor is plunged into comparative gloom. Within this vast, ceremonial space, as in the other galleries, the original decorative scheme has been reinstated – Pompeian red walls and black woodwork typical of the museography of late nineteenth century Paris. In this twilight glimmer, spotlights pick out Alaïa’s work highlighting them as sculptural pieces for contemplation. The garments are on open display, allowing close scrutiny, placed on low-level plinths painted black to match the period wainscoting. These plinths, juxtaposed with the historical interiors, compose the exhibition landscape in a strategy that foregrounds Galliera’s restored decorative scheme. The combined colour palette of the gallery interiors and exhibited items is constrained; mainly blacks, greys and lighter neutrals highlighted by reds and rust colours. An atmosphere of shadowy melancholy enervates and seems at odds with the physicality and vigour equated with Alaïa’s work.
There is no apparent narrative route and the exhibition landscape is structured so that visitors can wander from one group of garments to the next. Exhibits appear to be loosely clustered according to thematic commonalities; black garments, daywear, leatherwork, African influenced items. Reading the object labels, a succession of narrative strands emerge that reprise the Alaïa brand-myth as much as inform a reading of the exhibits. Aspects appear and reappear; the importance of the couturier’s relationship with his prized society clients and with women in general, the body-sculpting effect of his garments, the importance of research into technique and textile innovation, his determined resolution to work outside of the seasonal fashion calendar.
These refrains echo through the exhibition without exposition other than can be gained from scrutiny of the items on display. Alaïa’s garments aren’t so much exhibited as subtly marketed (significantly, the designer’s new retail outlet, located metres from Galliera, opened the same week as the retrospective and the exhibition designer, Martin Szekely, contributed to the boutique interior). The figure-hugging sheaths and bondage inspired ensembles are accompanied by a fashion biography, the conjuring of a character – an amiable, sensitive man, wholly devoted to his craft and committed to developing his exceptional skills in defiance of the direction of a relentlessly inflexible fashion industry.
Garments are displayed on mannequins constructed from clear moulded acrylic, cut away so that the clothing appears to stand independent of any support. Famously employed in the Guggenheim’s Giorgio Armani retrospective (which toured worldwide from 2000) this method has its critics. Curator Lou Taylor brands the technique ‘headless, armless and characterless’ whilst fashion historian Christopher Breward commented that, in the Guggenheim exhibition, these invisible mannequins contributed to Armani’s work appearing as ‘decontextualised objects for aesthetic appreciation’. Alaïa, however, is committed to this method and in an interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist describes how he manufactures these invisible mounts in his own workshop.
Considering the intrinsic relationship Alaïa’s garments have to the body this method is a questionable choice that results in awkward visual moments; without shoulders and heads it is difficult to understand the vertical proportion of the garments, without arms the sleeves of garments hang limp, the acrylic appears through transparent cloth with a disconcerting sheen, cut-outs in skirts and bodices are excised from the body leaving unsettling voids. There is a graphic incongruity to a one-shouldered garment displayed with the opposite shoulder, its natural complement, cut away, an inelegance to a beaded bikini displayed with no torso and an acrylic spine. Surely the sculptural qualities of Alaïa’s clothes are most effectively read in relation to the body, not independent from it?
In this exhibition the human body is seemingly absent. Complementing the form-less mannequins there are no graphic images of the body, none of the images that so redolently document Alaïa’s trajectory. For designs so associated with the movement and dynamics of the body, with corporeal fashioning, a certain stance and attitude, it seems contrary to remove the body completely. And yet, on closer inspection, the exhibition is haunted by the ghost-like suggestions of the human form: the strict tubular contour of a skirt is distorted by the impression of one knee pressing forward, the opposing hip lowered, Marylin-like in an allusive sway. Evidently, Alaïa is not able to remove the imprint of the body completely.
What can be read of the body, masterfully traced in stretch jersey, moulded leather and draped chiffon, is perceptibly distorted. Elongated and attenuated from the waist down beyond supermodel proportions, Alaïa’s mannequins stand at superhuman height. This is unmistakably apparent in a bell-skirted ensemble presented across the road from Galliera in the Musée d’Art Moderne. What is not noted in the exhibition is that the designer regularly reconstructs his garments for museum display – as he discloses, ‘they become longer and leaner. It’s all about the dream. Everyone wants to be tall and thin. It’s like sculptures which are always bigger than reality’. The reconfiguration of his work prompts intriguing questions regarding the material on display. For a fashion museum, presenting the work of a fashion designer, are there issues of authenticity and integrity if the garments on display aren’t made to fit any living human body? For the designer, however, it is merely a question of authorial entitlement. As he says, ‘we always think the original is best and that it has to be kept no matter what, but if the creator is still alive, it’s possible to do it differently. It’s the same with my dresses’.
Curated by Olivier Saillard, scenography by Martin Szekely.
ALAÏA is available from Editions Paris Musées.
See other books on Alaïa at amazon.co.uk.
Exhibition installation photographs © Pierre Antoine, courtesy Palais Galliera.
Christopher Breward. Shock of the Frock. Guardian, October 18, 2003, pp18-19.
Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Master. System, Issue 1, Spring-Summer 2013, pp92-113.
Lou Taylor. The Study of Dress History. 2002, p28.