Hussein Chalayan’s current venture met its first audiences at Sadlers Wells this week. Gravity Fatigue, a dance production, developed in conjunction with choreographer Damien Jalet, is the culmination of what he has learnt about the costumed body and a close relationship with the Sadler’s Wells contemporary dance venue. Chalayan and Jalet discussed the project at a Q&A last night, at which they spoke about Chalayan’s role within the creative industries, and how the project evolved.
Chayalan’s interest in dance dates back to his childhood in London, and memories of house parties during which his father would demonstrate the Tango. Later, as a student at Central St. Martins, he became a fan of choreographer Michael Clark. To him, the relationship between fashion, music and dance seemed obvious: “Clothing, body, movement, dance – they’re all interconnected,” he remarks.
After becoming known to Sadler’s Wells as a regular audience member, Chalayan was invited to propose a production by the venue’s artistic director Alistair Spalding. He presented Spalding and Jalet with a series of sketches, each describing a different theme. Over the next two years, eighteen of those drawings (reproduced in the programme as a valuable insight into his method) were developed into a series of interrelated scenes.
The production responds to Chalayan’s extensive experience with the way that the body moves when dressed, and the way that clothes restrict or extend movement. “I know what kind of movement the clothes can make,” he says. The costumes he developed for the show were selected and developed because of the movement that they permitted and created, and on some occasions choreography arose unexpectedly from physical interaction between dancer and garment. “The garments lead the movement,” says Spalding. He uses the example of a reversible jacket that is the centre of one of the show’s scenes. In the early stages of development, Chalayan and Jalet observed that when a dancer removed and reversed the jacket, it created a kind of centrifugal movement that carried the dancer around in a spinning motion. This spinning motion, in and out of the jacket, became the central action of the scene.
Jalet recalls that they sought to “create a dialogue [between body] and costume”. “I wanted it all to be about relationships,” says Chayalan, “I wanted the movement to come from [the body’s] relation to the garment… or the relation to the space.” Movement should always be “relational” if it is to work within the allocated space. It is not only the dancer’s movement that is closely choreographed, but rather the relationship between them, the costumes and the space. This space is elastic, and if it is pulled in one direction it must give somewhere else; “the space works with movement”.
Although there is a catwalk-feel to many of the scenes, Chalayan stressed that he “came to this project as an artist rather than a designer”. As with all his work, he wanted to focus more on abstract themes than on the design of the garments. Many of those themes are an extension of those previously explored in his fashion collections. The theme of displacement is present in the scene entitled “Arrival of Departure”. The scene explores the “gap between arriving and departing”, in which “clothes became tools” to represent “wanting to be in one place;… not wanting to leave”. The costumes designed for this piece “have all the accessories built into them… to give a weight on them [sic]” and create a sense that the dancers are carrying all of their worldly belongings with them. This is the latest manifestation of Chalayan’s fascination with “making territory”, earlier explored in his fashion collections (particularly Echoform, A/W 1999).
Dance direction is not a departure from fashion design for Chalayan, rather it is a natural extension of his role as a creative. Chalayan has never referred to himself as a fashion designer, and even feels unsuited to the label of “fashion artist”. He choses not to re-define himself in the wake of expanding his creative portfolio, saying, “I don’t really care about titles. I care about ideas… I am interested in executing ideas that I find interesting” regardless of where those ideas take him. Despite his reluctance to define himself as fashion designer, he maintains respect for the practice of fashion design, and continues to have faith in its artistic and cultural value. “I think that fashion is as art,” he suggests, “but I think that the [events] that occur around it [such as the rise of celebrity designers] can cheapen it”.
His practice transcends disciplines in a way that permits freedom. “Being an outsider is a very rich position to be in”. It offers opportunities to respond to a theme in whatever manner seems most appropriate, so that there is never a need to manipulate ideas to fit them in the tight constraints of any single creative discipline. Variety of discipline offers variety of experiences. This project showed Chalayan that “there is much more freedom as a costume designer than a fashion designer”. Fashion, he says, contains “all sorts of restrictions” because it is ultimately a commercial enterprise. But for Gravity Fatigue he found himself “dressing all shapes and sizes of people”; responding to body shapes that he had not previously encountered in his fashion career. This does not mean, he stresses, that he will leave fashion behind. He concludes by revealing that he is “very open” to taking what he has learnt from this experience and feeding it back into his future fashion collections.
Source: Live Q&A with Hussein Chalayan, Damien Jalet and Alistair Spalding, with questions from Barbara Brownie and other audience members.