Rough And Elegant. Alaïa SS23

This is Pieter Mulier‘s third season for Alaïa. The Belgian designer has already proved that he understands the codes of Azzedine Alaïa, and is capable to convey them to a contemporary audience with grace, sophistication and refinement. The spring-summer 2023 fashion show, which opened the haute couture week in Paris, was, however, the designer’s most turbulent line-up. It seems that Mulier wanted to tackle far too many Alaïa themes and in the end, the collection read as overcharged and, well, messy. Of course, each garment put separate is a masterful work of artistry and tailoring – we are speaking of Monsieur Alaïa’s studio know-how – but the overall of the collection needed an edit. But let’s start from the beginning.

Mulier invited people to the unfinished space that will be the new Alaia store on the Faubourg St. Honoré – an architectural work-in-progress that he saw as the perfect foil for the feeling of his third collection: “something rough and something elegant at the same time.” It crackled with energy; the models collectively channeling a modern vision of the glamazonian power of female physicality that was born in this house in the ’80s. As if to emphasize that it’s dressing the body he’s talking about, Mulier opened with second-skin almost-sheer stretch silk layered bodysuits, the first with a single trompe l’oeil pearl-drop nipple “piercing.” What followed flowed into all kinds of sophisticated twists and turns of draping, wrapping, ruching, and knotting, interspersed with the kind of anatomical knitted body-dresses that are an Alaia wonder. Eyes fell to the footwear: long-haired boots cuffed with huge metallic bangles on cubic lucite heels; black lacquer stiletto heels in the shape of a naked woman’s legs. Mulier has an instinct for the extreme accessory which chimes with today’s hunger for the surreal. The chunky bangles, his own invention, are bound to trigger bounty-hunters, but the suggestive stilettos were reissued Azzedine originals from 1992. Mulier said he’d never had the chance to explore drape in his former jobs (at Christian Dior and Calvin Klein), but if that was ever an ambition, he’s come to the right place. Alaia is staffed with people who have a spectacular and nuanced repertoire of technical skills which enable Mulier to model ideas in 3-D; to make dresses that rely on asymmetry, hip-ruching, suspension, and the North African influences which Alaia used as a source of innovation.

Mulier said he’d been “obsessed with a 1984 show, which not many people know, because Azzedine was basically draping with viscose, and also draping with leather.” In emulating the latter – the leather and shearling – he left edges raw and invented a version of perforated black leather – almost like paillettes – to make a rough-edged t-shirt and tiny skirt that Tina Turner would have worked to the max. The knack of it was to make the complex look almost spontaneous. Again, the craftsmanship amazed, yet the the final result unfortunately felt heavy. There’s a sense that Mulier is learning on the job all the time, and finding the creative balance between respecting the brand’s codes and his own vision of contemporary relevance. It takes time for people to get to know and understand each other in any house where there’s an atelier. The spectacularly erotic finale dress – this one would make Azzedine proud. Somehow, it consisted of a black velvet skirt, suspended from a ribbon-belt, the central drape radiating, by some magic, from a line of vertical geometric transparent paillettes. And on the top, a sheer black long sleeve bodysuit. It looked astonishing enough, walking sinuously towards you, but the real impact of this genius construct was in the back. The draped swoop of the skirt dipped down just a fraction below the line of the bodysuit. Above it was the belt, tied nonchalantly in a bow. As I’ve mentioned earlier: the new Alaïa keeps the extremely high standards of garment-construction. I just wish Mulier would introduce some much-needed lightness to his work, so that these exquisite looks could truly speak, and not fight for space. That’s one of Monsieur Azzedine’s main ethoses: find the right balance.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

NET-A-PORTER Limited

Powerful Beauty. Alaïa AW22

Second collections are always the most difficult to pull off, especially when done for a legendary maison like Alaïa, where the heaviness of legacy might simply overwhelm the most talented designer. Great news: Pieter Mulier nailed it. For autumn-winter 2022, “we translated the DNA of Alaïa with a little bit more of what I like,” he said after the show presented at Azzedine Alaïa’s “cathedral” (the Marais building holding the brand’s atelier, flagship boutique, foundation and the late designer’s home). “It’s basically about beauty. It’s the next step after the last collection: a push forward. I didn’t want a concept. Just beautiful girls and beautiful clothes.” Beyond Alaïa’s loyal following, Mulier is faced with bringing the brand into the consciousness of new generations. His method seems to be this: stick to the codes but turn up the volume. He did so in a collection largely dedicated to bell-bottoms derived from Azzedine Alaïa’s Spanish skirt shapes. Their presence was determined, from denim bell-bottoms to a one-legged jumpsuit bell-bottom and bell-bottoms attached to thigh-high boots that bounced up and down and looked like chopped-off bloomers. The silhouette was echoed in dresses like those of Mulier’s first collection with lively mermaid hems, and in ladylike peplums on skirts that were positively polite compared to their effervescent cousins. While jaunty bell-bottoms are sure to get attention on the daily algorithm scroll of younger generations, there were more intellectually intriguing elements to Mulier’s collection. A series of knitted dresses with face coverings executed in close collaboration with the Picasso Foundation (Azzedine Alaïa was a collector and friend of the family) interpreted ceramics created by the artist in the 1940s through impressive embroideries that turned the models’ physiques into optical illusions. “There’s a rough, pagan beauty about it. Ultimate goddesses,” Mulier said of the dresses. Exactly that component was an interesting contrast in a collection otherwise embodied by upbeat sass and glamour. They kind of cut right through the fun and made you take notice. If they inspired a surrealist streak in the collection, it was there in the biker and flight jackets Mulier morphed into body-con dresses, padding and all, or the dress made entirely out of Alaïa multi-buckle belts. A variety of coats showed what a new Alaïa could also be: big, enveloping shapes borrowed from the gentleman’s wardrobe and sculpted in thick wools, then nipped-in delicately at the bottom of the back to define a feminine silhouette. Mulier said that “the little bit more” he had added of himself to the collection’s genetics was mainly tailoring-focused. That was clear in those coats, but also in louche suits and tuxedos, which accomplished a delicately oversized line that didn’t get overwhelming. Love, love, love!

