Alaïa for the masses?
Years before Karl Lagerfeld made his famous capsule for H&M, Azzedine Alaïa flexed his own high-low fashion muscle with his fabled Spring/Summer 1991 collection—a then-surprising collaboration with French department store Tati.
The designer himself reportedly approached the Parisian favorite bon marché franchise to collaborate, and eventually turned its recognizable pink gingham logo into a collection still sought-after today. The occasion is the subject of a new exhibition, Another Way to Look at Fashion, The Tati Collection, which opened this week at the Azzedine Alaïa Association in Paris.
Tati was founded in 1948 in post-war France by Jules Ouaki, a Sephardic jeweler from the La Goulette district of Tunis, Tunisia, who settled in Paris after serving in the resistance. Ouaki pioneered self-service bulk selling in bins, and touted a catchy slogan, “Tati, les plus bas prix” (“Tati, the cheapest price”). The name was derived from the nickname of his mother Esther, Tita, and its concept democratized French fashion, particularly with textiles for clothing and home. Tati’s logo itself consisted of bright pink vichy or gingham print with bright blue lettering. As the company grew, the familiar shop awnings became emblematic of Paris almost as much as the Eiffel Tower or the corner bistro sidewalk café.
In the late 1980s, Julian Schnabel created a series of works inspired by Tati after observing the stores’ awnings around town. (He later explained his department store muse: “I thought the pattern was particularly recognizable as something Parisian and it was from certain popular neighborhoods where street life was alive and buoyant.”) Schnabel had become friends with Alaïa, and the two bartered dresses for art pieces—their works eventually inspiring each other. After some time, the designer realized the fabric would lend itself to clothing as well, and the concept was born.
Famous for his skills as a couturier, Alaïa was taken with Tati’s logo in pink vichy print and bright blue lettering. He transformed the low-cost gingham textile into mini skirts, pea coats, hotpants, newsboy caps, and more. The designer even used it to create his signature form-fitting corset-style dresses, bra tops with intricate seaming, and second-skin bolero jackets. Each perfectly matched the lines of the gingham, which was shown in various sizes from small to a maxi-check. In keeping with the line’s theme of democracy, the designer also created accessibly-priced offerings for the store that included a T-shirt, bag, and espadrilles.
“There is a message in this collaboration,” exhibition curator and longtime Alaïa-collaborator Olivier Saillard tells CR. “He could make anything he wanted out of any textile. If he had no fabric, he could take the tablecloth and make a beautiful dress.” While fashion collaborations have existed well since the 1930s, few before the designer were able to garner the amount of noise nor superstar support that the Tati collection did. It was particularly sought out by photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier and Ellen Von Unwerth, who photographer Naomi Campbell as its principal muse.
Christy Turlington wore a full Azzedine Alaïa look from cap to sandals for an unforgettable photo by Demarchelier, who also shot Yasmeen Ghauri in the collection in a La Dolce Vita era mood for an Italian fashion publication. Its popularity was interesting in another regard notes Saillard: “It was the time in fashion where minimalism was beginning with designers like Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, as well as the schools from Belgium and Japan. Everything was black, white, or beige.” But this loud and graphic collection caught everyone’s eye, as did Alaïa’s Spring/Summer 1991 Tati runway show, which starred Elle McPherson, Helena Christensen, Veronica Webb, Yasmeen Ghauri, Gail Elliott, Karen Mulder, Yasmin Le Bon, and Nadège du Bospertus.
In an era when everything was super—including budgets and models who didn’t get out of bed for “less than $10,000 a day”—Alaïa’s use of low-brow textiles to create designer fashion was novel, even refreshing. It’s hard to know if the designer knew the impact of this iconic collection. Recently, a four-piece set from the Spring/Summer 1991 Tati collection, including a skirt, shorts, bra top, and jacket, sold for over $6,000 on 1stdibs.com proving that even a bargain can fetch a high price.