“Alternative Luxury Fashion since 1994,” reads the Instagram bio one-liner of British designer Hussein Chalayan. Though not all-encompassing, the word “alternative” does sum up Chalayan’s body of work spanning 25 years quite aptly.
The Central Saint Martins alumnus first burst into the scene to great media furore with a graduate collection of decomposed clothing in 1993. Since then, the mould-breaker’s portfolio have listed collections and creations with their own unique narratives, from the famous coffee table that doubled as a wooden skirt to the extraterrestrial womb pod in which Lady Gaga arrived at the 2011 Grammys.
As theatrical as they were, Chalayan’s approach to his work is intimately associated with explorations of the human body. The female body, to be exact. “There might seem to be nothing minimal about women dressed in home furnishings, cone-heads, or chadors, but the disciplined codes of a Chalayan show were clear from the start, regardless of all the wild surprises,” says Vogue’s Sally Singer in the introduction of Betak: Fashion Show Revolution, a book on Alexandre de Betak, legendary fashion show producer and Chalayan’s frequent collaborator. “There could be nudity, but it probably wasn’t sexy.”
Chalayan is known to interweave this with technology: LED-embedded gowns, microchip-operated dresses that shape-shift, overcoats that evaporated into dresses when showered with water. The designer once noted, “Only with technology can you create new things in fashion. Everything else has already been done.”
On the birthday of the great storyteller, we revisit some of his most visceral moments that have been permanently seared into fashion history.
The rebirth of disentombed garments
Chalayan’s graduate collection, The Tangent Flows, was a definitive stepping stone to his provocative story-telling journey. Shifting the focus to the process rather than the end result, he presented a host of oxidised silk garments he had buried and left to decay in his friend’s back garden for several months.
Though yet to utilise unconventional tech at this point, his innovative sacramental textile treatment earned himself a seat as the industry’s young intellectual. Famously, influential London department store Browns bought the collection in its entirety.
The shapeshifting frocks
Dubbed the Transformer Dresses, Chalayan introduced six of these self-sculpting stunts at his Spring 2007 runway. Each transformed and moved through the decades, as Vogue’s fashion critic Sarah Mower recounted the otherworldly experience in her show review: “The girl walked in and stood stock-still, dressed in a long, high-necked corseted Victorian gown. Then her clothes began to twitch, move, and reconfigure of their own accord. The mono-bosom top opened, the jacket retreated, the hemline started to rise, and — finally, amazingly — there she was, wearing a crystal-beaded flapper dress: a woman propelled through fashion history from 1895 to the twenties in the space of a minute.”
All these were presented alongside conceptual commentaries via the show’s mixtape of 20th century audio bits, including a soundbite of Hitler’s rant, musical fragments, aerial bombing, jet engines. It wasn’t just a full embrace of high technology, Chalayan wanted to provoke his audience by a retrospective which looked towards the future with a post-9/11 optimism.
The naked chadors
Here, it was less about ground-breaking innovation and more about defying certain social norms. Chalayan, a British immigrant of Turkish Cypriot descent hailing from a country besieged by religious and ethnic animosities, was drawn to his heritage and political outlook. Thus bringing forth the birth of Spring 1998’s Between.
Veiled behind the simplicity of chadors and taut knit shift dresses, the poignant collection addressed Muslim women’s status in society. Underneath the chador, the models were visibly naked. Chalayan told The New York Times of his implicit connotation, “It wasn’t really supposed to be offensive. It was supposed to illustrate a particular kind of position. This was about the cultural loss of self.”
The dissolving dresses
More recently for his Spring 2016 Pasatiempo (Spanish for ‘pastime’) presentation, Chalayan made headlines for his water soluble designs. In front of a live audience, two models stood centre stage under a shower. The running water completely disintegrated their overcoats into different looks, two gowns embellished with black stitching and white petals frosted with Swarovski crystals.
This collection re-established the fact that Chalayan was a pioneering designer who looked to the future at a time when others still dwell, romanticise and resell the past.