Two days after CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner and recent alum Christopher John Rogers won New York Fashion Week with his stunning Fall 2020 runway, the Savannah College of Art and Design — his alma mater — opened “Alaïa-Adrian: Masters of Cut” at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta. The new exhibit, which runs through September 13, 2020, explores the connection between two headlining fashion and costume designers, Azzedine Alaïa and Gilbert Adrian, through the art of tailoring while exploring their lasting influence on style, entertainment, general culture and fellow designers.
Tunisian-born and Paris-based Alaïa — renowned for his precise laser-cutting and body-celebrating designs (and also for that line in “Clueless“) — long admired the strong silhouettes and dramatically inventive work of American costume designer and couturier Adrian. As the former head of costume design at MGM during the Golden Age of Hollywood (1928 to 1941), Adrian created still-famous looks for his muse, Greta Garbo, to wear on screen, plus plenty of other memorable fashion moments from film. (The ruby red bedazzled shoes he created for Judy Garland in 1939’s “Wizard of Oz” demonstrated technological advancement in movies with the introduction of technicolor.) He also dressed celebrated actors including Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford.
In 1942, Adrian brought his renowned padded-power-shoulder and slim-waisted silhouettes to women off-screen by opening his Beverly Hills atelier and launching a ready-to-wear line in specialty stores. (Alaïa and Adrian also shared a mutual client in Garbo, who commissioned the former’s custom-creations in her later reclusive years.)
“Alaïa was very fascinated by the idea of tailoring and the shoulders and the power woman. In the ’80s, Azzedine was very much that [in his designs],” Carla Sozzani, President of the Paris-based Association Azzedine Alaïa, told Fashionista prior to a panel discussion in the SCAD Show theater packed with students. She sat alongside fashion historian and the exhibit’s curator, Olivier Saillard, who was also a friend of the late Alaïa.
Over the years up to his passing in 2017, Alaïa, an avid fashion and art collector, amassed over 150 original pieces by Adrian. Last year, the Foundation Azzedine Alaïa in Paris debuted a precursor to this exhibit, titled “Adrian and Alaïa: The Art of Tailoring.” Sozzani explained that the joint exhibitions not only show a masterclass in tailoring, but also honor Alaïa’s wish to share Adrian’s acumen with the public.
“Adrian came first not only because A [comes first alphabetically], but also because Azzedine wanted to do it,” said Sozzani, who also founded the luxury concept boutique 10 Corso Como.
To bring the Alaïa-Adrian parallels to SCAD for “Masters of Cut”, Saillard adapted the curation and exhibition display with an educational focus on the principles of technique. “Azzedine was doing all these patterns himself,” said Sozzani. “Young people maybe need to start thinking about the technical part. Nobody does anymore.”
“Masters of Cut” emphasizes this meticulous skill, ingenuity, craft and resourcefulness through 27 suit-based looks per designer. The Alaïa designs run from the Winter 1986 to Winter 2012 collections, while Adrian’s span from 1942 to 1952.
“We decided to do a special display — very quiet, very calm — to give the designs a dignity and a majesty,” explained Saillard. The clean, minimal backdrop was inspired by the work of Irving Penn, known for his artful composition, often placing subjects in the corner of a portrait.
“I really hope that students will appreciate the technical approach,” said Saillard. “I don’t like the kind of exhibition with a lot of display — with a lot of mise en scène — a lot of decoration. Especially talking about Azzedine Alaïa: His dresses don’t need anything else except themselves.”
The straightforward configuration places Alaïa in the center of the room, to allow for 360-degree views of his work, which include include a sculpted-shoulder and double-breasted tuxedo jacket with leggings from Winter 1986, a cropped wool jacket paired with a hand-painted feather-trimmed skirt from Winter 2009 (both top) and a dramatically-shaped and plume-embroidered blazer over a starched collared shirt from Winter 1986 (directly above).
As a visual dialogue — and to depict his influence on the younger designer — Adrian’s pieces line three walls overlooking Alaïa’s. “Adrian is very interesting because the backs [of the jackets] are always very simple,” explained Saillard. “Because he used to work for the cinema, the front of the garments are more elaborate than the back.”
