PARIS — Of all Western garments, it may be the corset that best illustrates the old adage that one must suffer to be beautiful. But Mr. Pearl, the notoriously reclusive designer who has furnished corsets for many fashion houses and glamorous dames, including Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kylie Minogue and Dita Von Teese, doesn't see it that way.
Today, Pearl, 46, known for his own 18-inch waist, fields private orders from his thimble-sized atelier here in the shadow of Notre Dame. "The bells ring so hauntingly all the time," said the soft-spoken designer, settling into a chair for a rare interview in which he recounted his fascination with the silhouette-enhancing device.
Pearl, who is probably best known for his collaboration with Thierry Mugler in the Nineties, has remained an éminence grise in the fashion world, well-regarded but elusive because of a disposition intimates describe as shy and fragile. Yet on the subject of the corset, Pearl is emphatic, stating that it's no object of torture and rather a "perfectly healthy" beauty aid.
"To me, a corseted body, with the shape of the indentation at the waist, is beauty in extreme; it represents absolute femininity," he said, tugging on the sleeves of his Chinese silk jacket. "[Corsets] are often viewed as lewd objects, but it's not that way at all."
Pearl first encountered tight lacing as a small boy, growing up with his grandmother in Johannesburg. "Every day I would watch her fastening her salmon-pink corset in front of a three-way mirror," said Pearl, noting that she needed it for medical reasons. "I was always particularly excited when she got a brand new one that arrived in a beautiful box."
His love of the garment re-surfaced while he was studying ballet as a teenager in London, a time when he worked on theater and ballet productions during holidays. Eventually, he set about taking old corsets apart to study their construction and began wearing them to experience first-hand their impact on the body.
"No school exists for making corsets. I learned a great deal from one English lady who collected them and who had a great knowledge of what a tight-lace corset requires," said Pearl, whipping out a headless photo of her torso, her waist reduced to the width of her neck. When worn over a long period, the corset concertinas the ribs and free-floating ribs, compressing them into the spine and in turn lengthening the spinal column. In fact, Pearl said the body adapts to such a degree that, after it does so, to go without one is tantamount to being like a snail without its shell."Breathing does become a problem, but it does not affect digestion," said Pearl, sounding as if he had just run up a short flight of stairs. "It can really modify one's body to quite an extreme point through time and patience."
By 1989, Pearl had established a network of private clients and moved to New York to freelance as a costume and corset maker, jetting over to Paris regularly to work with Mugler. "Mugler really understands silhouettes like not many others do," said Pearl, describing his most lavish work for the designer as one scaly half-fish, half-animal corseted creation that sported a metallic breastplate.
Today, however, he steers clear of the time constraints and stress that accompany fashion shows, opting instead to focus on private orders. And while Pearl finds working with celebrities extremely rewarding, out of all his clients it's an American, Cathy Young, who most impresses him, since she's the proud owner of a 15-inch waist. "To see her is very powerful," said Pearl. "It's an extremely disciplined art."
Queen Maud of Norway and Margot Fonteyn figure among Pearl's other icons, illustrated in postcards that decorate his walls, as does Grace Jones, whose CD propped atop a radio points to the designer's disco side. "It would be interesting if people would consider [corsets], since I believe liposuction and plastic surgery are quite ugly acts by comparison, and the results are not quite as becoming," Pearl said. "What a corset lace can do is much more attractive."
“Azzedine has been one of the biggest influences in my life. He has always been such a strong, loving, fatherly figure to me. I call him Papa. His designs are indescribably unique, they are pieces of art. He knew how to make the female form look its loveliest. I have so many memories of him; my favorite might be during my first show with him in Paris. He liked me and he wanted to help me get more work. He called all his friends at Kenzo and Comme des Garcons, and asked them to book me. They said, ‘But she can’t walk!’ And he said, ‘but she has such a great ass!' His friendship and support has been the great privilege of my career. I can't imagine life without him. Repose en paix mon Papa.” - @stephanieseymour tells @wwd. #wwdfashion (📷: @steveeichner) #alaia #azzedinealaia
Azzedine Alaïa, flanked by two of his closest friends, models Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell.
He designed Seymour’s dress for her 1995 wedding to Peter Brant, and treated Campbell (who famously called him Papa), like a daughter. For more on the legendary designer, tap the link in bio. #wwdfashion #alaia #azzedinealaia
Azzedine Alaïa's “I-did-it-my-way” ethos stood out starkly at a time when brands are experimenting with consumer-facing fashion shows, coed formats and trans-seasonal collections – anything to perk up lackluster sales of ready-to-wear in an age of Insta-everything. “It’s not creation anymore. This becomes a purely industrial approach,” the late designer told WWD in an interview last year. “But anyway, the rhythm of collections is so stupid. It’s unsustainable. There are too many collections.” Read more about the iconic designer’s life and work on wwd.com, link in bio. #wwdfashion #azzedinealaia (📷: @WWD Archive, 1986) #alaia
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Azzedine Alaïa, one of the most iconic couturiers of the modern era whose body-con designs defined Eighties fashion, has died in Paris. The diminutive Tunisian-born designer, known for his structured knitted dresses with fitted waists and impeccably cut, figure-hugging second skin silhouettes was deeply admired by his peers, and counted supermodel Naomi Campbell - his adoptive daughter - among his inner circle, one of a gang of glamazons including Farida Khelfa, Carla Bruni and Stephanie Seymour who became ambassadors of his style. (📷: Alexandre Guirkinger) #wwdblast