You need to move that down by three centimetres for it to work,” says 40-year-old designer/artist Hussein Chalayan, referring to a set of balloons attached to a mannequin. He is guiding the exhibition team at the Musée Des Arts Décoratifs in Paris through final tweaks before the opening of what is the most comprehensive exhibition of his work to date.
Less a traditional “costume show”, or any kind of retrospective, more a primer in the way ideas relate to clothing, the Chalayan show features approximately 70 garments dating from Hussein’s 1993 Central Saint Martins College graduate collection through to the current Autumn/Winter 2011 collection. Numerous videos and short films are included, such as “Absent Presence”, which was conceived by Chalayan and features Tilda Swinton.
To walk the two floors of the exhibition is to understand that Chalayan explored many of the themes being discussed on today’s catwalks and in headlines during the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Between” (1998) explores the de-personification of women by religious dress using mannequins wearing black chadors of differing lengths. “After Words” (2000), where a model lifted a table that turned into a dress, here seen on video, was a commentary on refugees and human displacement. “Place To Passage” (2003), a film written and directed by Chalayan, features photographer Bennu Gerede travelling from London to Istanbul in an aerodynamic pod wearing nude-coloured body stockings that are so pristine they’re almost surgical (this was the inspiration for Lady Gaga’s entrance into the 2011 Grammy awards while “incubating” in a giant pod).
As for the rising balloons the designer was talking about fixing, they are part of “Kinship Journeys”, the autumn/winter 2003 collection of skirts and dresses built in seemingly abstract layers that open into aerodynamic forms when models stand over wind machines. A comment on the Roman Catholic church and, according to the visitors’ guide, “the meaning of hope, sin and salvation” – a mannequin holding a balloon symbolises the act of trying to reach the divine.
Seeing all these works together (such as the laser dress from S/S 2008, pictured) raises questions not about the meaning of the pieces themselves, but rather about the broader difficulty of defining designers like Chalayan – is he a fashion designer or an artist? The Musée des Arts Decoratifs suggests that perhaps such distinctions are not necessary: Chalayan can be, and is, both, and that makes him above all a conceptualist for our times.
“People always think I’m a futuristic designer but I’m actually interested in the past and present,” says Chalayan. “I just do things that interest me, and if there’s a sense of aerodynamics or cleanliness people think that’s futuristic. But that’s because they’ve watched too many space films.”
Hussein Chalayan ‘Fashion Narratives’, July 5-November 13, Musée Des Arts Décoratifs, Paris www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr