The designer and model look back on Alaïa’s heritage, and examine the value of sustainability—for the Earth, and for style, and in relationships
Pieter Mulier is uninterested in articulating just what it is he’s doing with Alaïa—not because his ideas are cursory, nor because he’s incapable of intellectualizing them. He very well may be the best academically and artistically versed designer in contemporary fashion. His collections themselves, and the means by which they are presented, are an offering enough, and in sharing the specificities of his objectives, he—and, consequently, we—lose out on what might be extrapolated from them, stunted by the weight of pretense. Instead, the designer’s ambiguity grants us limitless possibilities and a more truthful picture of how his work settles into the world; the weight of renowned critic Tim Blanks, for instance, branding Alaïa as the “standard-bearer” for a revolution in industry norms is far more impactful than if Mulier himself were to claim that title.
His working history is curated with uncompromising intentionality. The Belgian-born designer first met large-scale acclaim working as Raf Simons’s most trusted creative confidant, following him from Jil Sander to Dior and then to Calvin Klein. He was appointed as the creative director of Alaïa in early 2021, championing the enduring style and sex appeal of simplicity. In his hands, minimalism is supple and sculptural. The first successor of the house’s namesake, Mulier shoulders the Couture Maison’s venerable legacy as though it were weightless; Azzedine Alaïa’s tendency to work at slower pace and smaller scales is the foundation upon which Mulier melds timelessness with modernity. Among the culturally and aesthetically elite, Mulier’s work at Alaïa is sacrosanct; he’s smartly preserved its rebellious spirit, while maintaining the label’s core. The house’s ethos expands well beyond its designs, permeating every detail—most notably, and most importantly, with the community within the house. To that end, Mulier staged his latest show, Summer/Fall 2023, in his own home in Antwerp, its curated guest list perched between his bookcases, around his kitchen, and even atop his bed.
“Intimacy is what makes something desirable,” says long-time friend and collaborator of Alaïa, Amber Valletta. “You feel a personal connection to it; therefore, the value of it is so much stronger. You hold it longer, it becomes heritage. No one gets rid of Azzedine.” She is a muse herself: both in the classic sense, which she’s long occupied as a model, and in terms of the ideas she embodies and encourages, envisioning a smarter, more thoughtful future for fashion; in her mind, care for the environment doesn’t impede, but rather bolsters the physical and creative qualities of design. The acting sustainability ambassador for the Fashion Institute of Technology, she’s continually leveraged her platform in hopes of building a more considerate design landscape, all while continuing to expand the breadth of her own understanding, auditing a class in biodesign and participating in roundtable discussions geared toward the technicalities of innovation for a different future. That sustainability she’s gunning for is at the center of Pieter Mulier’s Alaïa universe—sustainability for the Earth, and for style, and in relationships.
“In my eyes, great fashion is making people into something that they’re not, or giving them the feeling they’re something they’re not.”
Pieter Mulier: I’m happy it’s Easter. I’m actually quite an Easter person.
Tim Blanks: What does being an Easter person mean?
Pieter: It means that, for the week, my mother makes me feel guilty.
Tim: That’s fabulous.
Pieter: I get messages like, ‘Do you remember who I am? I hope you’re coming Friday or Saturday or Sunday.’ It keeps on coming until I say, ‘Okay, I’m coming.’ Easter’s big in Belgium.
Tim: Do you eat Belgian chocolate?
Pieter: Too much chocolate. Too much energy. They start fighting, yelling. Then it’s lunch. It’s always the same thing, but I kind of like it.
Amber Valletta: All my traditions are mixed up. I’m not going to Oklahoma—where my mom and my family are—and none of the kids are here. It’s just another day, sadly. I’m not very religious—spiritual, but not religious.
Pieter: Me too. Honestly, it’s the beginning of spring more than anything else.
Tim: Do you sacrifice anything?
Pieter: No, no, the Catholics don’t sacrifice anything.
Tim: Are you sure?
Amber: They do during Lent.
Pieter: Sure, but we don’t slaughter anything. We do Holy Communion, and the dessert is a sheet of ice cream. It [looks like] blood, but it’s not. It’s red fruit.
Tim: Hey, it’s better than a glass of really shitty wine and a hideous Communion wafer, anyway.
Pieter: I agree. But as a kid, it scared the shit out of me.
Amber: Isn’t that the point of religion, scaring the shit out of people?
Tim: It’s supposed to terrify you into believing in God, not seduce you.
Pieter: It’s supposed to give you guilt. I still struggle with it.
“Intimacy is what makes something desirable. You feel a personal connection to it; therefore, the value of it is so much stronger, you hold it longer, it becomes heritage.”
