Regular visitors to Azzedine Alaïa’s historic headquarters in the Marais district of Paris are surely familiar with “the breast.” The monumental bronze sculpture by César, about the size of a pitcher’s mound, is installed in the main cobblestone courtyard — an emblem for the late designer’s formidable talent for exalting female curves with cloth.
A limited-edition print of the breast sculpture arrived along with the invitation to Pieter Mulier’s debut as the creative director of Maison Alaïa. So the test would be how Mulier, long the right hand of Raf Simons and associated with his cool, more conceptual approach to fashion, would adapt to a more sensual, warm-blooded fashion universe.
Pretty well, it turns out. Mulier opened his outdoor display — with guests seated on wooden chairs lining the street — with an interpretation of Alaïa’s famous hooded tailoring from 1984: here a length of wool draped over the head with two geometric panels drifting over the bosom and covering only what’s necessary. There were also plenty of hobbling tube dresses — so tight you couldn’t hide a Tic Tac — with seams swooping around the breasts and abdomen.
The collection unfurled as something of a greatest hits of the acclaimed Tunisian designer; here some high-waisted denim and trailing white shirts, there his hole-punched corset belts, one with the mouthwatering red gleam of a candied apple. The audience — which included designers Pierpaolo Piccioli, Matthew Williams and Victoire de Castellane, architect Jean Nouvel, LVMH executive Sidney Toledano, and the actors Monica Bellucci and Owen Wilson — lapped it up, rising to their feet at the conclusion of the show, which fell precisely four years since Mr. Alaïa’s last display.
Mulier called it a “distillation” of the founder’s work, gleaned mainly from memory, a few books and the skills of the atelier, rather than an archive crawl. With such a wide swath of an homage, the main message that came across was respect and reverence, along a more abstract interpretation of the brand that at times felt forced.
“I wanted to look at 40 years of Alaïa and start with the first codes that I would like to translate to the younger generation,” Mulier said. “We are a house that is very, very sensual and sexual, but never vulgar. We’re the only house actually that can do that.”
When Richemont, the owner of Maison Alaïa, approached Mulier, the Belgian designer was adamant that he didn’t want to make sneakers or nylon sportswear. The athleisure juggernaut has ensnared some of the biggest names in luxury and couture, and Richemont was fine to keep Alaïa as a torchbearer of dressy, sculptural and slower fashion. The house plans to present only two collections a year, awkwardly categorized as winter-spring and summer-fall.
“He always did the same thing, but made it better each time,” Mulier mused about the founder. “It’s the opposite of what the fashion world is now, where everything always has to be new. That’s the beauty of this house.”