Representing the creative future

Merging identities: IFM knitwear students collaborate with Maison Alaïa

The MA Knitwear students at IFM collaborated with Maison Alaïa to explore the beauty of craft

Exploring the archives of a fashion house is a rare and enlightening occasion that few get to encounter. It provides a unique opportunity to delve into the maison’s history, offering profound insights into the designer’s creative vision and granting a deeper understanding of the brand’s legacy and artistic heritage. That’s exactly the kind of chance MA Knitwear Design students at IFM in Paris, under the direction of Adam Jones were given this year as part of their annual live project, when asked to design a look inspired by Maison Alaïa.

One of the greatest visionaries of our time, Azzedine Alaïa is known for his unprecedented designs, innovative techniques and his meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail. By constantly experimenting with various textiles and observing the female form, the fashion icon developed the exquisitely tailored, sculptural silhouettes that earned him the merited title of ‘King of Cling’.

Joining forces with a brand that represents and cherishes such a legendary persona is a big challenge that has led to many valuable learnings. “This kind of project is very formative for the rest of your career, to understand a brand’s codes, make them your own and create something at the crossroads of two creative worlds,” says Laura Arbault, who feels her skills have strengthened after this collaboration.

Every designer had their own take on Azzedine Alaïa’s legacy, delving into different interpretations of what beauty is and what it represented for the Tunisian-born designer, especially when it comes to female beauty and craft. The students also pushed the boundaries of textile and knitting techniques to create innovative pieces that seamlessly combine the maison and Alaïa’s essence with their own identity. A challenge they brilliantly solved with the results made out of yarn from the spinners of Feel The Yarn.

Alice Le Ster

During a visit to the house’s foundation in Paris, Alice Le Ster was immediately drawn to the highly technical assemblage of Alaïa’s designs. The suture stitch she observed allowed her to develop her creative concept further, inspired by 1935 film ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’, in which the monster forces Victor to engender a female partner as deformed and horrible as himself to fill his loneliness. “I questioned the role of the bride, and pushed her feminine role as far as is expected of a woman by imagining a pregnant character,” Le Ster explains. To address the taboos around childbirth and miscarriages, she explored the position of Caesarean section stitches in the body, which informed the placement of her knits in the garment.

Alaïa was often considered a sculptor of the bodies, an idea Le Ster has also infused in her designs. “I personally think that there is nothing more sculptural than a pregnant woman’s body.” But the designer went the extra mile, merging her disturbing fictional universe with the contrasting elegance of Alaïa’s silk dresses, lingerie and lace references.

“The ouroboros, a snake that bites its own tail, represents self-fertilisation and life, but also loss and death.” The resulting piece also incorporated the snake and its symbolism through a 3D knit resembling snakeskin and flowing down the side of the woman’s belly like an old maternity corset. Likewise, she developed a figurative lace on the belly in the shape of a snake ready to bite, a distinctive touch that spreads out to the legs to form the snake’s tail while embracing the woman’s bottoms.

Esther Vervliet

Alaïa’s intrinsic interest in women and their beauty created a need in Esther Vervliet to explore the female body, aiming to represent its allure and subtlety. “I was inspired by the lines on the body of Alaïa’s designs in his different collections, which enhance the body shape,” she explains. An iconic piece of the fashion house, the pleat dress served as the base for Vervliet’s proposal, with pleats that have been partially knitted at the same time both in the front and the back panels as seen in many of the iconic designer’s dresses and skirts.

Not only was this project fruitful to adapt her work to another creative universe – readying the students for their future careers – but also to dive into Bodymap, an art movement created by women suffering from HIV in the early 2000s. “I took inspiration from two main visual elements of the Bodymap to start my knit research. The first one is body contours overlapping, present in almost every Bodymap painting and which can be interpreted as the physical body and the emotional body, and the second is the spotted pattern that seems to be a universal way of representing sensations or emotions.” Visual elements that Vervliet incorporated by combining lace knitted over a thin layer of silk with an underlayer of a plaited pattern. Overall, and despite the limited time available to develop the ideas and make the garments, the result is more than satisfactory. “It’s surprising how fast we got such a complicated result.”

