Thursday, March 1, 2007

Smoke, mirrors and light-emitting diodes: a wardrobe for climate change at Hussein Chalayan

After last season's mechanical dresses which self-transformed on the runway, the pressure seemed on Brit-based Turkish Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan to pull off another equally spectacular idea.

"So what's the concept?" I ask Sydney expat show producer Kannon Rajah, potentially about to spoil my own surprise.

"There's an 'installation'" is all he would say, cryptically.

Just off the bus from Givenchy, and with everything running late, the models are already lining up.

One is wearing a cute blue and white-striped T-shirt under a trapeze line shift dress fashioned from some sort of red, yellow and black heavy weave fabric that looks like it could have used for an anti-macassar or placemat in Chalayan's native Nicosia.

Another is in a kind of Mod/Courreges-look white woollen trapeze-line shift dress with matching coat that is hanging from trhe model's head by its hood. Both models are wearing skin-tight, Wet Look black leggings. Whether they're made from Latex or just high gloss plasticated Lycra, they have a touch of the dominatrix about them. It's the third show in as many hours to feature skintight, glossy black leg coverings.

At Givenchy, when models weren't wearing a kind of Wet Look black sarouel pant with tight legs from the knee down and an ultra-baggy crotch, they were kitted out in black glossy leggings with stitching down the back [and teamed with a heap of smart navy and black military-style jackets whose backs were heavily embellished with large gold 'punk' studs]. Right before that, Sophia Kokosolaki showed black leather skinny jeans.

Tough chic, it seems, is definitely front-of-mind.

I run out to grab a spot at the end of the runway which has been raised a couple of metres from the ground and ends in a large white circle. In the middle of the circle is a round hole. In front of the hole are three vents.

The music hails from a single xylophone player and a model walks out in a glow-in-the-dark shift dress.

On closer inspection the dress appears to have some form of inbuilt projection apparatus - because it's showing some animated graphics. [I later confirm that it's been made using LEDs or light-emitting diodes, the fruit of a collaboration with several companies, including 2D/3D, who made last season's mechanical dresses]. Save for the black plastic harness-look thing that seems to be propping up the model's chin, overall it's a cool effect.

The hole at the end of the runway suddenly comes to life, like an industrial volcano. It makes a loud whirring noise, like a plane's engine, and smoke starts to emerge.

Models walk out in a series of intricately-panelled, trapeze-line coats and dresses made from the heavy ethnic-look weave fabric I'd seen backstage, many of them layered over the striped T-shirting.

There are lots of great coats, including another, voluminous, short black trapeze-line coat with hood and a series in a rose-print metallic fabric, including one full-skirted cocktail dress.

Everything is styled with the black (and occasionally also silver) PVC-look leggings and either high gloss patent pumps with almost needle-thin stiletto heels or high gloss patent ankle boots. There is also a striking evening series in sheer silk georgette, including one voluminous, panelled grey trapeze coat and a red cocktail dress with black tulle overlay.

For the show duration, I am standing in the middle of the very end of the runway, a matter of metres away from the 'volcano'.

At various points, the volume of the whirring increases and I start to worry that it might explode. It's a feeling that is only exacerbated by the arrival at one point, on all fours, of two technicians who scramble into a manhole and attempt to fix something.

The recent Diane Von Furstenberg incident in New York immediately springs to mind - when a light rig fell, injuring several people. Chalayan is sensible of course - he's backstage.

The regular runway action is interrupted at several intervals by yet more stunts.

A model takes a position at the end of the runway at one point, with her legs slightly spread. She has a look of earnest anticipation on her face - like she's about to lay an egg. Next the black 'hood' on her coat starts to rise, like the soft roof of a convertible, and eventually covers her head in a transparent black dome.

At another point, two models walk out with their heads enclosed in illuminated red plastic 'space' hats which look a little like upturned salad bowls.

And the runway vents? Three models in short, layered pannier dresses do a 'Marilyn' by standing over them - the dress panels billowing up to create a crinoline effect. The photographers - and I - get a great flash of the bottom of the middle model in her black PVC leggings. It's more than a bit Madame Lash.

For the finale, another model emerges in another LED shift dress.

It was entertaining, although far from breathtaking, as were last season's mechanical dresses - due to the obvious fact we had no clue they were coming.

Chalayan is immediately besieged backstage by tv crews and reporters, several of them asking him if he considers himself to be "avant-garde" or "futuristic" [his stock answer: he doesn't like labels].

In various interviews he talks about his inspirations for the show, most of which I must admit weren't immediately apparent to me as a spectator.

It was about the various seasons and how bodies relate to climate change, he explains. Nothing whatsoever to do with global warming however, he insists. This show was also far more stressful than the last, he adds.

With the global publicity that ensued from the last show, notably on tech sites/blogs, perhaps the stress was due to the fact that Chalayan now feels he has to up his own ante.

"It's about climate and the body's relation to the life/death cycle" he adds - totally stumping me, unless of course he was referring to what appeared at one moment to be the imminent prospect of being torched alive by his malfunctioning volcano contraption.

Chalayan does make one point which immediately garners my attention however.

The heavy red/black woven fabric was, he says, inspired by a "Samurai weave" and was intended as an "armour and warrior reference".

Bingo. Burberry knights, Samurai warriors... A glass ceiling may still exist between women and the frontline in most traditional theatres of war - but not in this fashion season it seems.

There's really only one question that I want to ask him:

"Could you do what you do on a plain white runway, without the smoke, mirrors, bells and whistles?"

"Yeah of course" replies Chalayan. "The clothes stand up on their own right. But the event is still for you guys so that you have a nice time".

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