Understanding the fashion heritage of France requires acknowledging the key roles played by a series of dedicated collectors, artists, art dealers, industrialists, and designers, who began their efforts in the 19th century. These individuals, who were not part of traditional academic or museum circles, created dynamic collections of clothing. They studied, analyzed, and drew inspiration from these collections for their own work. Pioneering figures like Maurice Leloir to Azzedine Alaïa became the early custodians of a developing fashion heritage that would later form the basis for future fashion museums.
Maurice Leloir, a painter and illustrator, was particularly instrumental in legitimizing the study of fashion as an important part of cultural heritage. Born into a family of artists, including his mother Héloïse Colin and aunt Anaïs Toudouze—both prominent fashion illustrators of their time—Leloir amassed a significant collection of historical garments, fabrics, and accessories. He used these pieces to accurately recreate scenes from the 17th and 18th centuries, contributing to the discipline of historical fashion study.
Leloir gained recognition as an expert on the history of French costume, significantly influencing early fashion exhibitions. At the turn of the 20th century, he contributed his unparalleled collection of women’s garments from the Louis XV and Louis XVI eras to the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris. This collection formed part of the first exhibits focused on fashion and its history.
In 1906, Leloir, along with artists and collectors Édouard Detaille and François Carnot, founded the Society for the History of Costume. The society aimed to create a costume museum in Paris and promote the appreciation, conservation, and documentation of both historic and contemporary fashions. They achieved public recognition through their first major event, the “Exhibition of Antique Costumes,” held in 1909. The exhibition was a huge success and led to the foundation of a costume museum, which opened in 1920 and was inaugurated by then-President Raymond Poincaré. Later, the entire collection was donated to the city of Paris, laying the groundwork for what would become the Palais Galliera, the City of Paris’ Fashion Museum, established in 1977.
Among contemporary designers or even his predecessors, none could rival the extensive archive of fashion and costumes collected by Azzedine Alaïa. Unlike other designers who were more focused on expanding their empires, Alaïa became a silent historian, a steward of collective memory. He often outbid museum directors and curators at auctions and private sales. Influential designers like Madeleine Vionnet, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Madame Grès were his obsessions, and their works became sought-after items in his collection.
Alaïa admired these designers as architectural or sculptural couturiers, seeing in them a reflection of his own love for technical expertise and mastery in tailoring. His own collection boasts hundreds of daytime and evening pieces, some of them exceptional and rare.
His journey into fashion archiving began in 1968, when Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his Parisian couture house. Balenciaga, a master among masters, had been a significant figure in fashion since his arrival in Paris in 1937 but felt disconnected from the new generation advocating ready-to-wear. Azzedine Alaïa, who had moved to Paris in 1956, had already earned a good reputation for his technical skills in designing custom-made clothing for select clients. Balenciaga’s associate, Mademoiselle Renée, invited Alaïa to collect fabrics and dresses that he could use for his own work.
Alaïa was astounded by Balenciaga’s abstract and airy designs. Throughout his life, he spoke about the transformative impact of encountering these works, which made him realize the importance of preserving fashion heritage. In the late 1960s, only a few museums worldwide were attuned to this need. Fashion houses often viewed their archives as unsold stock from past collections. Inspired by Balenciaga’s closure, Alaïa took it upon himself to become the keeper of fashion history, diligently collecting not just garments but also any documents that could shed light on the creative process.
Likely motivated by a desire to measure himself against the greats in the industry, Alaïa focused on the technical mastery and the elusive perfect cut that governed all of their works. The extent of his collection quickly grew, justified only by a collector’s insatiable appetite.
Madeleine Vionnet became an early subject of study for Alaïa. Fascinated by her skills, he relentlessly pursued her creations in the marketplace. In the early 1980s, a famous article in Jardin des Modes linked Alaïa to a renowned dress by Vionnet. The dress, beautifully crafted in a bias cut and wrapped around the shoulders, had been featured in Vogue in a photograph by George Hoyningen Huene. Alaïa took it as a challenge to display the enigmatic dress on a wooden mannequin. With the aid of a three-way mirror and a photograph of the original model, he brilliantly rose to the occasion. He later repeated the exercise for a monograph dedicated to Vionnet, capturing the result on camera with the help of Patricia Canino.
By continually collecting, studying, and revering the works of past masters, Azzedine Alaïa solidified his role as one of fashion’s most devoted historians, enriching our understanding of its artistry and heritage.