Eva Navarro

Staying within the limits of a brand while designing is not as restrictive as one may think. At least not for Eva Navarro. “Creatively, it’s very interesting to work within the boundaries of a brand and can even lead to expanding your creativity. Plus, it’s easy to get lost in the creative fairytale of university,” says the designer, who has found joy in working hand in hand with the Maison’s team to develop her look, as she tried to take in as much of their knowledge as she could. Navarro had a very clear goal from the get-go – making her research and narrative come through. But this time, being a commission for such an established house, she made an effort to coherently infuse the resulting pieces with Alaïa’s DNA. “I really focused on the construction of the fabric and the silhouette to be very representative of the house’s heritage, drawing from both Pieter and Azzedine’s designs. The squashed metal silverware maybe lies a bit more in my court but it also represents the convergence of my perspective and Alaïa’s,” she explains. “And perhaps in an extension of that and to differ from my other projects, I am now focusing on creating more ‘wearable’ clothes and silhouettes.”

Navarro was enraptured by partial knitting, a staple in the fashion icon’s work. This technique allowed her to introduce godets, giving extra volume and movement to the resulting two-piece look. In soft, dark black yarn, the garments are informed by Cornelia Parker’s art – particularly her ‘30 pieces of silver’ – represented through the knitted tableware on the upper part of both the top and the skirt. “I really loved how Azzedine Alaïa used to make lunch and dinner for his team and his friends, making his professional relationships personal and showing how much he cared about them,” she says. “I found this so brilliant because it’s very rare in fashion, but also because I love making food for my friends too. It is a sort of transformative experience where you really get to know people.” This togetherness and the idea of transformation easily tied in with Parker’s work.

Hanwool Cha

The synergy between Hanwool Cha’s designs and those of Alaïa’s came with ease as they both delve into the concept of beauty. However, the project still represented a learning curve for Cha. “During my BA, I spent lots of time trying to find my own identity, which I refined during the first MA project we did. With this project, I could expand my identity even further thanks to the incorporation of outer views into my designs,” the designer says. Besides the house’s archive, Daniel Arsham’s sculptural artworks served as the main inspiration for his proposal, garnishing the garments with crystals to resemble the multidisciplinary artist’s sculptures.

The undersuit of the look is the result of an interlocking lace technique that uses gage yarn to create cracks in the crystal patterns, in an attempt to represent the beauty that the body naturally emanates. “I mainly adopted a bodysuit silhouette by Alaïa that shows the ultimate beauty of curves in women’s bodies,” he adds. Whether Cha found the true meaning of beauty through this project is yet to be confirmed, but we can assure that the collaboration’s pieces breathe passion, dedication and craftsmanship.

Keyin Wang

Exploring the endless possibilities of knitwear, maturing one’s designs at a faster pace and adapting a brand’s repertoire to your essence are Keyin Wang’s learnings after dipping her toes into the mesmerizing world of Maison Alaïa. “In previous personal projects, I only had to consider how to express my own ideas, and I didn’t need to include other rationalities. But with this project, we were prompted to think about more specific shapes and how to integrate the brand’s design into our own,” she argues. Her take was based on Alaïa’s 90s archive looks, where we can observe the renowned designer’s fascination with the female body and how he excelled knitting to emphasise the beauty of their curves. “They showed me that there’s a body inside a body. Alaïa’s universe is all about female curves and exquisite crafts, so my aim was to enlarge those elements.” A goal she reached by incorporating delicate cording as well as depicting the female body on the garment as if it was a painting.

Drawing inspiration from artist Rithika Merchant, who built a mythological narrative around women, Wang incorporated viscose, a cashmere wool blend and mohair into the design to shape a soft-yet-structured look. “In order to add an extra layer of depth, I applied felting around the body too. I also used twisted nylon for the embroidery of the branch and all the way to the floor, becoming a fringe,” she says. Its tight-wrapping skirt and body-exposing touches are deeply informed by Alaïa’s iconic structured silhouettes, all paired with a pair of elegantly-crafted gloves.

Kira Zander

They say travelling broadens the mind. And Kira Zander’s was definitely broadened after last year’s trip to Iceland, where she had the chance to observe an impressive volcano eruption from up close. As a souvenir, she took some volcanic stones home that have now informed her most recent work, including this project’s creations. “These stones I studied deeply in order to reflect on their structure and colour and be able to capture their roughness, which instilled a unique feeling of calmness in me,” she says. But her relationship with the nordic country didn’t end there – she liaised with a local ceramic artist to develop her look, focusing on craftsmanship in true Alaïa fashion. “Interestingly enough, he also draws inspiration from the roughness of Iceland and its landscape, which he directly translates by including lava pieces in his work. He creates huge vases with a unique presence that I was intrigued to mimic on wearable garments.”