The through-line can be seen in the Hollywood designer’s strong silhouettes and attention to experimental flourishes, including “trompe l’oeil” pockets, collars and geometric appliqués. Alaïa also appreciated Adrian’s sartorial wit, as expressed through gold “moneybags” buttons, shaped like mini bank robber sacks, accenting a black wool crepe asymmetrically draped long jacket and a collar-less champagne military-style blazer.
Adrian’s imaginative but refined ornamentation — like fringe along V-shape seams or tiers of fluttering mini-squares lining a bodice — also speak to how the couturier creatively skirted (sorry) austerity regulations during World War II. Enacted in 1943, the L-85 law restricted the use of necessary materials, including wool needed for military uniforms. Women’s suit jackets couldn’t exceed 25 inches, and skirts 72 inches, in length, while pockets, cuffs and decorative adornments, like yoking and pleats, were banned or limited.
“It’s so important to look back and see what happened in the past and see how this is reflected in the clothes,” said Rafael Gomez, Director of Fashion Exhibitions, in the SCAD Show green room. “I always show our students the timeline. Times of revolution, war or when society was shaken [are when] fashion has the biggest change.” Gomez also hopes students can apply Adrian’s originality with fabric (and legal loopholes) into ways of utilizing excess fabric for today’s efforts toward “zero waste.”
“Masters of Cut” also includes 26 of Alaïa’s most iconic gowns, which first greet guests at the entrance. The edit includes the Summer 1984 purple lace-up and cowl-neck gown that Grace Jones wore to accompany the designer to the “Fashion Oscars” in Paris in 1987 (and brings an Adrian costume from his last 1952 film, “Lovely to Look At,” to mind); the Summer 1989 gold-beaded and very mini bustier dress worn by Tina Turner for a performance the same year (above right) and an armor-like metallic thread and sequin-embroidered raffia stunner from Winter 1996 (below, third from left). (Fun fact: Lady Gaga commissioned a white version of that dress, worn with what look to be red dishwashing gloves, for the 2015 Oscars.) The line-up also features the Winter 1981/82 black ruffle-hemmed zipper dress worn (kinda) by the Naomi Campbell in a famed 1987 photograph by Arthur Elgort.
Alaïa is also synonymous with the original ’80s and ’90s supers — Stephanie Seymour, Linda Evangelista, Helena Christensen, Veronica Webb — who modeled and often wore his glamorous creations. But the designer and Campbell had an especially close relationship dating back to her teenage years. (She famously called him “Papa.”) Campbell’s presence throughout Alaïa’s legacy remains permanent through the customized mannequins, which are molded to her famous measurements. The clear forms are then precisely cut to fit and hide beneath each of gowns.
“It gives the impression like the dresses are floating, like a ghost mannequin,” said Gomes.
“It [illustrates] strong volume and anti-volume. There is something very complex,” said Saillard of the one-of-a-kind mannequins, which Sozzani explained debuted in 1996 at a Florence exhibition. (The Adrian suits are also displayed on the Campbell-shaped forms, which were then custom-padded and shaped to fit into the mid-century pieces.)
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“Masters of Cut” showcases work which further Alaïa’s and Adrian’s legacies, especially with aspiring designers early on in their own careers. But there’s one specific piece of Alaïa’s that impacted Sozzani’s: a bold, body-skimming bustier gown, from Summer 1988, detailed with dainty silver pins (below). “It’s a very beautiful dress: per-fection,” she said. That year, as an editor overseeing Elle Italy, she had the gown photographed for the magazine’s cover.
“In fact, I got fired because of that dress, because Azzedine was French and he didn’t advertise. I was working for Italian Elle, so they fired me. It was never published,” claimed Sozzani.
“Azzedine was really proud. He would say, ‘Ah, my sister was fired for this.’ Then the dress got lost. Some model must have taken it,” she continued. “So when we did a retrospective, I said, ‘Azzedine, you have to [remake] my dress because it was one of the most beautiful dresses’ and he said, ‘Ah, no! This is impossible. So diiiifficult.'”
But the dedicated designer relented and constructed a replica of the leather-lined viscose knit gown for his longtime friend, who’s now committed to continuing his legacy to the next generation of designers — and fans.
‘Alaïa-Adrian: Masters of Cut‘ runs through Sept. 13, 2020 at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, Georgia.
Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodations to visit its exhibit in Georgia.