What is courage? As far as fashion designer hires are concerned, it’s often been the conviction and irreverence to take over an established house and treat it – as the late Karl Lagerfeld once said of taking on an institution – “like a whore”. That’s certainly been the modus operandi for many creative directors who have been appointed at legacy houses – and often ones with illustrious histories of couture – since the 1990s; see McQueen and Galliano at Givenchy.
That’s not however the case for Pieter Mulier who made his debut on July 4 as creative director of Alaia. For the Belgian designer who was previously better known as Raf Simons’ long-time right-hand, reverence was the revolutionary approach.
The show notes came in the form of a letter penned to the late Azzedine Alaia and signed off by Mulier; an ode of sorts in which half the lines began with a “thank you” – for the inspiration Alaia had offered and for the “peerless adulation of the feminine figure” that underpinned all of his work, for example.
Pieter Mulier, creative director of Alaia.
The late Azzedine Alaia – perhaps the last great couturier of our times and whose last presentation had taken place exactly four years before – is a tremendous act to follow. He had risen to prominence for Grace Jones’ hooded cowls and body-hugging knits that earned him the nickname of “king of cling”, but to those in the know, he was a maker of sublime clothing.
A dressmaker first and foremost, the Tunisian designer took the time to perfect and realise his design concepts on his own schedule, often presenting his collections outside the Paris Fashion Week calendars. For his debut for the house of Alaia, Mulier did likewise.
The show took place on the eve of Fall/Winter 2021 Paris Couture Week, yet only nine of the 43 looks were couture. The others were all ready-to-wear and timed for a newfangled, self-introduced season he dubs “winter-spring” – another signal that these days, the traditional fashion system no longer quite holds up.
Belgian designer Pieter Mulier debuts at Alaia with a collection that revives many of the house’s classic codes – the cowl-neck hoodies, body-sculpting or baring fabrics, and corsets – for a younger, streetwear-weaned clientele without losing reverence for the brand’s founder.
In the show notes, Mulier described his collection as a “return to foundations”. One fundamental of the Alaia wardrobe is its embrace of sensuality of the female form. This shines through in Mulier’s body-con dresses that play suggestively with transparency: effortlessly elegant body-con knits that reveal the silhouettes of undergarments; bandage frocks with trompe l’oeil fishbone-shaped rips flanked by trails of fringing that accentuate a woman’s figure as she walks; and, of course, dresses with latticework cut-outs made fun now with bells embroidered all over.
Much of the collection looks streamlined and simple – an aesthetic match for the modernist Belgian sensibility that Mulier had honed in his time working with Raf Simons for brands like Jil Sander, Dior and Calvin Klein. At Alaia, however, simplicity often belies puzzlingly complex construction. That’s another quality that this new prince of cling has leaned into.
Using his minimalist hand, Mulier plays with transparency and construction to celebrate the female form. “This is the only house in the world that is sexual without being vulgar,” he says of Alaia.
One of the most impressively constructed garments is a high-neck, fit-and-flare dress made in a sheer fabric with a piped texture. That piped pattern is spaced out across the top diagonal half of the bodice so that skin peeks through, closes up around the waist and part of the hip to transform into a tight pleat resembling a knit before fanning out again to form a gauzy skirt. At first glance, it’s a nice dress with some sheerness. On closer look, it’s a piece of technical wizardry worthy of the Alaia name.
It’s all telling of Mulier’s respectful ambition for the house and its namesake founder; their spirit won’t be upended for the sake of it. It’s likely that he will further innovate and introduce his point of view in seasons to come, but his overall vision is clear: there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. In the case of Alaia – a name that carries such legacy and weight – keeping that perfectly made wheel turning especially in an era of ambiguity and flux is challenge enough.
Ahead, a look at some ways Mulier is shaping the Alaia narrative.