Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Azzedine Alaïa, Palais Galliera
View of "Alaïa" at the Palais Galliera, Paris.

View of “Alaïa” at the Palais Galliera, Paris.

The re-opening of the Musée de la Mode de Paris, also known as Palais Galliera, has created much anticipation for two reasons. The building itself, a Beaux Arts edifice completed in 1894, had been in need of major restoration. As for the mission of the organization, it too required a major revisiting to question what, why and how would be on view for the Parisian public and all those interested in the history of costume.  The museum collections consist of garments of the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th centuries as well as several items of haute couture, contemporary designers’ work, undergarments, accessories, fashion illustration, and fashion photography.

The two first exhibits that marked the re-opening of the Palais Galliera were organized at two different locations: “1931, face-dos-profil,” an account of Parisian fashion in the 1930s, was developed in collaboration with the Archives de Paris and staged at the Crédit Municipal de Paris; “Paris Haute Couture” offered the public a few of the most exceptional models of haute couture at a dedicated space at l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris.

“Alaïa” is the exhibit that inaugurated the restored Palais Galliera while a second exhibit, “Roman d’une Garde Robe” at the Musée Carnavalet – Histoire de Paris (Paris 4e), seems to perpetuate the museum’s efforts for a more widespread presence in the city of Paris, one that will engage more than one locations at the same time (Galliera and one hors des murs).

Unfortunately, the exhibit’s design is most disappointing. It consists of well-chosen examples that span Azzedine Alaïa’s career in fashion. Tunisian-born couturier, Alaïa (1939– ), spent several years apprenticing in Parisian haute couture houses, such as Christian Dior, Guy Laroche, and Thierry Mugler and dressed his private clients from his atelier which he opened in the 1970s. His work resonated with the vibe of the 1980s when boldness in cut, color, and attitude were promulgated by fashion models such as Grace Jones, Madonna, and Naomi Campbell. The garments on view affirm Alaïa’s talent in his visualization of the current, the powerful, and the well executed in luxury couture. But the main hall of the exhibit is way too dark: dark grey walls with poorly lit text make it very hard to read and understand the context within which Alaïa began his career. The exhibit hall is so poorly lit that one needs at least 15 minutes to adjust one’s sight.

In the first hall, the mannequins are placed on a wooden platform as one contiguous group too far from the viewer interested in appreciating the details of Alaïa’s art. The platform itself is only an inch higher than the floor, which makes it easy for the visitor to trip. It also makes it easy for those still adjusting their eyesight to step on it and stain it with footsteps.  The label (with title, date and cursory text) lies flat on the platform underneath each mannequin and makes it very hard for the viewer to read.  The second grouping of Alaïa’s creations is a long platform with the mannequins placed back to back but very close to each other. This room is better lit but the closeness of the mannequins on the platform creates a bottleneck: most visitors congregate in front of the most interesting garments.  Finally, the two rooms adjoining the main part of the exhibit, the one on the left with Alaïa’s dresses/odes to the female body and the one of the right with Alaïa’s jackets, coats, and wedding dress are the most successful in terms of display and coherence and they are equally easy to miss because there are no signs to lead the visitor from one room to the other.

While Martin Szekely’s scenography for the Alaïa exhibit attempts to highlight the designer’s implicit drama that distinguishes his designs from that of other couturiers, it overpowers the character of Alaïa’s work.  A few details could have made the show much more lucid and approachable: stronger lighting, additional signage, sharper wall-text, smaller and higher platforms and better integration of contextual information would have made this an experience equivalent to the quality of Alaïa’s innovative compositions.

© Thomaï Serdari