Azzedine Alaia passed away on Saturday at the age of 77 - Feb 15, 1996 Azzedine Alaia passed away on Saturday at the age of 77 - Feb 15, 1996

With the passing of Azzedine Alaïa, fashion loses a true independent spirit.

Known as “The King of Cling,” the 77-year-old gained an almost mystical status by resisting the pressures of what he called the “inhuman” fashion industry. While fashion week schedules became increasingly cramped and hectic, he broke with the calendar and began producing clothing on his own schedule, only releasing a collection when he was totally satisfied with it. When he was offered the creative director position at Dior, he turned it down.

Though he could have expanded production a hundred-fold, he kept to his personal studio — which, infamously, was on the Rue de Bellechasse before he relocated in Paris. Everyone who is lucky enough to own an Alaïa original can be sure that the garment began on one of Alaïa’s mannikins or models. He was notorious for adjusting each creation until it was perfect, testing the fabric for its draping qualities.

The way the material of an Alaïa dress falls is what gives the label special appeal, allowing savvy onlookers to identify the marque at once. Not many labels can really claim this distinction. But Alaïa was a true master, devoted to the core purpose of clothing. “Every piece is handmade,” reported Business of Fashion alongside a rare interview with the designer. “The clothes are there to make women even more beautiful.”

Indeed, form and function are intimately tied together in each Alaïa design. Some of his high-profile appreciators include Lady Gaga, Kendall JennerRihanna, and Oprah. With that caliber of clientele, it’s no wonder he didn’t need to advertise.

Astounding apparel is one thing — an unswerving devotion to method is another. BOF suggested in 2011 that Alaïa was an “antidote to a relentless fashion system,” in the sense that he always took the time to perfect his art. Among the outpouring of appreciation that has risen up in response to his death, Editor in Chief of W Magazine Stefano Tonchi’s observation is keenest: “His legacy is about art and freedom in an industry that has often lost the connection with its own reason to be.”

In a similar vein, Creative Director for Town & Country Nicoletta Santoro went further with an echo of BOF’s 2011 prediction: “His obstinate individuality and his insistence on his creative point of view could even contain answers for the future of fashion.”

Alaïa’s own pronouncements on the industry ring out clearest of all: “Designers working for big houses like Dior or Vuitton have no time to reflect,” he told BOF. “We can’t just squeeze the young talents out like lemons and then throw them away. Four collections for women, four collections for men, another four collections to sell, and everything needs do be done within four-five months — it’s a one-way course towards emptiness. It’s inhuman … I refuse to work in a static rhythm. Why should I sacrifice my creativity to that? That’s not fashion, that’s industrial work.”

While he is primarily known and respected for his mastery of fabric, Alaïa’s shoes are also adored. Even with accessories, there is an identifiable aesthetic that marks each creation as an Alaïa. The ankle strap models accented with adorable little spheres, for one, spread like wildfire among celebrity circles and always stand out on the red carpet.

Despite his success, Alaïa never took anything for granted. “I’ve been trying to manipulate clothes for thirty years, but I know I can still get better,” he confessed in 2011. “Sometimes I redo one thing five, six times. I am always in doubt; I am never sure of myself.”

The French couturier never lost his modesty, just as he never allowed his sartorial vision to be obscured. The location of his Paris studio on the Rue de Bellechasse summed up what he was all about: an authentic chase for beauty. A paragon of drive, purpose, and zeal, the fashion world owes him a debt that will only mount higher as time goes on. — jas