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Identity in the lining

Hussein Chalayan's clothes tell stories and reveal dreams of flying. By Mirja Rosenau

"I would love to come away with you," said Rapunzel to the king's son, "but I don't know how to get down from here." Of course she couldn't climb down her own hair (it was the wicked witch who came up with the idea of cutting it off). The plan with the silk ladder failed famously, and Rapunzel was banished to the wastelands and the Prince thrown from the tower into the roses. Everything eventually ended happily but only after the couple had suffered substantially. The story prompted fashion designer Hussein Chalayan to think up an alternative flight plan, and he designed for Rapunzel a dress that could be rigged to helium balloons, allowing her to float to freedom.

xxHussein Chalayan, Kinship Journey. Autumn/Winter 2003-2004. Picture: Marten de Leeuw, Groninger Museum

"Basically I'm fascinated by everything that flies," said Chalayan at the opening to his first major solo exhibition in the Groninger Museum which is showing his collections of the last ten years along with videos and installations. Chalayan's love of all flying things was already apparent in his first collection from 1994. He sewed a papery material into foldable "airmail clothes" complete with red and blue striped borders and string which could be used to tie them up into letter format. Chalayan has recently produced a T-shirt which is is delivered in a sealed envelope printed with an airmail postmark, an address and sender section and a short text which explains to the buyer that sending somebody this item of clothing serves "as a reminder of your presence or absence".

xxHussein Chalayan, Afterwords. Autumn/Winter 2000. Picture: © Chris Moore

Chalayan's designs are always guided by stories like this, often by complex considerations and rigorous concepts. In his shows, he presents these in narrative form, in videos or in extreme clothes utterly unsuited to everyday wear: the formal consummation of the ideas that inform his work. Chalayan calls these his "monumental pieces" which complement the separate "disciplines" of his actual collections. In the end, what emerges from all the conceptual complexity and references to architecture, history, literature or anthropology is always a dress that can be worn. He assigns various elementary functions to the dresses – in the case of Rapunzel, it was an aid to escape.

xxHussein Chalayan, Geotropics. Summer/Spring 1999. Picture: Marten de Leeuw, Groninger Museum

Chalayan's fascination with flying has not always condensed into nostalgic images such as the hot-air balloon or the airmail letter; jumbo jets also influence his aesthetics. He loves aerodynamic forms, he says. He puts his models into the sort of streamlined helmets that only androids wear or dresses them in fibreglass dresses that look like aeroplanes torsos – and are similarly decked out with moveable plates that can be lowered and positioned like landing brakes on the wings of aeroplanes (during a show in 2000, a boy with a remote control demonstrated how this works).

Maybe it's a yearning for far off places that is behind Chalayan's enthusiasm for flight, or homesickness, or maybe the two are inseparable. Born in 1970, a Turkish Cypriot in Nikosia, he experienced the division of town and country. At the age of twelve his parents divorced and he moved to London with his father. He missed his mother, felt alienated in a new country whose language he couldn't speak, in a prison-like school. A fellow student at Central St Martins in London once told a British journalist that Chalayan was the silent weirdo in the parka who hardly talked to anyone. As Chalayan himself put it, all his clothes are designed to create a port of refuge for all possible places and circumstances.

Today he flies back and forth between London and Tokyo, where he opened his first sales room last year, but above all between England and Turkey – like the woman in his video installation "Place to Passage "(2003) who sits in her jet-propelled, egg-shaped, one-person flight capsule. She sets out from a underground parking lot in London, flying across unwelcoming landscapes, staring out, eating, drinking, sleeping; she is submerged under water in her mono-cellular pod like an amniotic sac. Finally she lands in Istanbul (the garage here looks the same as the first one as one has come to expect in a globalised world). Her ascetic flight is as lonely as that of the last surviving Discovery astronaut in Kubrick's "2001", who, having cutting the cord from the mother ship, travels through time and space in a tiny capsule.

xxHussein Chalayan, Kinship Journey. Autumn/winter 2003-2004. Picture: Marten de Leeuw, Groninger Museum

"Things that isolate themselves become rounded," comments Gaston Bachelard in his "Poetics of Space" and he finds the ultimate example of living compression in the almost spherical form of a bird's body. For Bachelard it is the "excess of concentration which constitutes the bird's immense personal strength, but also its extreme individuality, isolation, social weakness". Chalayan's women's bodies in their hard-shell protection, armoured for flight, also seem isolated in their concentration. His clothes are like the fortresses of autarkic systems (in addition to Rapunzel, the Cartesian subject and Noah's ark have inspired collections). The exteriors are sealed while new spaces unfurl inside. Beneath the tough outer casing and linear silhouettes are a feast of soft frills and folds. Chalayan's tschadors (body veils) which he designed in ankle-long and navel-short variations for his 1998 collection, should be understood in this sense: a territory of material that protects the private sphere, a bit of homeland.

xxTribe Art Commission / hussein chalayan / place to passage 2003. © Tribe Art / hussein chalayan/ neutral. Directed by Hussein Chalayan. Produced by Susie Allen. Actress: Bennu Gerede. Composer: Jean Paul Dessy’. Duration: 12 min., 10 sec

Intimacy and identity take place under camouflage. Chalayan sews a multitude of pockets into his inner linings to store mementos. The video "Temporal Meditations" which accompanied the men's collection of 2003 (the material for which is printed with the most significant moments in Cypriot history), shows the story of a man who undergoes a DNA test in the Nikosia airport. The results reveal that hidden in a pocket sewn into the lining of his jacket he was attempting to smuggle a little chalcolithic clay figure, of the sort commonly found on archaeological digs in Cyprus. The mans' genotype is symbolically equated with the cultural legacy of his country of origin; the cultural identity is kept safe in the form of smuggled goods in an inner lining.

For Chalayan clothing is a carrier of history. In 1993 for his graduation piece, he sewed some rust-stained cloth, which he had found buried under iron chips in a friend's garden, into a repository of individual memories and cultural influences that make up a personality. Chalayan compared this dress with a taxi, in which the immigrant driver surrounds himself with relics from his past. His collection for the coming fall and winter is called "Anthropology of Loneliness". It waits in the wings with its high-necked, warmly-lined coats and infinite inner pockets. A body, a protective piece of clothing that offers storage space for essential things, and maybe some means to power it along – if you set out in this, you will want for nothing.

The retrospective showing the last ten years of Hussein Chalayan's work runs from 15 April - 4 September, 2005 in the Groninger Museum.


This article was originally published in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on April 21, 2005.

Mirja Rosenau is a freelance journalist living in Frankfurt.

Translation: lp, nb. - let's talk european