‘I got fired over that dress!’ says Carla Sozzani, pointing at a sculpted strapless black gown from Azzedine Alaïa’s 1988 collection. Sozzani and Alaïa’s partner, the artist Christophe von Weyhe (both founders of the Association Azzedine Alaïa), opened an exquisite show in Paris last night, showing 41 works by the renowned couturier, curated by Olivier Saillard. ‘I shot it for the cover of Italian Elle with Paolo Roversi,’ she adds. ‘It was a beautiful image – it flew like an angel – but a Parisian couturier on the cover of an Italian magazine! That was not considered a good move.’ 

The exhibition, covering a lifetime’s work and entitled ‘Je Suis Couturier’, was in the planning stages before Monsieur Alaïa’s unexpected passing in November 2017. Yet the work – dating from his signature flitty hemmed, sculpted black-seamed jersey dresses of 1981 – proves unnervingly timeless. ‘We decided to chose pieces in black and in white to show the essence of Alaïa,’ says Saillard. ‘Alaïa was always incredible in his technical research and his sensibility was always passionate. He was the heir of Charles James, Madame Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga.’

The essence? Alaïa sought to rebuild the sensuality of a woman in material; to create a shadow and allow a woman to ‘be’, says Saillard. On clothing, Alaïa has said: ‘I like when they are beautiful and timeless, not cluttered with details, ornaments and colours that prematurely age them. The simplest are the most difficult to create.’ 

Alaïa created his first collection in 1979, in black and optical whites that he ‘carved’ into divine dresses that could be simultaneously dignified and erotic. Whether working in black leather (there are two fantastic ruched and knotted mini skirts worn with black bodies from 1983), cotton, jersey, leather or mousseline, Alaïa was a master of his material, silhouette and proportion, and he continually evolved his oeuvre, pushing the boundaries for what was technically possible and always with an invisible touch. The collection is shown on body forms rather than traditional mannequins to show off the personality of the dresses, including a sinuous hooded white jersey (recreated from a black version 1986) and worn by Grace Jones.

There are several looks in the exhibition from his last couture collection, shown in July 2017 to a standing ovation and featuring his long time friend Naomi Campbell modelling. ‘I wore that one!’ said Campbell, pointing to a long gown with a velvet bodice and metal-studded pleated skirt. Cindy Crawford, in a leopard trench, and her model daughter, Kaia Gerber, friends Marc Newson and Charlotte Stockdale, and Sacai’s Chitose Abe were also at the opening at the start of haute couture week in Paris at 18 Rue de la Verrerie, where Alaïa lived, entertained and worked.

‘My friendship began in 1959. I was a student at art school and we had a mutual friend in common. I first painted Alaïa’s portrait in 1972. Alaïa did not change, he always wanted to explore the possibilities of realising the dress and he did absolutely everything in the making from A–Z,’ says von Weyhe. A series of his works are on show in Alaïa’s home in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, until March 2018.