For supermodel Naomi Campbell he was a father figure; French fashion designer Nicolas Ghesquière thought instead that fashion was about embellishments until he learnt from him about construction and architecture.
He was famous for his open kitchen where he regularly had meals with co-workers, famous models, clients and journalists while his beloved gigantic St. Bernard dog slept in a corner; he was known for his trademark Chinese pajamas suits and was also one of the very few fashion designers more interested in following his own principles based on integrity and perfection than on aligning with the super fast rhythms of the industry.
We are obviously talking about Azzedine Alaïa as tributes are pouring in after French weekly Le Point announced today that the French-Tunisian designer had died at 82 in a French hospital. The news were confirmed by the French Haute Couture Federation.
Born in Tunisia in 1935 to wheat-farming parents, Alaïa was raised by his grandmother and influenced by his twin sister. He studied at the Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts in Tunis and moved to Paris in 1957.
He worked briefly at Christian Dior, but was dismissed when it was found he had the incorrect immigration papers. He then moved to Guy Laroche and to Thierry Mugler. In his early Parisian years Alaïa made a living making dresses and working as au pair for wealthy families, such as the Marquise de Mazan and the Comtesse Nicole de Blégiers.
He started his own atelier in 1979 in his Rue de Bellechasse apartment (he later on moved to Rue du Parc-Royal in the Marais) and came to the attention of celebrities, supermodels and the fashion media in the '80s thanks to his knit garments that molded to the body of the wearer, experimental leather designs and sharply cut and sculpted pieces - body-con creations that at times featured intriguing details created by zips that spiralled around the body of the wearer or by geometrical honeycombed structures.
Alaïa produced his first ready-to-wear line in 1982, and started selling his designs in New York and Beverly Hills, opening later on boutiques in Beverly Hills, New York and Paris.
Dubbed the "King of Cling" for his form-fitting designs, he followed the regular season calendar in this first period of his career.
After the death of his twin sister and muse in the 1990s, he took a pause from the runways, but continued creating for private clients and experimenting with fabrics.
In 1992 he worked with a very special yarn: Italian mill Lineapiù was trying to market a carbon yarn developed by NASA for astronauts' uniforms. Chemists at German firm BASF realised that the carbon yarn could have been softened and made wearable when combined with rayon or cotton and wool. The resulting fabric was light and solid, but also resistant to pollution, and microwave emissions from household appliances. Alaïa called the new anti-stress fabric "Relax" and got an exclusive on this material, while his collaboration with Lineapiù continued throughout the decades.
A partnership with the Prada Group in 2000 injected new life in his fashion house and allowed the designer to expand his collections of footwear and handbags.
Alaïa bought back the rights to his label years later, but in 2007 the Compagnie Financière Richemont - owner of several luxury brands - took majority control, becoming the designer's new financial backer, even though Alaïa managed to maintain his creative freedom and independence.
Alaïa refused offers to work with other fashion houses and, though based in Paris, he was detached from the fashion circus and only produced collections and presented them privately when he felt they were finally ready (he would start working on a jacket and maybe finish it ten years later...). Besides, Alaïa never advertised nor conformed to any specific production schedule.
In a nutshell Alaïa marked a key distinction between himself and other designers: he was and remained a couturier with an in-depth knowledge of materials and fabrics and a burning passion for fashion (he often worked till the early hours of the morning), while today's designers are mainly stylists or remixers intent on tweaking the past for future generations.
Alaïa worked against trends and a dishuman system that has been killing the creativity of designers for years and continued to follow his own path, keeping on selling his couture products, deluxe ready-to-wear, footwear, bags and belts in his small network of boutiques. His latest show was a couture collection presented in July 2017, after a break of six years.
In the last few years there have been multiple retrospectives of Alaia's work, including an event at the Guggenheim in New York, one at the Groninger Museum in The Netherlands, and an exhibition at Paris' Palais Galliera.
One of the most intriguing celebrations of Alaïa remains the 2015 exhibition at the Borghese Museum and Gallery in Rome that combined art and fashion and juxtaposed his garments to the statues surrounding them. This event also featured one of the dresses Alaïa made for Grace Jones in 1985 for James Bond 's film A View to a Kill.
The diminutive designer - best captured in Jean-Paul Goude's iconic collages and portrayed as a tiny man jumping into the arms of an extremey tall Farida Khelfa - was recently filmed in a 26-minute black and white documentary exploring his world shot by fashion stylist Joe McKenna.
In rare interviews, Alaïa often mentioned the fact that nowadays there are too many fashion collections and that the accelerated rhythms of the industry are simply unsustainable.
His modus operandi proves that in today's frenetic Insta-world it is still possible to create fashion in your own way and at your own pace. Alaïa will be greatly missed, but will hopefully keep on inspiring new generations of young designers. For what regards the life of his fashion house after him, at the moment it seems simply impossible to think about a successor.