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Down Rue De Moussy. Alaïa SS22

Since the much-mourned passing of Azzedine Alaïa in 2017, the maison was lead by the monsieur’s studio and largely focused on delivering beautiful tribute re-editions. In the beginning of 2021, however, the brand decided to go forward. Stepping onto the Rue de Moussy on Sunday with a debut collection honoring the legacy of Alaïa was a statement which radiated both respect and confidence from Pieter Mulier. Of course, the location couldn’t be more symbolic. Redolent of the culture revered by insiders – it’s the street on which Alaïa opened his first boutique (which up to now is also the label’s studio) and is home now to the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation. Mulier’s arrival came with the serendipitous energy of timing: the fact that right now, there could hardly be anything more relevant, more new, to young women than the post-pandemic surge in desire for ‘body-conscious’ dressing. The term itself was coined to describe the visceral uniqueness of Alaia’s work almost 40 years ago. “For me, it’s about how to explain the codes [Alaïa invented] to a new generation,” said Mulier. All those codes were embodied in the sinuous and slinky dresses, the flippy black skirts, the draped hoods, the flowing silk capes, the black leather – everything using all the techniques of incredible knitwear, body-sculpting cut, and house fabrics. “I wanted to make it democratic again,” is the way Mulier put it, pointing out the cross-references with, say, the leggings “that everyone wears today” or, no doubt, hoodies. But in Alaïa-world, these things are transformed into objects of the utmost sophistication: leggings that are a hybrid of cycling shorts and stockings, head-drapes that become almost goddess-like. “I wanted it to be the opposite of sportswear,” said Mulier emphatically. It’s creating fashion with an ultra-glamour that also has “ease” that he finds interesting. “They don’t like the word ‘sexual’ here, but I do. Because to me, this is the only house in the world which is sexual without being vulgar. It’s actually about pure beauty, and working on the body, which I have never seen anywhere else.

Mulier left his last job at Calvin Klein in 2018, in the aftermath of the departure of Raf Simons, and he said he spent a long time feeling demoralized by the industry. “I thought I wouldn’t do fashion any more. After New York, I really thought it was finished for me,” he said. Though he didn’t have a public profile, Mulier was well known as a highly experienced professional who’d been Simons’s right hand in womenswear at Christian Dior and Jil Sander before that. Several companies came courting, but he was in no frame of mind to pitch his fortunes in with big business again. “I took a long break. I really wanted something small. Something human-scale.” And that is what Azzedine Alaïa, the house, presented. Although owned by the luxury conglomerate Richemont, the house in Paris is still more or less family-scale, populated by the experts who worked with Alaïa and have continued producing the collections since he died. “There’s stuff here I didn’t know was possible,” Mulier exclaimed, pointing out a strapless, corseted black leather dress. “We moulded it out of triple-layer leather, from one hide.” To some pieces, like the iconic perforated leather belt – part of the famous house output for decades – he added his own iridescent twist: “I wanted to put it in the show from the beginning. We found a leather with reflective film, like a mirror. I thought that modernized it in a second,” he said. “That’s the gesture I like: that you don’t touch too much because it’s already perfect. Just with little things.” In the IRL event, there was loud applause from the audience as Mulier ran out to give one embrace to Alaïa’s life-partner Christoph von Weyhe, and another to his own, the designer Matthieu Blazy. It felt like a passing of the flame to a new-generation safe pair of hands who comes with no plan to trample over too many of the boundaries set by the man who famously and stubbornly went against the pressure of industry norms that didn’t make sense to him. For Mulier, that applied to his skeptical approach to all things social media. “I don’t think it’s a house made for social media, even though I’m on it myself,” he observed. “It’s such a small brand, like an artwork that I want to take care of. We’ll build a family slowly.”

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.