Paris Fashion Week hasn’t even started yet, but the season already belongs to Alaïa. In the nearly six years since the couturier’s death, Carla Sozzani, Olivier Saillard, and the team at the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa have been excavating and meticulously cataloging the collections the couturier amassed over a lifetime of scooping up treasures at auction and elsewhere. Thought to be the largest fashion collection in private hands, it is now also one of the most important ones in the world.
“What Azzedine collected is beyond imagination, he spent a fortune,” said Carla Sozzani. Squirreled away in the cellars, five floors, and sometimes stashed in plastic bags under tables in the designer’s massive complex in the Marais, the trove has yielded some 20,000 pieces thus far, whether by famous names—Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Vionnet, Grès, Patou, Yves Saint Laurent—or now lesser-knowns, like Adrian, Redfern, Paquin, Claire McCardell, Charles James, Jacques Fath, or Jacques Griffe.
Famously, Alaïa’s compulsive collecting started years before he had any means: When Cristobal Balenciaga shuttered his namesake house in 1968, Alaïa originally purchased unsold stock with the idea of repurposing the fabric, Sozzani recounted. Then, he decided he couldn’t take the dresses apart, so he kept them. And a habit was born.
“He really had no money until the early ’80s, so for all those years, he would use the little he had to buy clothes, or he’d beg friends like Stephanie Seymore or Gilles Bensimon to buy things for him,” Sozzani said. “Then, once he had money, he never cared about having a villa or a limo or the trappings that so many other designers do—it all went into buying things he wanted to protect, notably fashion.” He even started bidding against the Metropolitan Museum, once spending €100,000 for a coat by Paul Poiret, or €150,000 for an embroidered velvet zodiac coat by Schiaparelli from fall-winter 1938 that was once worn by Marlene Dietrich.
“He had no sense of money,” Sozzani laughed, “he would be spending in euros but thinking in old francs.” Alaïa’s particular love for Madame Grès is the subject of the bijou exhibition “Alaïa/Grès: Beyond Fashion” at the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa in the Marais. Likening it to a dialogue between two great masters, like Matisse-Picasso, Saillard called it “less a fashion exhibition than one about two solitary artists who became sculptors of dresses. There’s fashion, but there’s also something more that’s completely timeless.” Here, highlights culled from the 900 or so Grès pièces unearthed in Alaïa’s stash are what Saillard terms the Rolls-Royces of fashion: a “tempest of modernity,” such as a long black velvet cut-out dress from the mid-’80s, or a beautifully draped gown held up by a single shoulder from 1963, resonate with Alaïa’s work, their silhouettes distinct yet as similar as two offshoots on a family tree.
Across town at the Palais Galliera, exactly a decade after the Alaïa retrospective, treasures spanning the history of fashion—from the birth of couture under Charles Frederick Worth to costume designs by Henri Matisse for the Ballets Russes (shown across the street at the Musée d’Art Moderne) and pieces by contemporaries he admired, like Thierry Mugler, Nicolas Ghesquière, Martin Margiela, Lee McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Comme des Garçons—demonstrate the breadth of the designer’s passion.