AZZEDINE ALAÏA, ARTHUR ELGORT. Freedom.
Together, Azzedine Alaïa and Arthur Elgort shaped the freedom of the 80s. At the same time as the fashion designer saw his feminine ideal embodied in the street and by the ever-increasing number of clients, the photographer left the studios, took over the movement and the cities as a natural and new setting. Both actively contributed to renewing the representation of the now assertive, determined, independent woman.
The exhibition presented at the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation compares timeless photographs essential to the designer’s iconography, as well as more confidential shots, with Alaïa’s most iconic clothes. This osmosis consists of a unique exhibition in Paris dedicated to photography and fashion, whose revival
was orchestrated by Alaïa and Elgort.
Playfulness, intuition, and spontaneity were at work here. The future showed that this unbridled game would mark a new chapter in fashion photography, demystifying couture creations to bring them within everyone’s reach.
Arthur Elgort was born in New York. Azzedine Alaïa in Tunis. Both hoped that the practise of official art would guide their destiny. Elgort aspired to become a painter and enrolled at Hunter College. Alaïa learned the techniques of sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Tunis. Elgort did not feel fulfilled in the discipline he had adopted. Similarly, Azzedine refused to become a secondrate sculptor. While dressmaking work for a select clientele allowed him to finance his studies, the clothes he made built him a reputation as a budding designer whose virtuosity was acknowledged. Alaïa took the risky decision of going to Paris and, in the mid-1950s. His story began.
A similar story characterised the early career of Arthur Elgort. His artistic ambitions deviated when, in the 1960s, he went to a camera shop. He bought a Polaroid camera and learned how to use it, exploring his environment, showing his pictures to his teachers, and abandoning the past. It became clear that his future layed in lenses, dark rooms, and photographic papers. He would be a photographer.
The way they evolved in their discipline in exile was different, however. While he was preparing to sit behind the gleaming sewing machines at the great Paris maisons, Alaïa’s
destiny led him to become a mysterious and sought-after private couturier. Simone Zehrfuss, Louise de Vimorin, the Comtesse de Blégiers, Arletty commissioned bespoke garments from him. The women who tracked him down and recommended him gave him a greater understanding of the body and allowed him to perfect his technique. They would be his “school”, until Thierry Mugler, his leading admirer, persuaded him to become a fully-fledged fashion designer.
Elgort swapped his Polaroid for a Nikon. He developed a true passion for all types of new and vintage cameras whose techniques and unique features he appreciated. He became a master of the camera. The chief editor of Vogue, Alexander Liberman, saw a few photographs by the newcomer and encouraged him then introduced him to the editors of his illustrious magazine. He did his early shoots in collaboration with Polly Allen Mellen and Grace Coddington. Within a year he became famous.
The paths of Azzedine and Arthur obviously ended up crossing in Paris. As they worked together on magazine shoots, Elgort and Alaïa shared a dislike for superfluous sets and props, which got in the way of Elgort’s photographic vision and Alaïa’s sculptural creations. His black and white photos were intended to look like snapshots. He preferred explosive movement to the clichéd poses of fashion models. He opened the windows of studios to let in the light and turned the street into his theatre. Alaïa instinctly identified not only with his innovative but rigorous approach. When the images were published, it was hard to tell who was acting as a foil for whom: was it the joyful photography that invited to garment to move, or was it the figure-hugging, suggestive dress that provided the movement captured in the image?
The models captured by Elgort’s lens and dressed by Alaïa became the ambassadors for new forms of expression where two artistic approaches came together but never clashed. Linda Spierings, Jeny Howarth, Janice Dickinson, Bonnie Berman, Veronica Webb, Frederique Van der Wal, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Stephanie Seymour were like divinities dancing on the frieze created by Alaïa and Elgort.