Today was obscenely gorgeous. Helen and I walked an hour along the river in the sun to go see the Hussein Chalayan retrospective at the Design Museum. It was perfect-- an ideal, almost-spring kind of day.
The exhibition, Chalayan's first retrospective, is challenging, ethereal, and esoteric-- a huge achievement for a fashion designer. Perhaps his work is so affecting because he is so much more than a fashion designer. It would not be unfair to call him a sculptor, scientist, engineer, or architect.
Educated in both Cyprus and England, Chalayan's work is motivated by his unique cultural background. He is guided by a personal engagement with the world that culminates in producing overarching themes in his work like genetics, progress, and displacement. His runway shows are more like political performances on these themes, and his dresses are more than art. The Design Museum retrospective is successful in showing the developing breadth of Chalayan's sphere of influence, though it seldom stops to allow viewers to process the significance of each collection in context.
It was striking to finally see so many famous pieces that I had only read about in books (though my favourite dress of all, the "Airplane Dress" from Spring/ Summer 2000 was not on view).
The show opens with a dress from Chalayan's graduate collection from Central St. Martin's, "The Tangent Flows" from Spring/ Summer 1994. The collection featured beautiful, seemingly traditional silk dresses that had been covered in iron filings, buried in the ground for months, and then exhumed and put down the runway. To see the dress on display was to think of the visibility of potential. When this work was on view in art school, could anyone have guessed what he would have pioneered?
Other famous pieces I was pleased to see included his "Airmail Dress" from December 1999. The dress, packaged and made of paper, is designed to be sent through the mail. Printed with the borders of an airmail envelope, the dress comes with instructions for how to fold it and make it fit. The instructions encourage the recipient to draw and write on the material as well.
The best thing of all was the room dedicated to his "Afterwords" collection (Autumn/ Winter 2000). Afterwords was inspired by the story of refugees and the idea of having to leave home in times of trouble. Refugees want to take all their things with them, they want to bring home with them, but this is seldom possible. Recalling the plight of Turkish Cypriots (including his own family) who were subjected to ethnic cleansing in Cyprus following its Independence in 1960, Chalayan translated the refugee experience and the desire to hide possessions and take them on departure into dress. The collection was shown in a living room, filled with books, vases, modern chairs, and a coffee table. One by one, models walked into the room and took an object that was then put into a pocket specifically designed to carry that object. The room soon emptied of books and vases, leaving the furniture. Sure enough, four models walked out into the room, and began to unzip the chair covers, converting them into dresses and dressing on stage. (The chairs turned into suitcases. ) All that is left is a coffee table. Silently, the last model walks on stage, removes the center of the coffee table, steps inside the center, and pulls the table slowly upward. The table has converted into a wooden skirt, which she can now take with her as she leaves her home.
The Chalayan retrospective contains a lot of challenging beauty. It also has a lot of problems (the guidebook is poorly-written, the mannequins are grotesque). But overall, this is a fantastic opportunity to see so many famous, important pieces in the same place.
"Hussein Chalayan: From Fashion and Back" is on view at the Design Museum through May 17, 2009.