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Azzedine Alaia, fashion's most independent designer, is dead at 82

Azzedine Alaïa, one of the greatest and most uncompromising designers of the 20th and 21st centuries, died Saturday in Paris. He was 77.

His company said the cause was a heart attack.

Known as a sculptor of the female form, and worn by women from Michelle Obama to Lady Gaga, Alaïa was equally famous for his rejection of the fashion system and his belief that it had corrupted the creative power of what could be an art form. He rarely hewed to the official show calendar, preferring to reveal his work when he deemed it ready, as opposed to when retailers or press demanded it.

Instead he built his own system, and family of supporters, and since the turn of the millennium had become an increasingly important voice for the value of striving to perfect and exploring a single proprietary aesthetic, and against giving in to the relentless pressure to produce collections.

His kitchen, where he was famous for holding free-flowing lunch and dinner gatherings, for which he often cooked, was his soapbox. There he would regale guests — who could include designers come to pay homage, Kardashians, artist Julian Schnabel, architect Peter Marino and seamstresses from his ateliers — long into the night with opinion, stories and exhortations.

Short — at least compared to supermodels like Naomi Campbell, who called him "Papa," and Farida Khelfa — he was always attired in a uniform of black Chinese cotton pajamas. He was famous for working long hours alone, bent over patterns and pieces of fabric, with National Geographic programs playing on the wide screen TV nearby.

He was also mischievous: He often lied about his age, once told a journalist that his mother was a Swedish model, and liked to hide from his staff members and then startle them by jumping out with a whistle. Prone to hold grudges, he could also be extraordinarily generous.

Alaïa dedicated his life to the belief that fashion was more than just garments; to him, they were as much an element in the empowerment of women and in a broader cultural conversation.

An exhibit of his work in 2015 at the Villa Borghese in Rome, where his gowns held their own among the Caravaggios and Berninis, proved he had achieved that goal.

The couture federation said Alaïa was born in 1940, while the Tunisian Culture Ministry said he was born in 1942. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained. Alaïa came to Paris in 1957 to work with Christian Dior, living in the "chambre de bonne" of Comtesse Nicole de Blégiers, and paying his rent by making clothes for her and babysitting her children. Word spread, and he became a secret of the great and good of French society. He opened his own maison in 1979.

He introduced his first ready-to-wear collection in 1980 and was hailed as "the king of cling." He used leather and knits to shape the body, transforming it into the best version of itself.

He is survived by his partner, painter Christoph von Weyhe; and nieces and nephews.

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