Tim: That’s a good point to start talking about Azzedine Alaïa, and how a Flemish sensibility adjusts to wanton sensuality.
Pieter: It’s not really in our culture to work around the body, or the sensuality of women. It’s maybe years of therapy that got me to this point.
Tim: Although, the fabulous thing about Belgians is that they are the most fetishistic people in the world.
Amber: I was gonna say, there’s a bit of fetishism in Alaïa.
Pieter: Actually, quite a lot—the obsession with corsetry, snatching the waist, making women into goddesses.
Tim: Don’t you feel that all fashion is a fetishistic activity, though? In a way, fashion is all about the glorification of objects.
Pieter: I wouldn’t say all, because there’s a utility in some fashion. But, in my eyes, great fashion is making people into something that they’re not, or giving them the feeling they’re something they’re not—it’s a very fetishistic way of thinking.
Tim: Do you feel that you were ever a fetish object, Amber? For example, [during] the supermodel period, people projected things onto those women so that they became archetypes. I was so guilty of that—you were the Dietrich.
Amber: Even though it bothered me that people created an archetype that I felt was pigeonholing me, the actual archetype—or the fetish—didn’t bother me. What bothered me was when people were like, ‘You have to stay in this box.’ I felt empowered to be whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to be it.
Tim: But who wanted to put you in a box?
Amber: Oh, the media is always writing, ‘She is the ultimate waif.’ Whatever people can latch onto, they do. It never bothered me. You can say whatever you want, but that’s not who I am.
Tim: Was there ever a way for you to use that to your advantage?
Amber: For sure. I think I always use it to my advantage, because the nature of what I do allows you to put your fantasy or fetish or archetype on me—being malleable.
Pieter: We test a lot on our fitting girls when we prepare for a show. I always think, Oh my god, don’t we go too far with them? But I ask, and most of them say, ‘We’re like canvases, we’re like actresses.’ It’s a character that we develop on you, and then you make it alive.
Tim: Amber is dealing with one kind of legacy, as a model. Pieter, you have, I suppose, a similar thing with Azzedine—[where] there’s this legacy that a lot of people considered insurmountable, a legacy that was as specific and as archetypal as his was. How do you bring yourself to that table?
Pieter: I wasn’t intimidated. Not out of pretension; it just excited me. A lot of other houses called me, but I said no, because they didn’t give me a sense of purpose. It was empty or too big or too commercial. Here, there was something human.
Even if it wasn’t, I thought of it as an empty canvas where I could bring much more of myself to the table, because it’s a very personal house. I stepped into a family. People always look at the show as a result, but there’s much more to a fashion house: the teams, the ateliers, the way you work with the foundations.
“It’s a sort of paradox, staying true to Azzedine but also honoring that little imp of the perverse that he had nestled in his bosom, which kind of goes against honoring him.”
Amber: Do you think it’s easier to go someplace that has such a distinctive history, so personal and small and couture and special? I would think—as much as it would be daunting—there’s an ease to it, because of the legacy and history. His signature is so clear. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in the sense of trying to extrapolate a brand’s meaning and identity.
Pieter: There is something quite beautiful in Alaïa, in that, aesthetically, it’s sustainable. From 1982 until the day he died, it was the same cutting lines. Of course, with time, skirts go wider, smaller, shorter, all of that. But there’s a line in those 40 years of Alaïa that is so clear. It’s not my desire to change the DNA, because I don’t like it so much when people change the DNA of a brand that, historically, is important. In the months before [I started], even the first weeks I was here, I wasn’t scared.
Alaïa is not known by a lot of people, because it was always kept as the biggest secret of fashion. One of my jobs is to make it a bit more well-known, to tap into some of the concepts that were so dear to him, and marry [them] with people like Rihanna. To make the name bigger—from a house to a brand. That, as ugly as it sounds, is the only way that our house can survive.
Tim: He was a tease; he liked to defy expectations. It’s a sort of paradox, staying true to Azzedine but also honoring that little imp of the perverse that he had nestled in his bosom, which kind of goes against honoring him. He would maybe think, Somebody’s gonna come in and fuck with my legacy—which is what he would do.
Pieter: It’s always about opposites. It’s short or long. It’s masculine, feminine. It’s even in the relationship with stores; he was the first to do a collection with Tati—before Zara and H&M. He made a collection with the cheapest store in Paris, way before everybody else. It’s all about extremes. That’s the beauty of this house.
Tim: One thing that’s interesting about Azzedine’s casting is there was a coherence to the cut—you could see the community on the catwalk. There’s not necessarily that sort of coherence [at other houses]. It felt like the story was more concise, and a lot more convincing.
Amber: Some brands today have a handful of celebrities, and whether we like it or not, aesthetically, that’s how they create their brand. I think it’s just a choice. Azzedine gathered these women, and they thought his clothing looked amazing on them—which it did. That’s why they stayed near him. Plus, his personality.
