Pieter Mulier: Alaïa And I

Pieter Mulier met Azzedine Alaïa only once, backstage at a Christian Dior show during Raf Simons tenure at the house. There was no hint of kismet. Their conversation was purely technical because Azzedine, ever the fashion obsessive, was studying the construction of the dresses, inside and out. But he used to come to all the Dior shows, and an awestruck Mulier, who was Simons lieutenant, would watch him in the audience from the backstage monitors.

“He was sitting on the bench with Sidney [Toledano, then Dior’s chief executive] and every time a dress passed, he would clap, like a child looking at something he liked. And I always think about that moment because even in fittings, when I get really excited, I also clap.” Those fittings are now taking place in the Alaïa studio, where the Belgian designer, now 43, is marking his first year as creative director of the label that Azzedine launched in 1982. Kismet, after all.

On Sunday night, he presented his second Alaïa collection. In a pre-show conversation, he described it as very much in line with his first, with the same mix of ready-to-wear and couture. “It’s still based on the big codes of Alaïa because I think it’s important to explain that again to the younger generation that really don’t know the brand, but it’s pushed much further into an extremity of silhouette. It’s all about silhouette. The concept is a mix between masculine and feminine. There’s much more tailoring, because I think of Azzedine as a tailor, not a dressmaker. Even his knitwear was tailored. So, it’s a step forward. And it’s more me mixed with the house, I think…” Mulier hesitates. “I hope.”

When the prodigiously workaholic Azzedine died at the age of 82 in 2017, he famously left thousands of sketches, maybe enough to satisfy his coterie of devotees and keep the business ticking over for a while, but not a permanent solution for Swiss conglomerate Richemont, which has owned Alaïa since 2007. Still the fact it took over three years to appoint a new creative director could be taken as a measure of the challenge Richemont faced in finding someone who could take on one of the most personal, technically accomplished legacies in fashion.

Mulier was the kind of industry secret that fashion cognoscenti had long had eyes on, first as Simons’ right hand at his men’s label, and then working with him at Jil Sander, Christian Dior and Calvin Klein. That extraordinary chameleon education somehow qualified him for the equally extraordinary position at Alaïa. “I think one of the reasons why I was with Raf for such a long time in all those houses was because it was always new for me,” Mulier muses. “My biggest love was at Dior Couture. Everything that couture represented opened my mind at Dior. It changed me. So, it’s nice to come back to it here, to find it in the love of all these men and women in Azzedine’s atelier.”

But “deadly afraid” is Mulier’s description of his state of mind when he considered Richemont’s offer. “We all grew up with the idea of Azzedine as the epitome of everything we know in fashion. But I have to say once I arrived here, the nervousness just fell away. It gives me a sense of purpose to work here, a purpose that I didn’t have before. I don’t know how I can explain it better.” Elusive explanations suit the essential unknowability of Azzedine. The mystique of the man remains Mulier’s ongoing riddle. “He worked alone, and that’s so important in the whole story. He didn’t explain anything to his team, except techniques. It was all in his head and he made it himself. It must have been such a difficult creative process. That’s why he was a genius.”

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When Mulier started at Alaïa, he naturally looked to the studio team who had actually worked with the man for guidance. Is it Alaïa? What would Azzedine think? “And they were saying nothing. Then a few weeks later, you start to get to know each other a little bit better, and I asked again, ‘Is it Alaïa?’ They said, ‘It’s Alaïa when you think it’s Alaïa.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I agree.’ And then they helped me with it. They explained to me a little bit how Azzedine was. And, so, he’s constantly there, which I like.”

So, with the insight he has garnered over the past year, what does Mulier think Alaïa is? “A form and femininity that’s very powerful. Just purely about beauty. It has not so much to do with fashion as we know it and as I always used to love it. It’s about a certain classicism, that Azzedine twisted completely to his hand, like a sculptor. It’s about detail. And it’s about pure, pure femininity, sexual and very sensual, without a touch of vulgarity.”

What I bring to Alaïa is something mathematical that wasn’t in the house.

He feels Azzedine’s vision was too extreme to be at all romantic, and in that almost-pragmatism, Mulier may curiously have found something of himself. “I’m from the North, so I think what I bring to Alaïa is something mathematical that wasn’t in the house. In English it’s difficult to explain. Again, maybe a purity? The second collection is much more pure. There was an Alaïa couture show from 2003 that was one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen. There was a purity of silhouette that Azzedine always had in the ‘80s, even the ‘90s, nearly sculpting with clothes, which, without criticising, I think got lost at some point. That’s what I would like to bring to the house.”

Mathematics makes me think of precision so, with Azzedine Alaïa being a designer who was always to-the-millimetre precise, I’m trying to grasp what Mulier means here. Is he perhaps talking about definition? “Yeah, that’s possible, because Alaïa is a big name, but in the end, a very small house. My studio is three people, so everything is touched by a very limited amount of people. We have time to think, you don’t lose a lot of energy with a lot of talking, which actually comes from Azzedine himself, and I would love to keep that because it gives this clarity. You know, when you look at clothes, you’re only three in the room. At Dior, we were 15 in the fitting. It’s easier to work on the definition because there’s not so much noise around. You get led by emotion. It’s strange to have emotion and definition in one sentence, but basically that’s it. I mean, it’s not a fitting of 10 minutes on a dress. We fit it for days, we look at the same dress constantly. And I hope you will see that it’s very defined, it’s very precise.

