Recently, at a dinner party in Paris, I was talking with an accessories designer at a major French fashion house about the trajectory of today’s emerging talents. “They are very good at function and utility,” she told me. “But they have lost all appreciation for beauty. If you want beauty in fashion, forget it.”
I thought about that observation as I made my way through the streets of the Marais neighborhood on an unusually balmy March morning to the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation. After launching his line in the early 1980s, the legendary Tunisian designer built a fiercely loyal following by celebrating and embellishing the female form, endowing women with an audacious sense of confidence. The relationship between beauty and power was Alaïa’s raison d’être—he wasn’t called the “King of Cling” for nothing. His body-conscious designs exaggerated shoulders and cinched waists, emphasizing every curve. A revered figure in the haughty salons of haute couture, he was equally adored by attention-stealing celebrities like Grace Jones and Tina Turner.
Alaïa was as much of a radical with his process as he was with his clothes. Most fashion designers are part-time showmen; Alaïa was a full-time artist who let his work do all the showing. He famously bucked trends and derided corporate culture, often working late at night as an old black and white movie played on television. Intimacy and connection were his keys to the outside world. The rigmarole of Fashion Week was not for him, so he simply presented his work whenever he felt it was finished. He regularly hosted family-style dinners at home with friends, clients, and collaborators; models such as Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell lovingly called him “Papa.”
When Alaïa died in 2017, at age 82, after a fall in the courtyard of his home, the brand and his loyal team continued his mission—but the man at the top seemed irreplaceable. Then, in 2021, Richemont, Alaïa’s parent company, announced that it had hired a new creative director, a cerebral Belgian designer with a highly polished CV named Pieter Mulier. When I met Mulier, a handsome, sharp-faced 42-year-old, the question of whether it is still possible to create collections that put beauty first was immediately laid to rest. “We don’t use themes or references to build collections,” he told me, holding a cigarette pitched upward between his thumb and index finger, like a stick of graphite. “We don’t have marketers in the atelier. It’s just about the clothes. What we do is simple—beautiful, well-made clothes. And for me, it’s very fresh. Nobody else does that.”
Back in the early 2000s, Mulier was studying architecture at Institut Saint-Luc, in Brussels, and, as he readily admits, he knew absolutely nothing about fashion. But the famed designer Raf Simons, who at the time was revolutionizing menswear, sat on the jury for senior projects and saw something in him. “He gave me his number and told me he’d love for me to come work for him,” Mulier said. So began one of the most successful mentor-mentee relationships in recent fashion history. Mulier started out at Simons’s eponymous brand and became a constant presence at his side, moving with him as Simons landed the top job at Jil Sander in 2005, and then continued on to Christian Dior in 2012. “As Raf’s career grew, so did my education,” Mulier said. “I went from menswear to accessories to womenswear to couture...and then finally to Calvin.” Simons’s tenure at Calvin Klein in New York began in 2016, and was as exhilarating as it was bumpy—possibly because the all-American monolith had never been helmed by a European conceptualist. Mulier served as the company’s global creative director, which meant he oversaw all Calvin Klein lines, from men’s and women’s to the countless offshoots and licenses around the world—golf, jeans, underwear, and more.
Mulier’s role at Calvin Klein was more commercial and market-driven than anything he’d previously experienced. The workload was intense, and generally consisted more of meetings than designing. “Talking, talking, talking, giving energy,” Mulier said. Every weekend, he would fly to Amsterdam to touch base with the company’s European office. Fortunately, Mulier’s longtime boyfriend, the French designer Matthieu Blazy, was also working at Calvin Klein, and in New York the couple managed to build something of a real home. They even adopted a Labrador-Pointer mix and named him John John, in homage to John F. Kennedy Jr. But the writing was soon on the wall for Simons, whose collections, though well reviewed, never fully aligned with the Calvin Klein ethos. Mulier acknowledges that when the experiment came to an end, he was both disappointed and relieved. “I was fired the day before Christmas,” he recalled. “I was about to get on a plane to see my parents when I heard the news. But, of course, Matthieu lost his job at the same time, so we could share that together—very romantic.” Still, the stint at Calvin Klein, though fraught, wasn’t a negative experience for Mulier. He learned a lot about the business of fashion and identified the kind of creative environments that did and did not suit him. He and Blazy moved back to Antwerp, where they own a penthouse with a huge rooftop garden. For a long time, Mulier wasn’t certain that he even had a future in fashion. “I thought maybe I would go back to architecture or furniture design,” he said. Finally, in February 2020, the phone rang. (It also rang for Blazy, who is now the creative director of Bottega Veneta.)
