From 1928 until 1941, Gilbert Adrian presided over the costume department at Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), serving as the Hollywood studio’s head designer across 200-plus films in his 13 years. During that time, Adrian dressed the industry’s brightest stars, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo. When Garbo parted ways with MGM, so did the man who clothed her in films like Mata Hari, Camille, and Grand Hotel.
“Gilbert Adrian left MGM when Greta Garbo left,” Carla Sozzani, the editor, gallerist, and president of the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation tells CR. “He said the glamour was gone.” Alaïa himself would ultimately dress Garbo too while also amassing his own collection of Adrian’s pieces. A selection of those sharp-shouldered and nip-waisted jackets and suits, plus complementary looks from the late Tunisia-born, Paris-based couturier, are currently on display at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, Georgia as part of Alaïa-Adrian: Masters of Cut.
“Azzedine was always telling me how much he admired him, but it was not so much for the films or for the glamour of Hollywood costumes. It was really for the tailoring and the Parisian-couture skill that Adrian had,” Sozzani explains. As an American and a product of the insular studio system, Adrian was virtually unheard of in France. And even in the U.S., he’s still best known for having created the costumes for The Wizard of Oz, including Dorothy’s red ruby slippers. Signature Adrian flourishes, like his love of a dramatic shoulder (think “Good Witch” Glinda’s pink, wing-like poufs) were evident in the film.
Olivier Saillard, the fashion historian who curated Masters of Cut, sees a through line from the woman credited with originating the padded shoulder in fashion, Elsa Schiaparelli. (Her impact upon Adrian is arguably greatest in his structured, surrealist-tinged costumes for George Cukor’s 1939 film, The Women.) As Saillard learned more about Adrian, he began seeing parallels to Alaïa, and understanding the former’s influences. “It was as a student of Elsa Schiaparelli,” Saillard explains. “But it’s not only the Schiaparelli style, it’s something more precise. It’s very haute couture.” Both Saillard and Sozzani liken Adrian to his contemporary, Charles James, one of the few American designers widely considered to have been a true couturier.
Rigorous and exacting in their execution, Adrian and Alaïa each created what might be described as showpieces—flattering, feminine garments designed to be worn on a stage or the big screen. To wit: Grace Jones’ hooded, ultra-clingy pink gown from her turn as Bond villainess May Day in A View to a Kill, created by Alaïa and on view in the show. Yet whereas Adrian created clothing primarily made to be glimpsed head on, Alaïa took the 360-degree view, adding crisscrossing straps, fringe trims, and deep-V backs. Seen up close, the garments take on a weightiness both literal and figurative, evident in the undeniable level of craftsmanship.
According to Sozzani, being the best meant a great deal to Alaïa, a longtime friend whom she first met in the late ‘70s when he was doing experimental works with leather from his Paris studio. And though Alaïa never sought money or fame, he remained incredibly ambitious, laboring continuously in order to get a piece just right. “To be the best in your work, it’s a work of solitude. To make a perfect jacket, you have to know how to make the jacket…Azzedine was doing everything himself,” Sozzani says. “He could spend nights and months on a shoulder with a ruler, the pins. And he was doing the patterns—everything.”
Alaïa remained fiercely independent up until his death in 2017, never advertising and declining to show at the Paris fashion weeks. Like Adrian, who worked from a Beverly Hills atelier after his stint at MGM, Alaïa served a close-knit, well-heeled clientele who prized beauty, quality, and a certain timelessness. Eschewing prints, color, and an array of ever-changing silhouettes for a monochromatic palette and uniformly structured designs, Alaïa made clothes created to be worn indefinitely.
“I see Adrian, Alaïa, and Balenciaga as I see a very chic armchair from Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier or Prouvé or Arne Jacobsen,” Saillard says. “If you have one day a jacket or a coat from Azzedine Alaïa, for sure you will keep it all your life. It’s like a chair. You don’t want to destroy your chair. You don’t want to replace your chair every season.”
Saillard isn’t bullish on the viability of an industry that constantly demands more and newer from its artists. Designers, he feels, can and should operate more slowly and deliberately, immersing themselves in their craft. Looking to the past might allow for the best path forward. “I really believe— maybe I’m a dreamer—that the technical approach could be the future for fashion,” he says. “Talking about Adrian, talking about Alaïa, or talking about Balenciaga—they are not part of the system of fashion. They are part of fashion, but they are not part of this system. They are the other side. And they are stronger being the other side.”
Alaïa-Adrian: Masters of Cut is now on view at SCAD FASH through September 13, 2020.END
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