How Azzedine Alaïa and Arthur Elgort brought high fashion to the streets

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Naomi Campbell and Azedine Alaia, Paris, 1986. © Arthur Elgort.

A new exhibition pairs the Tunisian designer’s clothes with Elgort’s photographs of early-career supermodels in Paris – a time when dance, street photography and fashion were one 

“I would say that I’m the luckiest guy,” proclaims the veteran American fashion photographer Arthur Elgort, reminiscing on the early days of his career in the 1980s. “I didn’t do anything special. I was [there] at the right time. I had good models. So it was very easy for me.”

Perched on a stool, Elgort, a dapper 82-year-old, is talking at the opening of the exhibition Azzedine Alaïa, Arthur Elgort. Freedom at Fondation Azzedine Alaïa in Paris. Located down a cobbled courtyard in the Marais, the venue was established in 2007 as an association by the Tunisian-born fashion designer, in order to protect his work and art collection. Three years after Alaïa’s death, it was transformed into a foundation.

On view are a selection of Elgort’s photographs from the 1980s of models such as Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, each wearing Alaïa-designed clothes. The photographs are juxtaposed with the actual garment seen in the image, creating a dialogue between the two. 

Arthur Elgrort and Grethe Holby Elgort, New York City, 1987. © Arthur Elgort.

What’s striking about the pictures, many of them produced in black-and-white, is how Elgort captured a sense of movement. There’s Campbell twirling around in a short dress. Standing amid a dappled pattern of light cast on the ground, she beams at the camera, while Alaïa – miniscule by comparison – walks in the shadowed corner of the high-ceiling, speckled-walled room holding his Yorkshire Terrier. In another image, Campbell and Jennifer Gimenez are leaping into the air in tight, stretchy dresses, their legs tucked underneath them. 

“Azzedine had a room where he used to keep Naomi [when she came over to Paris for modelling jobs]. She wasn’t handcuffed or anything. It was in the Marais. She was always there so I had a perfect picture. She liked to think that she was a ballerina,” Elgort says. 

Indeed, the Brooklyn-born photographer started out shooting ballet after studying painting at Hunter College in New York. His glamorous wife, Grethe Barrett Holby, was a dancer before becoming a theatre producer and choreographer. “I realised that I made no money at all [photographing ballet]; in fact, I was losing money,” recalls Elgort. “Then my older brother said: ‘Why don’t you give fashion a chance because you’re very fast?’”

“Elgort asked models to jump in the street and found this force and freedom. His passion [for] dance and music came across, which wasn’t elsewhere in photography at the time”

As his foray into the world of fashion took off, Elgort photographed models on the street, partly because he did not have a studio. He would then develop the prints in his own darkroom. “I kind of enjoyed it because I liked pretty girls,” he says. “I was just lucky to be in that era because nobody was in the street that much. They [other photographers] were in the studio more. Even [Richard] Avedon, who was terrific on the street when he was younger, got more into big cameras and couldn’t go onto the street as well.”

Elgort first met Alaïa – who was five years his senior – in Paris and began photographing his collections once he began working for American Vogue. “Alaïa had a small studio, he wasn’t famous at all,” Elgort recounts. “We got along right away. He spoke no English and I spoke no French.”

Despite the language barrier, Elgort and Alaïa collaborated for several years in Paris and once in New York, ultimately becoming “friends for life”, Elgort says fondly. Yet the animosity between Alaïa and rival Karl Lagerfeld, creative director at Chanel, somehow precluded Elgort covering Alaïa’s collections as much as he would have liked. “They were both geniuses but there must have been a fight somewhere that I didn’t know about,” Elgort says.

Christy Turlington, New York City, 1987. © Arthur Elgort.

It was in that era that Elgort first met Carla Sozzani, founder of the fashion concept store 10 Corso Como in Milan, who was then working as a fashion editor at Vogue Italia. Today, Sozzani – who was great friends with Alaïa – is president of the Fondation Azzedine Alaïa and curated the exhibition.

“If we look at photos of Azzedine’s [work] before Elgort came along, there was [Horst P.] Horst – everything was taken in the studio, the poses were calibrated, the backdrops were perfect,” Sozzani recalls. “Elgort asked models to jump in the street and found this force and freedom. His passion [for] dance and music came across, which wasn’t elsewhere in photography at the time. And Azzedine was seeking the freedom of women through stretch fabrics that enabled them to move, jump, circulate and dance.”

What also appeals to Sozzani is the timelessness of Elgort’s photographs. “They don’t feel dated; we could imagine that they were made today,” she says. “The girls aren’t wearing much makeup so you don’t really know in which year they were made. It’s the same thing with Azzedine’s clothes.” Asked what qualities make a great photograph, Elgort replies: “Timing. If you look at Irving Penn, it was always time. Today, I like Steven Meisel, even though he copies Avedon.”

Timing is brilliantly encapsulated in Elgort’s photographs, too, from the swishing of a dress to a startled expression. The exhibition takes us back to a time before the word “supermodel” was coined, when Campbell, whom Alaïa treated like a daughter, and Turlington were fresh-faced teenagers, when Linda Spierings and Joan Severance exuded coquettish confidence, when Grace Jones brought a fearless, sexual energy to any shoot. But in the end, it is the juxtapositions between the images and perfectly preserved clothes which best help us to imagine how Alaïa’s vision inspired Elgort’s art.

Veronica Webb and Azzedine Alaia, Paris, 1986. © Arthur Elgort.

Azzedine Alaïa, Arthur Elgort. Freedom is at Fondation Azzedine Alaïa, Paris, until 20 August.