Alaïa and Lagerfeld: The lives of very different men

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Alaïa and Lagerfeld: The lives of very different men
In this file photo taken on October 04, 2016 German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld acknowledges the audience at the end of the Chanel 2017 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show in Paris. Patrick KOVARIK / AFP.

by Jessica Testa

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- People in fashion are obsessed with time.

It’s why designers talk about being inspired by ages: gilded, jazz, space or medieval. It’s why fashion writers reference decades like they’re talking about reuniting with old friends. The 1970s are back. The 1990s are back. The 1950s, the 2000s.

It’s why one of the most devastating criticisms of a particular outfit is that it’s “dated.” It’s why in May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City will present a whole exhibition devoted to the concept of time in fashion (“About Time: Fashion and Duration”).

Time is the industry’s central complaint: There is not enough of it to make things — high quality, creatively satisfying things — under the demands of the seasonal production cycle and, more generally, modern consumption habits.

To that end, Azzedine Alaïa’s posthumous book “Taking Time” doesn’t propose practical solutions. But it does offer thoughtful commiseration for artists feeling frustrated with “haste and thirst for new ideas” and the “diminishing of our creativity,” as Alaïa said in the book.

Alaïa, a Tunisian-French couturier who died in November 2017, was particularly obsessed with time. His book — compiled by Donatien Grau, head of contemporary programs at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and to be released March 31 — is a collection of conversations arranged by Alaïa among friends and friends of friends. (These friends just happen to be people like actress Isabelle Huppert, whom Alaïa called “a volcano beneath a veneer of coldness,” and Jony Ive, Apple’s former head designer.)

Through publishing these conversations, which began in 2014 and lasted until his death, Alaïa wrote that he hoped that “together we could raise the alarm against the increasing hysteria of our times and the way it has pent up our creativity.”

“It seems to me that we are living in an era of unprecedented acceleration,” Alaïa told Grau in one passage. “In fashion, we’ve barely finished a collection before we’re moving on to another and then another. We must continuously dream up new ideas. I don’t think ideas are so easy to come by.” (Alaïa was known for presenting his work without regard for show or season schedules.)

The 13 transcripts are smart and well-edited by Grau, full of observations like “every piece of art is a fight against time,” from the novelist Jean-Claude Carrière, or “there’s less creativity because, unfortunately, there are too many brands,” from Carla Sozzani, the gallerist, founder of 10 Corso Como in Milan and a longtime Alaïa friend.

Still, one can’t help but wonder what a conversation might look like between Alaïa and a fashion contemporary who wasn’t his friend.

In a small moment early on in her recent biography of Karl Lagerfeld, the journalist Raphaëlle Bacqué writes that Lagerfeld met Alaïa at a dinner in Paris in the 1950s — a few years after Lagerfeld, the future Chanel designer, arrived in France.

It was around this time that Lagerfeld, about 20, began crafting what Bacqué called “smoke screens” around his personal history, obscuring details of his life and shifting conversation away from his wartime upbringing in Germany.

“Such whirling, well-informed and lightweight conversation,” Bacqué wrote in “Kaiser Karl: The Life of Karl Lagerfeld” — small talk, and the opposite of the deep conversations Alaïa was known to hold in his kitchen.

Lagerfeld was enigmatic, and in the first major biography to be released after his death — published in the United States in February — the author has to reckon with both the truth beneath his exaggerations and the substance of his feuds.

According to Bacqué’s reporting, Alaïa was “a designer Karl did not like much.” While his relationship with Lagerfeld does not come up in “Taking Time,” Alaïa told reporters that he wasn’t a fan either, calling Lagerfeld “too much caricature.”

It’s no surprise they didn’t get along. Lagerfeld represented the designer of the future: multitasking, collaborative, a celebrity. He gladly fed — and fed off — the dizzying cycle of consumption.

Alaïa was old school: a courtier, an ecstatically curious artist who exalted originality and wanted nothing more but more time to express it — to break the cycle.

Designers who model themselves after Lagerfeld may find fame. Designers who emulate Alaïa may find glory. All may find frustration.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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