Perhaps, people thought, the house would take its cues from Cristóbal Balenciaga, a man to whom Alaïa was often compared, who wanted his name to die with him. Perhaps Alaïa would close its doors without its founder.
Or maybe, they thought, Compagnie Financière Richemont, the Swiss luxury group that owns Alaïa, would do what so many other conglomerates have done and install a new star designer. The name Nicolas Ghesquière was whispered by the runway rumormongers.
As the couture shows dawn in Paris and a generation of post-retirement-age designers, including Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld, begins to face — or deny — their own mortality, the house has come up with a different proposal. If there is a model for its strategy, it might be Le Corbusier.
On Sunday, the exhibition “Azzedine Alaïa: Je Suis Couturier” will open in the Alaïa showroom at 18 rue de la Verrerie, the site of the designer’s last couture show, giving him a living presence during the collections. It will take the place of a more formal, fashion-centric memorial and will be free to the public until June 10.
It will also be the first salvo in what is a coordinated effort by Alaïa’s partners to keep his brand alive and functioning in his image and on his terms, if without his physical presence. A precollection — what Alaïa called the “Intemporels” — which he designed before his death, will be sold to buyers this month, and the main collection of fall ready-to-wear and accessories in March.
Afterward, there are enough products, samples and ideas in the archives, said Carla Sozzani, owner of the 10 Corso Como boutique and one of Alaïa’s closest collaborators, for the studio he left behind to create new seasonal collections “for generations.”
“I think this is what he would have wanted,” she said. Despite the fact that Alaïa was 82, he had not exactly strategized for the future, and there had never really been any discussions of formal succession.
“He thought he was eternal,” Sozzani said. But while not focused on the mechanics of the house, he was “very concerned with legacy.”
To that end, he and his partner, the painter Christoph von Weyhe, created the Azzedine Alaïa Association in 2007, a nonprofit that will be administered by Sozzani, Olivier Saillard (former director of the Palais Galliera, one of Paris’s two fashion museums), and von Weyhe. That took place at the same time that a majority stake in the company was being sold to Richemont.
“We were reorganizing his life, and he wanted to protect his work and archives,” Sozzani said. According to von Weyhe, Alaïa set aside enough money to endow the association, which is in the process of applying for more formal foundation status.
Alaïa had been saving his own work since the 1980s, and he has been collecting the work of designers he admired for even longer, including pieces from Charles James, Paul Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel, Madame Grès and many others.
Neither Sozzani nor Saillard could venture a guess as to how many pieces there were, but together they occupied five floors and approximately 14,760 square feet in Alaïa’s compound on rue de la Verrerie. To create more room there, a portion of the archive is being moved to a building near rue de la République, which has an additional 9,840 square feet.
“I never saw such archives in my life,” said Saillard, who is effectively the association’s curator. “He has the most important private collection devoted to the history of fashion. For 20 years I used to see him at auctions, and we curators were all very jealous because he always bought the masterpiece we wanted, and he always refused to show them.”
And it wasn’t just clothes. Alaïa collected furniture from designers including Pierre Paulin, Jean Prouvé, Shiro Kuramata and Marc Newson, as well as books. It is the clothes, however, and the patterns, fabrics, buttons and sketches — the record of his creative process — that will form the basis of the continuing life of the house.
“He kept everything,” Sozzani said.
“I think what they are doing is actually spot on because they are continuing his work and his legacy by showing what he worked on but never showed,” said Ikram Goldman, of the Chicago boutique Ikram, who has sold Alaïa’s clothes to Michelle Obama and other clients since opening in 2001.
“These days there is so much chopping and changing of designers that you can often lose the essence of a house, but his essence was working and reworking his technique — not responding to the trends of the moment.”
That is part of what Saillard is hoping will be conveyed by the exhibition, which will include about 38 pieces of Alaïa from the 1980s to today, all in black and white. The message is not about looking back but rather, Saillard said, “the timelessness of his work.”
“There is a leather dress there from the 1980s and you could wear it today,” he said. “It’s like Prouvé: The chair is as great today as it ever was. The dress is as perfect.”
Daniella Vitale, chief executive of Barneys New York, where Alaïa is among the top 10 brands, said it remained committed to the brand. Last year, she pointed out, Alaïa created a special collection of pieces from the archives to celebrate his 35 years with the store, pieces that “hadn’t been seen for a long time, and they all sold very well.”
The staff of the house is intact, and in many ways it is functioning much as it did before. Everyone still eats together every day in the kitchen. There is, von Weyhe said, a “feeling of solidarity.” Saillard’s word is “mission.”
The difference is where they work. When Alaïa died, his friends closed the door to his personal studio, as well as his apartment on the floor above, to preserve it exactly as he left it, down to “the last glass he touched,” Sozzani said. His designers and assistants migrated across the courtyard to other sample rooms and ateliers.
The idea, she said, is that at some point they will open both floors to the public, and they will become a museum of sorts. (Alaïa, who rarely left his studio and was famous for working through the night, slept in a Prouvé glass gas station that he had installed in his apartment, and he had a vertical garden in his bathroom.)
His staff and colleagues are also creating a bookstore, which will be housed in the former sale shop of the house, with books on Alaïa, the designers he loved and catalogs from the exhibitions he hosted in his gallery, including shows on the Syrian poet Adonis and the British painter Richard Wentworth.
“He didn’t want money or glory, but he wanted his work and the work of designers he admired to be available to the next generation,” Sozzani said.
The main floor of the headquarters will remain a working store. Goldman said she expects the response to the clothes to be as robust as ever. “We will definitely continue to buy it, and we will definitely continue to sell it,” she said. None of the brand’s plans for growth are being put off. A store will open in London in late March or April, and a major retrospective at the Design Museum there in May.
“There are only a few designers who create a strong enough foundation for a brand to pull this off,” Vitale said.
If Alaïa’s partners succeed, their story will not only be the classic one about writing a new chapter, but also perhaps the most effective riposte to the frenetic musical chairs of fashion the industry has seen yet.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.