Thursday, 2 August 2012

Hussein Chalayan and Post-Modern Fashion

"Hussein Chalayan falls into the category of designer who doesn't just make pretty clothes or clothes you look at and instantly want to wear (though he does do that too). He wants you to appreciate where they - and he, more importantly - are coming from." (Jessica Bumpus, VOGUE Fashion Features Editor)

'Burka' (1996) Hussein Chalayan
'Afterwords' (2000) Hussein Chalayan

Questions from the Cadi Blog:

I. Chalayan’s works in clothing, like 'Afterwords' (2000) and 'Burka' (1996) , are often challenging to both the viewer and the wearer. What are your personal responses to these works? Are 'Afterwords' and 'Burka' fashion, or are they art? What is the difference?
Fashion is a term that is used to describe a popular style or practice that is mostly used or worn by people. A fashion tends to last for a few years before being replace by another fashion.

As for art there is almost no definition for art. Almost anything can be considered art. In a certain view, artist are the people who decides what is art and what is not. 

In my opinion, Chalayan's 'Afterwords' and 'Burka' belongs more to the art category than fashion. Fashion is something for people to wear. Chalayan's works, even though wearable, will very likely to not be popular. However, these ideas are very interesting. 

In 'Burka' we can see some twist on the Middle Eastern culture. Burka is a full-body garment worn by women of certain Islamic traditions. Burka is "a symbol of shame, uniformity, obedience and confinement" (McIntyre, n.d., para. 1). By changing the amount of covering the Burka provides, Chalayan exposes the standing and identity of these women. This could be considered as a feminist movement for Islamic women. Taking away their oppression and giving them the freedom of showing their body. But this is also taking away they're traditional Burka which is also taking away their culture and identity.

In 'Afterwords' Chalayan combines fashion with furniture - a more futuristic approach to fashion. The idea could have possibly been inspired by refugees leaving their homes. Having to leave their homes quickly in times of trouble, they weren't able to carry much but little important items and the clothing they were wearing.
As we grew into this materialistic world, all we want is more. We have forgotten the days where we only have things that are required. As people possess more objects, they don't realize that they are binding themselves to their place of possessions. Looking at migration birds who move from places to places, in comparison we have very little freedom moving about. This concept of portable furniture turned into clothing is very interesting and could be possible in the near future. This idea could perhaps solve the problem to our fast-moving world.

I see Chalayan as similar to Damien Hirst. Even though both artist uses very different mediums to present their ideas, they still make viewers question about certain issues in society. Art can be fashion and fashion can be art. Art overlaps with many things that we are no longer able to correctly define what is art. Even I though I consider Chalayan's works to be art, who knows whether his works might become fashion in the future?

II. Chalayan has strong links to industry. Pieces like 'The Level Tunnel' (2006) and 'Repose' (2006) are made in collaboration with, and paid for by, commercial business; in these cases, a vodka company and a crystal manufacturer. How does this impact on the nature of Chalayan’s work? Does the meaning of art change when it is used to sell products? Is it still art?

'The Level Tunnel' (2006) Hussein Chalayan
'Repose' (2006) Hussein Chalayan

I personally don't think these projects made a huge impact to Chalayan's way of working. It is definitely not a new concept that artist and designers get commission work. Chalayan is a designer who works with unique materials. These projects could have been a challenge for him, in a way that it is not about what people are wearing. However as an artist and designer Chalayan will be able to come to a solution. 

'The Annunciation with St Emidius' (1486) Carlo Crivelli

'The Level Tunnel' for Level Vodka and 'Repose' for Swarovski can still be considered art at a certain level. Crivelli's work, 'The Annunciation with St Emidius', is similar to Chalayan's work because it is also about advertising. Crivelli's work was like a brochure, advertising exotic objects like the Turkey rugs and special vases. The difference between these two artists' works is Crivelli has more on-hand work than Chalayan's.
Chalayan's works fits in with 'Postart', a term invented by Alan Kaprow to describe the post-modern world's art. Postart is no longer just about the skill of the artist or how visually attractive it is. The new visual category is about "cleverness over creativity." (Kuspit, 2004, para. 1) Even though Chalayan didn't make his works like Crivelli, 'The Level Tunnel' and 'Repose' can still be considered art is because it involves Chalayan's thinking, ideas, and concepts for these work to be produced. It also involves how the viewer sees and experience these works. Otherwise stripping back these works to their main motivation is still an elaborated brochure.