Despite her extremely clear concept, Zander’s main aim was to design pieces that would represent Maison Alaïa and its values as well as her own personality and savoir-faire, merging the best of both worlds into a single look. “My main learning was seeing how I could push the boundaries, as well as pursuing the identity of someone else.” The resulting Jacquard-knit dress, in the colours and structure of those volcanic stones, combines five different yarns as a way to play with the garment’s shape and volume, which vary from top to bottom. The gradient of knitting styles represent a varied array of archive Alaïa pieces, from iconic 90s looks to more recent seasons. “It’s always intriguing to dive into the history and archive of a house like Alaia.”

Laura Arbault

The madonna was the starting point of Laura Arbault’s Alaïa-inspired look. But the designer gave this feminine archetype a twist – she imagined her as a futuristic warrior cyborg, creating a new, stronger image for this idealised and virtuous woman stereotype. “My silhouette draws inspiration from the contemporary iconography of the madonna, mixed with images of futuristic cyborg women generated by artificial intelligence,” says the designer, who has conceptualised this silhouette by intertwining references from a variety of fields. For the final look’s color palette and its trailblazing shapes, she drew on Ivana Bašić’s sculptures: “Her work addresses the vulnerability and the transformation of the human form and its matter.”

As a creative, it is not always easy to compromise your art to incorporate someone else’s, but the end result makes the challenge worth it. “The boning is really part of my creative DNA, and I wanted to bring it into my Alaïa’s project. So, to merge it with the maison’s DNA, I had to find the right balance between the shape of my garment and its materials, making them both equally relevant,” she says. “It was super important to me to have a special focus on textiles, as it is what Alaïa does with all its really sophisticated knits, using very specific yarns and playing with both textures and materials.”

Marion Pellé

Azzedine Alaïa’s obsession with making women beautiful and sculpting the body to hide imperfections intrigued Marion Pellé, who began exploring this idea of beauty and society’s fixation with perfection during the project. “I wanted to create a garment to liberate humans from idealistic assignment and put deformation as a beautiful norm. I think that our society is obsessed with perfection while it should put our singularities ahead,” she says. That’s why the myth of Procrustes – a Greek character who attracted travellers and invited them to stay overnight in a bed they had to fit to perfection – served as inspiration for her resulting jumpsuit. Through metallic threads from Lanicio dell’Olivo and a TPU that melts with heat, the garment creates the illusion of a painting that also features cuts to represent the myth’s violence.

Now the project has ended, Pellé appreciates the exchange with Maison Alaïa’s designers, since having their point of view on her work has resulted in meaningful learnings that she can now apply to her future career. “It was challenging to not be the only chief of the project, as well as to express myself through the vision of a maison like Maison Alaïa.”

Sofia Saerens

This project offered a glimpse into the reality of the fashion industry, a field in which ideas are constantly bounced off and collaboration seems to be the norm. “It was a huge growth for everyone,” Sofia Saerens says. “But the most important thing I discovered was how thrilling it is to merge your designs with the DNA of a brand. It changed the way I envisioned collaborations. I used to think it was about compromises when in reality it can be super exciting.” For the designer, it was essential to take time to think every step of the project through. “I wanted to find an artist that I would relate to and pay homage to craftsmanship, by linking Azzedine Alaïa’s universe to the work of another artist working around craft.”

As a way to mantle the look with the characteristic female energy Alaïa’s designs exude, she was determined to include a female artist as a reference. “I found inspiration in the work of Mrinalini Mukherjee, an Indian artist who worked mostly in the seventies, creating huge macramé sculptures that were not mainstream at the time.” These iconic and human figures feature a texture that Saerens translated into tangible garments, creating a balanced synergy between textiles and the human body. Incorporating macrame also contributed to expanding the already-wide range of textures, providing different densities, reliefs and slashes to the knit. “I also experimented with a yarn that dissolves into water, which creates all the slashes in my dress,” she explains. A personal take of a technique previously used by Azzedine Alaïa himself, even though he applied to fishnets only. “It was truly exciting, because my samples were transforming through time, truly revealing themselves when washed and felted.”