Thomas Demand

Thomas Demand on photographing Azzedine Alaïa’s archive

Thomas Demand, wren, 2020, pigment print, 42 3/4 x 56 1/2".

Having previously considered architects including Hans Hollein and John Lautner, Thomas Demand now turns to the work of the late fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa for “Model Studies,” on view at Matthew Marks Gallery in Los Angeles through April 9, 2022. The exhibition consists of four large photographs taken in Alaïa’s archive: patterns used by the French couturier and his studio to make and remake his garments known for their tight, exacting forms. Our conversation spanned questions of craft, translation, and models both physical and conceptual. We spoke over sandwiches in Santa Monica.

AFTER AZZEDINE ALAÏA PASSED AWAY in 2017, his foundation invited me to come and photograph his desk. That wasn’t really for me. I thought I wouldn’t do it justice, as I couldn’t add anything to what was there already. But I saw these patterns hanging around. I had been looking at patterns of clothing for a long time, as well as clothing workshops where they have these patterns hanging, especially in leather fabrication. They remind me of Duchamp’s rulers in Three Standard Stoppages, the accidental curve. So these curving patterns in Alaïa’s workshop function as a kind of ruler for their clothing. It’s very abstract. You don’t see a T-shirt there or a dress or jacket, but you see the elements.

A special thing with Alaïa was that he made all his patterns himself. He would make a pattern with a model and cut them and then a member of his workshop would translate them to different sizes. But the first pattern of the jacket he would do himself, and he would construct the first items of clothing. It would always be very muted, black, maybe red or with a little bit of pattern, but ultimately it wouldn’t be about patterns or color, it would always be about material and how a piece of clothing can be constructed. In that sense it’s very architectural. The potential of this clothing was very intriguing to me.

I remember when I saw his designs in shops, they would be hard to get and very expensive, but you would never have the feeling of market-driven calculation. You could tell that they were objects handmade in Paris, coming from his workshop. It would be an amazing thing, even for someone who isn’t an expert in fashion.

The process of translation is an important thing for me, as is the element of refinement. That is, that a work isn’t derived from an arbitrary idea, one following the next, but that it comes from a long process of mastership: in this case why a particular bow is where it is, why the seam sits here and not over there, where everybody else might put it. It’s invention and a very old style of craftsmanship. But in the end, you cannot make a single dress from my photographs. It falls completely back into an abstract image of something you think you understand.

What my photographs of interiors all have in common is a certain presence. The feeling that someone has just left the room, or that somebody will come back around the corner in a second. Like when you go in a shop and there’s nobody there, you think, “I could take everything I want.” There’s a kind of fragility to the moment. At the core of this is the observation that if you have a photograph of any space, and you have two people in the photograph, it’s all about these two people in the space. If you have a photograph of the same space without the people, it’s about you occupying the space, your mind, your brain, you yourself imagining what it’s like to be there.

With these newer photographs, there’s the presence of Alaïa. He’s very present in the cutouts and the drawings and every mark on the objects. But at the same time, the intention of these shapes is absent. I wouldn’t say you can see an arm in it or something. But you can see a bit of progress, a purposefulness. You can tell that these are not shapes to build a house. They’re not shapes to become a chair. I think people immediately understand that this is not the technical drawing of an architect, because of its fluidity. There’s a sense that everything is a pattern for something bigger to come.