III. Chalayan’s film 'Absent Presence' screened at the 2005 Venice Biennale features the process of caring for worn clothes, and retrieving and analysing the traces of the wearer, in the form of DNA. This work has been influenced by many different art movements; can you think of some, and in what ways they might have inspired Chalayan’s approach?

'The Absent Presence' (2005) Hussein Chalayan

'The Absent Presence' (directed by Chalayan) is a film concerning the issues of terrorism, and how the Government policy is tackling this issue concerning immigrants and asylum seekers. In Chalayan's scenario, non British individuals were to donate their clothing to an institution where a biologist (Tilda Swinton) will extract their cells to examine their DNA sequences. The DNA will tell the biologist how these individuals will react to their surroundings in London. However in the end, the biologist was not able to accurately define who these characters are.

I can see some philosophies of the Enlightenment era in this film. During the enlightenment, it was believed that human life can be understood in the same way the natural world can be understood. Everything including the world was like a machine, it can be manipulated and engineered to be beneficial to the ideal Utopia. The enlightenment also promoted science, technology and the idea of reason, believing that they can be applied to any and every situation. Chalayan could have been inspired by these philosophies of the enlightenment and shows the consequences with this society. Like the biologist, we realized that there is no uniformity of human nature.

The film could also have been inspired by the Industrial Revolution, where many people from rural areas have to move to the cities for a better life. Like the enlightenment, the industrial age believed that man have completely subdued nature. They believed that the ideal future is reality but like any revolution, there were issues and questions that needed answers.

The film also contains elements of Post-modernism, which could have been inspired by the issues of today's world. What is Utopia? No matter what era we are in there seems to be no one universal Utopia. Chalayan probably wanted to show that no matter what era we are in, humans can't win against the natural, even if our technology are advanced enough to extract another person's 'human nature' out of the original clothing. We are in our own reality, we cannot experience another person's reality.
4. Many of Chalayan’s pieces are physically designed and constructed by someone else; for example, sculptor Lone Sigurdsson made some works from Chalayan’s Echoform (1999) and Before Minus Now (2000) fashion ranges. In fashion design this is standard practice, but in art it remains unexpected. Work by artists such as Jackson Pollock hold their value in the fact that he personally made the painting. Contrastingly, Andy Warhol’s pop art was largely produced in a New York collective called The Factory, and many of his silk-screened works were produced by assistants. Contemporarily, Damien Hirst doesn’t personally build his vitrines or preserve the sharks himself. So when and why is it important that the artist personally made the piece?
In my opinion, artists who personally made the work themselves are more involved emotionally, physically and mentally with their piece.
I think it has always been important for an artist to put as much physical work into their piece as they can. The tiny details or mistakes that the artist makes with his hands are what makes the artwork more unique to the artist. 

Conceptual art, where the artist isn't necessarily involved with the artwork besides their representation and ideas, is a very post-modern concern. Allan Kaprow analyses this new movement, saying:
      Those wishing to be called artist, in order to have some or all of theirs acts and ideas
      considered art, only have to drop an artistic thought around them, announce the facts
      and persuade other to believe it. That's advertising. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, "Art
      is what you can get away with." (Kuspit, 2004, p. 64)

He also went on describing artist that are not physically involved with their work such as conceptual artist, as being "self-aggrandizing, socially ingratiating farces, all theory and little or no practice." (Kuspit, 2004, p. 64).

Even though I do favour artist who personally made their own work more, I also enjoy and respect artist that don't too. Going through hundreds of years of traditional art from the Renaissance to The Enlightenment, where art is almost about skill and talent, is getting boring. 

For me its interesting to see whatever work the artist can come up with, whether they personally made the work or not. Because artist are considered 'outsiders' of society, and their work shows their view from their own perspective and the reality they live in.


Baggott, J. (2005). A beginner's guide to reality. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Francojean23. (2009, April 8). Hussein Chalayan "afterwords" 2000 [Video file].
      Retrieved from 

Hamilton, P. (1992). The Enlightenment and the birth of social science, in Hall, S. & Gieben 
      B. (Eds.), Formations of Modernity. Cambridge: Open University Press (p. 21-22)

Kuspit, D. (2004). The end of art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  


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