Mulier spent nearly a year auditioning for the Alaïa role. He designed a handful of test collections, drove from Antwerp to Paris during the height of the pandemic to meet with Richemont executives, and promised them he would accept no other offers until they made their decision. “I wanted it,” he said. It’s easy to see why. If Calvin Klein signified fashion at its most commercial, Alaïa was a return to bespoke artistry. “I knew that the first few collections needed to explain the house’s DNA to younger generations,” he said. “But at the same time, it should always stay based on what Azzedine did.”
What Azzedine did is hard to replicate. He was a master patternmaker who draped his designs directly on the bodies of live models, which is not how most designers today operate. Luckily, all 35 members of Alaïa’s atelier stayed on, and now Mulier spends most of his days working side by side with them, assembling collections look by look, relying on gut instinct and vision, without turning to stylists, influencers, or corporate bigwigs to determine the brand’s direction. If something doesn’t work, it goes; if it isn’t ready yet, it holds for the next season. Mulier’s first show, last July, staged right outside the maison’s doors on Rue de Moussy, was an education in all things Alaïa—hourglass figures, stretch-knit gowns, sharp tailoring, hooded blouses. His most recent collection, shown this past January, featured lacy bodysuits, ruffled dresses that went down to the ankle, and turtleneck odes to Picasso that covered half the face. Both shows received near unanimous praise—including, notably, from die-hard Alaïa fans of yore.
Yet Mulier’s objective isn’t merely to fit into the late maestro’s shoes. One of his ambitions is to turn the label from “a secret that everyone knew” into a more expansive brand. “Alaïa’s following was like a private club,” Mulier said. “Now it’s time for the name to grow.” This strategy includes making the house more egalitarian, less invitation-only. Mulier has opened the line to larger sizes and has eliminated the elitism of having to ring a bell to be admitted into the stores. But his touch is, of course, most evident in the designs. Just as he learned to think like Simons without sacrificing his own aesthetic, he is now showcasing house signatures updated with his own idiosyncratic knack for architecture, accessories, layering, and clever proportions.
But perhaps the most vital difference between Mulier’s vision and Alaïa’s comes down to the definition of beauty itself. Alaïa’s creations—hard on the outside, concealing delicacy within—were the ne plus ultra wardrobe during the heyday of the larger-than-life feminine ideal of the glamazon. The reticent Alaïa, who stood just over five feet, surrounded himself with very tall, voluptuous women, as if to underscore the importance of physicality in projecting confidence. “It’s a very good time for Alaïa culturally, in terms of body consciousness and the celebration of sexuality,” Mulier said. But he is updating his predecessor’s very specific sense of female empowerment. At the mention of glamazons, Mulier says, “We don’t use that term anymore, since it alludes to a perfection of body and mind. And perfection, for me, is not attractive...or sexual. Alaïa still talks to a powerful woman, but she gets her power by accepting her imperfections. There is nothing more attractive than that.” Mulier keeps the boldness of the body front and center, but he also offers generous doses of softness, asymmetry, playfulness, and fluidity. His clothes are less of a shield, and feel freer and more open to change. It’s no surprise that some celebrities who have been leading the charge when it comes to evolving notions of beauty have already embraced Mulier’s aesthetic. This past February, a pregnant Rihanna was spotted wearing a red leather hooded Alaïa dress coat.
Today, Mulier’s former mentor Simons is designing at Prada. Despite no longer working together, the two remain quite close. Mulier says Simons is “like family,” and they talk every week—but not about fashion. That subject also tends to be off-limits at home, given Blazy’s own success and hectic schedule at Bottega Veneta. Mulier spends his workweek in Paris, while Blazy is in Milan, leaving the weekend for the couple to reunite in Antwerp. Like most of us, they live a little more quietly than they did before the pandemic—gardening, inviting friends over, and cooking, which is Mulier’s particular passion. All in all, Mulier currently has the life—and job—of his dreams. “Alaïa represents everything that is still good in fashion,” he said, pointing out how much he loves that the clothes tend to be passed down from mother to daughter. “Alaïa is small. It is human. It is not about everything we witness as fashion nowadays. Alaïa clothes are forever, not for a season.”
Hair by Virginie Moreira for Oribe at MA+ World Group; makeup by Daniel Sallstrom for Shiseido at MA+ World Group; manicure by Ama Quashie for Dr. Barbara Sturm at Streeters. Model: Raquel Zimmermann at DNA Models. Casting by Anita Bitton.
Produced by Holmes Production; executive producer: Laura Holmes; producer: Suzy Patten; production manager: Lily Breuer; production coordinator: Jeremy Rwakasiisi; photo assistants: Felix TW, Valdrin Rexhepi; digital technician: Paul Allister; retouching: Dtouch London; fashion assistants: Margherita Alaimo, Andrew Burling; production assistant: Marvin King-George; hair assistant: Shahiyan Mason; makeup assistant: Charlie Murray; set assistant: Axel Drury; tailor: Birute Kelminskiene.