Something that Mulier relishes is that it is a completely new way of working for him, the opposite of what he’s been used to. “We don’t start with sketching, never give a sketch to the atelier,” he explains. “They work immediately on the body. It’s not French at all to work like that. Sometimes, I wonder what they’re doing, and then it comes out and poof! — it’s perfect.

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Another departure for Mulier is that all the collections he worked on with Raf Simons were built around narratives. That was never Azzedine’s way. “And I have to say I think it’s very fresh to work like that. I get easily excited about little things in fashion. With the atelier, with the studio, we get excited about a little piece of fabric and it’s the beginning of something and I always think that Azzedine also worked like that. The big narratives, the big concepts, the season-by-season changes? This is not the house for them. It should be linear. One collection should go into the other. Like Azzedine designed a skirt in 1988 and redid it in 1989 because it was better. And he brought it back in 1992 even better. For him it was about continuity. So, my second collection is a continuation of the first.

The only thing that has changed is that I opened the studio to multiple people around me.” The music, for instance, is composed by Gustave Rudman Rambali, whom Mulier met at a dinner in August. Rambali has worked with Woodkid and The Weeknd, amongst others, as well as on the award-winning soundtrack for the TV sensation “Euphoria.” He sat in on all Mulier’s fittings and delivered a 40-minute piece of music which he recorded with a string orchestra in Budapest.

Mulier also collaborated with the Picasso Foundation on a handful of knitted dresses based on the Tanagras, female forms sculpted in the 40s by the artist. “Azzedine and Picasso’s son Claude were very close,” he explains, “and it’s also a little nod to Raf and the famous three sweaters he did at Jil.” He describes the knits as “rough beauty, not very elegant-looking, like the Tanagras themselves. It’s the idea of Azzedine as a sculptor of fashion, mixed with Picasso, mixed with my world also, because Raf taught me everything I know about art.”

True, the cultural cross-pollination echoes Mulier’s time with Simons, where musicians, artists and filmmakers would be drawn into contributing. It was Simons who reset him on his course to fashion when he was on a jury judging students at Mulier’s college in 2001. “I was studying architecture and Raf said, ‘You’re not an architect, you’re a fashion designer.’ He was so direct with me. I thought he was crazy. But my girlfriend at the time agreed with him. So, I called him the next day and three months later I went to work for him.”

During his near-two decades with Simons, it wasn’t only his mentor’s knowledge of art he was soaking up. “He also taught me nearly everything I know about fashion: the extremity, the beauty, the magic of fashion, when, for instance, a collection or a show is a perfect mirror of what’s going on in the world.” Mulier adds, a trifle wryly, “It was his view, of course. My view came afterwards.”

Frédéric Tcheng’s 2014 film “Dior and I,” which followed Simons through his couture debut, illuminated the yin/yang dynamic between the two Belgians: Raf often in his head, cerebral; Pieter in the room, charming les petites-mains, physical. He refers often to the intense sexuality of Azzedine’s designs. “He could make clothes do a striptease on the female form, so erotically sculpted were they,” was one of the more memorable critical paeans to Azzedine’s celebration of women. “I worried if it was in my nature because I never did that before with Raf,” says Mulier. He’s been a quick study.

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“We delivered the first collection on December 15th, and I’m astonished what is selling is everything that is body-conscious and sensual. We have waiting lists for the transparent dresses with the curves and the cut-outs. What I felt when I came here was that the house no longer emphasised that hyper-feminine sexual creature from the ‘80s and early ‘90s like that, and I think I was quite right to return the emphasis because it’s the first thing that sells out.”

During these homebound months-come-years, I’ve taken the time to dredge back through decades of clippings, consummate hoarder that I am, and I came across a Women’s Wear Daily piece from October 1986 titled “The Rise and Fall of Azzedine Alaïa.” It detailed how the brand had gone off its white-hot boil due to Azzedine’s defiance of the fashion industry’s conventional modus operandi. Put simply, he wouldn’t play the media game, or stick to the tradition fashion calendar, and that intransigence subsequently became a pillar of the Alaïa legend. That appeals to Mulier. “The house is so small that I had to stick to a certain calendar for production and development and all of that, at least for a year, but starting next season, we can go much more crazy and free. Even the way we show will be completely different from what we are doing now.”

And one thing he truly isn’t partial to in his new position is the elevated profile. “We live in a fashion world where designers are built up to be big stars. It was never my dream to be that. Never. So, I was a long time in the shadow, I don’t even call it a shadow, but people see it like that and I was very comfortable there. Before Alaïa, other houses contacted me, and I said no because of that. What is good here at Alaïa is they don’t expect me to be a big star. It’s the clothes that count. And in the end, Azzedine is still here. I’m not in his shadow, but it’s his name on the label.”

In a fashion footnote that’s worthy of its own documentary, Mulier has had another reason to celebrate of late. Matthieu Blazy, his partner of 17 years, was named creative director of Bottega Veneta in November after working at the house behind the scenes for former designer Daniel Lee. Mulier’s in Paris, Blazy’s in Milan, and they get to 24 hours together in Antwerp on the weekend, if they’re lucky. (Their dog commutes between Antwerp and Paris.)

Their careers in fashion have always run on parallel lines with a few cardinal rules: no work talk and no pictures. But this new situation is particularly intense with its high-profile responsibilities leading to more incommunicable enthusiasms. “I always call him from the bath in the morning and he’s in a taxi,” Mulier says wistfully. “It’s always the same. I told him about my fitting for couture yesterday where I think I saw the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life and how I wished I could send it to him and he said, ‘No, no, no, wait till Saturday.’” Count that the cost of kismet.



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