The Design Museum’s exhibition of fashion designer Hussein Chalayan’s high-tech work is compelling and well-curated, writes James Pallister
High-concept, multidisciplinary, collaborative – just some of the words used to describe the work of fashion designer Hussein Chalayan. Twice named British Designer of the Year, and with an MBE to boot, Chalayan now has the first floor of London’s Design Museum to himself in his first comprehensive exhibition in the UK.
The show, Hussein Chalayan: From Fashion And Back, includes many of the designer’s best-known pieces. His laser-cut nylon tulle dress from the Before Minus Now collection (Spring/Summer 2000) is present, and Readings (Spring/Summer 2008), a dress covered with 200 moving lasers, is displayed in a glass case. Chalayan’s commission for Swarovski, Repose (Autumn/Winter 2006), is a piece of an aircraft wing, whose rising and falling ailerons reveal twinkling crystals and 15,000 LEDs.
I spoke to Chalayan shortly before the exhibition’s opening last month, hoping to ask him about his architectural influences – as seen in works such as the wooden Convertible Skirt/Table (Autumn/Winter 2001), which appeared in last year’s Somerset House exhibition Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture. But Chalayan refused to be drawn on this: ‘I don’t really refer to specific architecture as such – it’s more the theory of space, place, the dimensions of the body, materials. This is how architectural theory is relevant to my work.’
Chalayan is based in East London, though he shows his collections in Paris. ‘London is a great place to launch young people, but is not so great at maintaining them,’ he says. ‘Unless you build up relationships outside of the country, you are buggered.’ The designer was forced into voluntary liquidation in 2001 but has since bounced back – helped by sports brand PUMA, for which he is creative director – and acquired a majority stake in his company in 2008. ‘I’ve been lucky enough to go into this economic situation with PUMA’s backing,’ he says. ‘Over the next year I need to expand my accessories and ready-to-wear ranges. But I want to do it all my own way, and juggle this with the demands of working for PUMA, and not fall into the classic trap for growing brands of letting quality slip.’
In the stairwell to the first-floor gallery of the Design Museum, Chalayan’s Airmail Dress (1999) unfolds from a blue and red chevroned A3 airmail envelope, becoming a dress pattern with instructions for folding and pinning printed on it. It sets up the exhibition’s theme of travel, alluded to in its title. Adjacent to this is a dress from Chalayan’s legendary graduate collection The Tangent Flows (Spring/Summer 1994), in which he covered simply cut silk dresses with iron filings, buried them underground for several months and then exhumed them, putting the resultant richly hued dresses on show. London store Browns snapped up the collection in full, propelling Chalayan into the limelight and giving him a reputation for innovation. ‘When I approached him [for the exhibition], we both knew it wouldn’t just be about fashion,’ says exhibition curator Donna Loveday. ‘Here’s 15 years here of installations, films, artwork – as well as his clothing collections.’
Films are looped throughout the exhibition. Straightforward catwalk footage contrasts with 2003 show Kinship Journeys, where a model trampolines while the helium balloons attached to her braces slowly rise and fall. Passage to Home (2003) and Absent Presence (2005) are more engaging, with discernible narratives. In Passage to Home, a model jets off in a pod, eating and bathing over a changing sci-fi-esque landscape before reaching Istanbul, passing up the Golden Horn in favour of her final destination – an underground car park. Absent Presence, which Chalayan presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale, is a paranoid and claustrophobic film exploring DNA profiling, starring actress Tilda Swinton as a biologist.
Another reason to visit the show is the excellent exhibition design of Block Architecture, which also designed Chalayan’s shop in Tokyo (2004). ‘The curtains and rails give a very simple and clear visual envelope,’ says Block director Zoe Smith. ‘We actually used them in the Tokyo shop. In the exhibition it really allows the pieces to breathe.’ Clever sequencing and Block’s curtain partitions mean that 15 separate rooms become a whole in a way that allows exhibits to be viewed in isolation without impeding the flow of the exhibition.
Signage is provided by dot-matrix LED screens and large airport-style, sans-serif letters. Detailed captions next to exhibits are scrapped in favour of a numbering system that corresponds with a catalogue. ‘Taking the text out of it was the best thing to do, because there was already going to be so much visual information within the exhibits,’ says Smith. Decluttering the space was a smart move – removing the textual noise allows visitors their own interpretation of the work on show.
Travel, technology and feelings of alienation have proven rich pickings for artists. We are perhaps overfamiliar with many of Chalayan’s themes – flight, space-age high jinks – but it’s still compelling stuff. The designer’s craft and skill stops his pieces from becoming rehashed sci-fi fantasies. This show is a banquet of sensory stimulation and reveals how high fashion can be used as a crucible for artistic and practical experimentation. It’s mix should provide a tonic for the frustrated artist in everyone.