The Tunisian designer was one of the most talented and beloved figures of 20th Century fashion - here’s his story.
Alaïa was born in July 1939 in Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, and displayed a talent for the arts from childhood. In 1955 he began studying sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Tunis, having lied about his age to be accepted, before moving to Paris in 1957 to hone his fashion skills under the mentorship of Christian Dior, Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler.
It was, however, a tough time to be an immigrant in France. Alaïa lasted just five days at Dior (then helmed by Yves Saint Laurent) before issues were found with his papers. Thankfully for the fashion world, a pair of aristocratic women were convinced to set this aside and took him in as an au pair and dressmaker, introducing him to the society women who would become his first clients.
When his twin sister Hafida died, Alaïa began to shy away from the spotlight, switching his focus from ready-to-wear to the bespoke clientele that made his early name. Working from a space in the Marais that was boutique, atelier, showroom, storage for his extensive archive and functional bistro (he loved to cook) in one, Alaïa took on projects for some of the biggest names in fashion, including supermodel Stephanie Seymour, for whom he created a wedding dress in 1995 which reportedly took 1,600 hour to finish.
The same year the Alaïa label became a household name after Alicia Silverstone wore a classic scarlet Alaïa mini-dress as Cher Horowitz in Clueless. At the time Alaïa was well-known among fashion circles but hadn’t yet achieved mass popularity. The house’s name-check in Clueless cemented its place in pop-culture and introduced the designer to a new, younger generation of consumers who would become a key part of the brand’s customer base.
A return to the catwalk
In 2011 Alaïa staged his first catwalk show in seven years and was duly awarded with a standing ovation and front row which featured Donatella Versace and Sofia Coppola. The brand enjoyed continue success throughout the later years of Alaïa's life. In July 2017, Alaïa would stage his last show (again, after a hiatus of five years) and, on 18 November, 2017, Alaïa passed away aged 82 after suffering a heart attack. Following his death, the Alaïa brand was continued by his team before Pieter Mulier, formerly global creative director at Calvin Klein, was appointed as creative director in February 2021.