A New Exhibit Reveals a Secret Collection Amassed by Azzedine Alaïa

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“The Art of Draping,” the newest exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design‘s Museum of Fashion, reveals the secret collection of Madame Grès pieces that Azzedine Alaïa collected during his lifetime. 

The iconic designer once told a good friend he only had about three pieces by the French couturier — but after Alaïa’s death in 2017, that friend, renowned curator and director of the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa Olivier Saillard, discovered there were actually over 900. 

Unless you were alive between the 1940s and 1980s, it’s unlikely you’ve seen a Madame Grès original in person. While images of them exist in the archives of advertisements and Vogue, the garments themselves have been collected and preserved less. Alaïa’s dedication to collecting them, then, contributes massively to the preservation of fashion history.

“The Art of Draping” — presented in Atlanta, GA in collaboration with Fondation Azzedine Alaïa — engulfs visitors in beauty and wonder. It also tells a story of a deep connection across time and space for two great designers.

The show-stopping velvet cutout dress

The show-stopping velvet cutout dress

Towering at the entrance are four black dresses that stretch to the floor with a regal sprit. Draped fabrics around the neck flow behind like a cape. A low-cut gown flaunts the lower back, while an asymmetrical cap-sleeve style flows down with the grace of a waterfall. 

Walking deeper into the exhibit, you face an outpour of draped beauty. Richly textured red velvet traces a mannequin’s silhouette before skimming the floor as if to tease it. Crinkled gowns in pale yellow command one corner of the room, while sage-green garments capture viewers in another. A most striking black velvet cutout dress outlines the upper bodice with sensual-yet-simple cutouts. As if curving into a whirlpool anchored by the chest, one marigold-orange style’s intricate lines create a voluminous collar fit for a queen. 

Each Madame Grès design possesses the power to lure any onlooker with its meticulous details, as if a siren’s soul was captured in clothing.

Born Germaine Émilie Krebs in 1903, Madame Grès grew up wanting to be a sculptor, but her parents didn’t allow it. As she developed her skills in fashion design, she kept her desire to sculpt close, using fabrics to mold the feminine body. Her designs were minimalist and timeless, lending her garments the nickname of “goddess gowns.” 

With a style and design language so strong, Madame Grès’ clothes were indistinguishably hers. She became a leading French couturier from the 1930s through the 1980s; Alaïa rose to prominence during the same period, almost receiving a passed baton of couture.

Bright and shining from the corner of the room, this trio of gowns flaunts the talent of Madame Grès across varying silhouettes.

Bright and shining from the corner of the room, this trio of gowns flaunts the talent of Madame Grès across varying silhouettes.

“She was obsessed with timelessness — I think [Alaïa] was also looking for timelessness inside the work of Madame Grès, in order to understand how you could be timeless,” Saillard says. 

Madame Grès used lots of black and white, for example; when it came to ornamentation, she focused on draping the body rather than using prints and embroidery. Alaïa was similarly artful, his work known for timelessly celebrating the body with a foundation of sensuality. (He was even called the “king of cling” in the 1980s, with Uschka Pittroff once saying that wearing his clothes was “like being in a man’s passionate embrace.”) Alaïa sculpted the body like Madame Grès, but leaned into a broader range of techniques.

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His ardent collecting of Madame Grès garments (and her photos) is evidence of his curiosity and reverence for her style, which also inspired Cristobal Balenciaga.

Like Madame Grès, Alaïa was enthralled with fashion design from a lens of sculpture. Like her, his career spanned half a century, impressing a legacy of beauty and creativity. In line with her rebellious spirit, Alaïa was unafraid to call out the fashion industry’s habit of overproduction and consumption, instead following his own fashion calendar.

“It was a question of line: Azzedine was absolutely obsessed with doing clothes without any visible seams,” Sailard says, noting that both wanted to be sculptors. “The essence of Azzedine is the body.”

Olivier Saillard curated the exhibit from more than 900 pieces discovered across Alaïa's extensive collections.

Olivier Saillard curated the exhibit from more than 900 pieces discovered across Alaïa’s extensive collections.

“Doing an exhibition is to choose the first dress,” Saillard says. “The very first moment of an exhibition is very important.” 

Curating an exhibition from over 900 pieces is no easy task, especially when working with the collections of a lost friend. Alaïa’s apartments throughout Paris would be so filled with items, Saillard remembers, there were rooms one couldn’t enter.

“It became a privilege to discover the collection, but it was also very sad,” he says. “There’s a moment to collect — and Alaïa collected a lot — and now, it’s a moment for me to preserve, to show. But in fact, there’s an ambiguity between the joy. I have to show them without him.”

Lud models a dress by Alix, Madame Grès' first alias under which she opened a French couture house.

Lud models a dress by Alix, Madame Grès’ first alias under which she opened a French couture house.

“The Art of Draping” follows up the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film’s many rich offerings, which have included exhibits on and by Christian Siriano, Ruth E. Carter, Carolina Herrera, Pierre Cardin and Guo Pei. This latest project traces synchrony and hints at the undercurrent which connected two great designers across space and time.

“I have to confess. When you see the history of fashion through the great architects — like Balenciaga, Vionnet, Grès, Azzadine, Comme des Garçons — it’s another thing,” Saillard says. “I really think fashion could win something by going back to the clothes, not to the image.”

As Virgil Abloh broke fashion ground applying his architectural philosophies to fashion, Madame Grès crossed disciplines in a similar way to masterfully infuse garments with her sculptor’s touch. As the exhibit illustrates, Alaïa reveled in it, following in her footsteps. 

“The Art of Draping” is on view at the SCAD Fash Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, GA through June 30, 2023.

Disclosure: SCAD paid for Fashionista’s travel and accommodations to visit the exhibit.

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