On any given year, Carla Sozzani could be championed as a lasting, yet always questioning force in fashion. But this year she is being heralded with the Fashion 4 Development award for her efforts to immortalize another fashion power — Azzedine Alaïa.
As multidimensional and demanding as her career has been as a publisher, gallerist and 10 Corso Como founder, she has chiseled out a serious chunk of time to preserve the legacy of her friend Alaïa, who died in 2017. Staying true to the Tunisian-born couturier’s wishes, Sozzani’s commitment to his legacy includes showcasing the work of other designers who stand the test of time. Today’s fashion show of Alaïa’s work at F4D’s First Ladies Luncheon magnifies his designs through the years and Sozzani and the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation, of which she is president, will be honored with the F4D Development award.
Over lunch at 10 Corso Como’s outdoor café in New York with F4D’s founder Evie Evangelou this summer, Sozzani spoke admiringly of Alaïa and his well-laid plans to help educate and inspire a new wave of designers. Twelve years after the Association Azzedine Alaïa was founded by Alaïa, his partner Christoph von Weyhe and Sozzani, there are now 22,000 of the designer’s pieces — excluding accessories — and 15,000 couture pieces from Schiaparelli, Charles James, Adrian, Madame Grès and others that the designer had collected. As of press time, an application to become a foundation with a public interest — as in a museum — had been filed and was expected to be ratified. The all-purpose plan involves engaging with a variety of consumers, designers, students and cultural institutions through exhibitions, installations, artist residencies, awards and other initiatives.
Sozzani recalled meeting Alaïa 40 years ago at a friend’s insistence, while working as a Vogue editor. “He was only doing couture. We became friends immediately. We never left each other,” she recalled fondly, adding how their bonds extended beyond fashion. “Azzedine had a great sense of humor. Family and friendships were important. He liked to have fun. Independent of the fact that he was an amazing designer, there was also this personal aspect. Sweet is not the word, because he was not always sweet. But he was very close with the people that he loved. He was very supportive, very faithful — always there for his friends. The table was always ready to invite people for lunch.”
Egalitarianism was a priority. “He had this Mediterranean openness in that everybody is the same. There isn’t one that is more important than the other. You could be the queen or the cleaning lady. For him, it was equal. His table was always open so people knew that they could just pass by for lunch,” she said. “Sometimes there were the most amazing people, but there was always a mix of people. It was not like, ‘Today we organize a lunch at Azzedine’s for VIPs.’ For Azzedine, that didn’t exist.”
In a similar spirit, the foundation welcomes all sorts of audiences. Plans are under way for exhibitions of the designer’s work and his couture collections are held at 18 Rue de la Verrerie, where he lived and worked. Exhibitions are being planned for his other residence in Northern Tunisia’s Sidi Bou Said. Last fall, the Maison Alaïa bookstore, La Librairie, opened just off the storied kitchen at 18 Rue de la Verrerie. And in July, the association joined forces with The New School Parsons Paris’ fashion studies program to launch an “Archiving Fashion” course for master of arts students. Jessica Glasscock, a research associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, advised four students about cataloguing and collecting.
Sozzani is still at the helm of 10 Corso Como, the store-gallery-café she started in Milan and expanded to New York last year. “The [Alaïa] foundation has taken a lot of time. What is so strange is when you do something for yourself, sometimes you take your time. Or you think, ‘I’m going to do it tomorrow.’ It’s less precise. But as I promised Azzedine I would do it, I take it so seriously. In a way, it’s good. He deserves it. I promised and I’m doing it,” Sozzani said.
This fall’s F4D tribute resonates with Sozzani in another heartfelt way, since her late sister Franca was deeply committed to the nonprofit. “She went to Africa. She was working very hard. For her, it was not about a title. Franca was all about action,” said Sozzani.
Having studied sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts in his native Tunis, Alaïa was fastidious about fit and his skills helped ensure a timelessness, according to Sozzani. “He used to say, ‘I am not a designer. I am a couturier.’ I think in the history of fashion, there is nobody like him. There is nobody with that integrity of work for that long a period. He always kept every single piece that he made.”
She continued, “He left everything so clear about what his legacy should be. That is quite rare. Many people think they are immortal. He started the association to protect all of his collection in 2007 — more than 10 years before he passed away. He wanted young people to see his work and the work of other masters. Nothing can be worn by actresses and VIPs. He left a whole list of how to protect the clothes. He was very precise. He wanted the foundation to be for the public interest.”
Alaïa started collecting other designers’ work by buying Cristóbal Balenciaga pieces “for peanuts,” when Maison Balenciaga was closing in 1968, Sozzani said. Members of Alaïa’s inner circle continue to find battered shopping bags with flea market and auction finds that the designer bought and stashed. “He spent fortunes collecting. I don’t think he even knew what he had in the end. We find stuff everywhere. It is like a treasure chest. Azzedine used to go to auctions and bid against museums, because he had no budget. He had no sense of money so he bought. Olivier [Saillard, the association’s director] told me that many auction houses called him after Azzedine passed away and said we lost 50 percent of our business,” she said, laughing.
An Adrian exhibition featuring 300 pieces was on view in Paris over the summer. Next year an exhibition highlighting the work of Balenciaga and Alaïa will be staged in conjunction with the Museum of Balenciaga to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Balenciaga’s birth. That will bow in Paris during couture. The idea was planted last year by Hubert de Givenchy, who spoke of this ”dream,” during a kitchen visit with von Weyhe, Saillard and Sozzani.
Along with diehard devotees like Naomi Campbell and Stephanie Seymour, Alaïa was largely admired by young people. Plans are underway to create an Alaïa award for young talents that could be bestowed as early as next summer. Part of the impetus for helping the less privileged is due to the fact that Alaïa “came to Paris with no papers and no money during the Algerian war. He really did everything by himself. It was a very long, tough life. It will be nice to do something in his name,” Sozzani said.
In electing to work for established luxury houses rather than try to be independent, freshly minted designers have to express somebody else’s point of view. The reverse requires a different degree of discipline. “To be an artisan and couturier like Azzedine is to work in solitude. You need to be by yourself, concentrate, work with your hands, and be connected to your mind. Azzedine used to work at night by himself — all night. It’s a choice of life. If you want to party all the time, you cannot be a couturier,” Sozzani said.
According to Sozzani, the designer’s mother inspired his sense of freedom. “He often talked about his mother. She left his father. She left the children in Tunisia. He must have been five in 1940. She left everybody. She went to live alone. But not because she had another man. She just needed freedom. He always said, ‘I’m free — like my mom,’” Sozzani said. “He was a free spirit. He never wanted to do anything that was against his point of view or what his integrity was. That’s very rare — not to compromise.”