Confinement versus change in Hussein Chalayan

by HRM on November 5, 2011

Exhibition at Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

It was eighteen years ago that Hussein Chalayan’s graduate collection made him an overnight sensation. Since then the Cypriot born, London based designer has pushed the frontiers of fashion, architecture and design as is evidenced by the impressive overview of the designer currently showing at Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The exhibition claims to be split into two though thematically there is some overlap. The first level explores the political, cultural, religious, and geographical ideas on which his approach is founded. I am sad Leyla (2010), consisting of a film projection and multimedia installation uses Turkish music which has evolved through political reforms and cultural relations whilst Afterwords (A/W 2000) refers to the ethnic cleansing of Cypriot-Turks in Cyprus. The second is more concerned with movement and displacement. Migration, speed and the interpretation of space and time are the focal points here. The result of this rough divide is the creation (perhaps unwitting) of a contrast between projects implying liberation and those which have a restrictive, almost oppressive feel.

Hussein Chalayan

It is in his exploration of the political that Chalayan’s work feels most restrictive. The collection Between (S/S 1998) showcases dresses pinning the models’ arms to their sides. Delicate gold beading on one piece serves simply to tie one’s hands behind one’s back. Chalayan covers faces with Burqa-style dresses removing any sense of identity or individuality. The obliteration of identity is a common theme in these more political works, perhaps a reflection of Chalayan’s own somewhat ambiguous cultural identity. Elsewhere, de-personlisation and oppression appear to play out alongside each other. In Panoramic (A/W 1998) the mannequins’ faces are camouflaged by structured headpieces, their backs turned to us as they paint the walls. Blindscape (S/S 2005) depicts models as gardeners, their faces turned to the ground, whilst in Manifest Destiny (S/S 2003), the figures clean the glass of their exhibit case with socks.

Hussein Chalayan

In stark contrast to this, the second level of the exhibition pursues themes of travel, flight and movement. The effect is a sense of liberation; of freedom. Floaty silk dresses are blown from beneath in Airborne (A/W 2007) indicating transience and flux which the seasonal theme of this collection embodies. Figures covered head to toe in black bring a dress to life in Sakoku (S/S 2011) Movement is not always expressed in terms of the transience of nature: Robes , taken from the first commercial collection, Cartesia (A/W 1994) offers dresses which can be folded into airmail envelopes; the infamous mechanical dresses morph from the historic to the modern (One Hundred and Eleven S/S 2007). The theme of flight continues with the arts project Repose (A/W 2006) showing a disembodied flight with passengers sitting outside the plane. This unconventional scene is, according to Chalayan, ‘a reaction to the absurdity, the excitement and the violence of flying manifesting itself as an out of body experience’.

Hussein Chalayan

Most interesting, however, are the pieces where the concepts of movement and restriction co-exist. In Afterwards (A/W 2000), Chalayan explores the refugee, specifically the need of those confronted by war to dissimulate and transport their belongings on their exodus. Chair covers become dresses; chairs become suitcases; finally a table transforms to a voluminous skirt. As the models leave the stage the room is left white and bare. All previous signs of life have been extinguished. The theme here is movement and travel albeit with a political edge. The movement of refugees is not liberating; it is borne out of the necessity. It is the result of oppression. Aeroplane Dress (1998), a short film directed by Chalayan also embodies this duality. The dress worn by the model in the film is formed like a section of a plane, a symbol of speed and movement. Yet the model herself remains static, rotating of the spot throughout the film. The restrictive elements of migration and exile are simultaneously expressed in the physical restrictiveness of the garments. The model hobbles gingerly in her table skirt in Afterwards. The Aeroplane Dress made of resin allows for very little physical movement. It is in works such as these that the complexity of Chalayan’s work really finds its form.

Hussein Chalayan

This is only a glimpse of the intellectual ground which Chalayan covers in his work. The designer’s work from his graduate collection to the most recent Kaikoku (A/W 2011) is brilliantly showcased in this exhibition. It’s on till the 13th November. Go see for yourself.

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ISSN: 2116 34X