Pieter: He treated them all like family, all these young girls traveling the world. Big houses, [their] castings are very dry. Azzedine was everywhere. Most girls felt that it was home, something warm, a part of Paris they had never experienced. If you look at the shows in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s always the same girls—always. When he liked somebody, he liked them forever. There was no trend in it.
Amber: If I have the choice, I’m always going to go for a relationship over just coming in and getting a paycheck. The longevity of the creative exchange that we’re going to have is much more fulfilling and longer [lasting], because there’s a sense of wanting to see that designer grow, and be a part of that growth—not necessarily financially, but just in their dream.
Tim: The industry now is much bigger, right? And more ruthless. There’s this supersize element. We talk about houses doing $20 billion worth of business in a year.
Amber: The demand for brands to churn out collection after collection, and beauty and perfume—it’s ad nauseam. In some ways, you can’t even blame them. I can’t be pissed off that they don’t want to relate to me on a human level, because they don’t have fucking time to do anything. Pieter, you’re blessed to be at a house becoming a brand—there’s still a sense of purpose in how you want to grow. There’s a slowness that allows the integrity of the DNA to stay intact. Other brands are required to go to Timbuktu to do a show. It’s exhausting. It’s not about you as a person; it’s about what you’re going to bring to them financially. I think it’s a miss on the business of fashion, because we’re losing the creative.
Tim: I was thinking, there’s a way to see what you did with the last show as your reaction to that. Not only doing a smaller, more intimate show, but in your apartment. It’s almost a political statement.
Pieter: It honestly was. The most extreme thing to do was to show the collection where it was conceived, which was in my house.
“Azzedine was everywhere. Most girls felt that it was home, something warm, a part of Paris they had never experienced.”
Tim: How do you communicate that spirit to the hungry beast of social media?
Pieter: I don’t think it should be explained. I’d rather have people out there, like you, talk about it, write about it, get inspired by it. [To stage it] in my home, the impact is bigger than anything that would cost millions to do, because it’s an honest way to do fashion—which is very rare nowadays. It’s a way of looking at luxury that is completely different, because it’s not grand, but it feels grand. It’s a small group. They don’t want to make it in a billion-dollar business. It’s their wish that somebody takes care of it, that the name [keeps] going.
In the end, we cannot talk about luxury if everybody wants to be part of it. I don’t want to talk to everybody. I want to talk to people who are susceptible to the name and what we stand for. The more you talk to everyone, the more the thing has to become.
Tim: You kind of end up talking to no one.
What I loved about that dinner, what people loved about Azzedine, was that luxury of intimacy, which so cleverly attaches itself to the fundamental principle of fashion: desire. Can we bring that luxury of intimacy back? Can we counteract the mechanical sheen?
Amber: I mean, it’s necessary. Intimacy is what makes something desirable. You feel a personal connection to it; therefore, the value of it is so much stronger, you hold it longer, it becomes heritage. No one gets rid of Azzedine. I can’t imagine your resale market is very high. If they’re reselling, it’s to make money. Intimacy is important to sustainability, and slowing down the industry.
Pieter: I know there’s a whole generation going back to reading, cooking, gardening, everything that we do with our hands. But we got so spoiled. We all think we connect on social media, but it’s not a connection. It’s just a way to have other people think what you want [them] to think of you. It’s quite vulgar. I hope the younger generation will change, and understand that intimacy, luxury, and exclusivity will make fashion reasonable again. It’s like, you have a date, and you can sleep with him or her in a second, or you have to wait for a month and a half. What is the most attractive thing [to do]? You wait.
Tim: The fantasy of anticipation.
Pieter: Nowadays, it’s on all levels. You want to eat something? Click. You want to have sex? Click. It’s nice to wait. But I’m not sure it will change so fast.
Tim: [Fashion] is an industry built on consumption, and the challenge of marrying sustainability and consumption is enormous. But you can re-conceptualize the notion of value. We’re living in such a valueless environment now. Fashion, obviously, would be one area where you could reeducate people about what value actually is. And Azzedine, of course, would be a kind of standard-bearer for something like that.
Pieter: People are also not educated anymore on the value—the effort, money, investment, creativity. You think about Chanel, and you immediately think, Its value is that it costs a lot of money. Value on that level is completely different than what I think it is. Value is looking at something, and [deciding] how much is it worth [to] me, without anything else related to it.
Amber: This idea of holding onto things and then passing them on is beautiful. They share a story. Most of my vintage pieces are still holding up today. The only thing that might be falling apart is literally the fabric, so old that a moth got in there. But, whether it’s the cut or the design, they last.