A woman enters a white room, advances slowly toward a round wooden coffee table, removes its central part and steps into the mahogany piece of furniture, before pulling it up and fixing it to her waist. She then walks around wearing the morphed, telescopic table skirt, to loud clapping and cheers from the audience in front of her.
What might sound like a magic trick was instead the finale of a fashion show that still resonates today. When Hussein Chalayan presented his fall 2000 “After Words” collection, he added a new page to the big book of fashion — under the chapter of transformative creations, which he has always had a penchant for and which further sealed his reputation as a conceptual and erudite designer.
Chalayan’s intention wasn’t to simply make a theatrical flourish but to investigate the concept of displacement, since the show was inspired by war refugees forced to leave their homes and carry their personal possessions with them.
In a sitting room-like stage, models interacted with furniture, sheltering household objects inside their coats and pockets as they walked around, while four women in gray shift dresses removed the fabric covers from a set of chairs and wore them, before the furniture was folded into suitcases to be carried off the set.
At a time like today when people are being challenged to reconsider their relationships with the spaces in which they live in and their possessions and the world is questioning how to become a home to everyone, Chalayan’s collection still strikes a chord even two decades later.
The show’s longevity results from its balance of audacity, design, performance, meticulous execution and meaningful storytelling. The synthesis of these elements has passed the test of time for its ongoing ability to spark conversation about immigration and human survival, while also tickling the imagination with its cross-pollination of design disciplines. No one who was at the show has ever forgotten the sense of puzzlement when the model stepped into the center of the table, and the delight and amazement when it rose into a perfectly balanced skirt and she walked off literally wearing the furniture.
Not that Chalayan was new to experimentation. He had already proven his talent and displayed his signature blend of innovation and social commentary on multiple occasions, ranging from investigating garments’ value by burying dresses with iron filings in the ground for months before digging them out and presenting them on the catwalk in 1993 as part of his graduation collection at Central Saint Martins, to reflecting on the status of Muslim women in society by showing chadors of different lengths in 1998.
Here, the London-based designer reflects on that iconic fashion moment in “After Words,” retraces the difficulties and favorite memories while preparing it and explains why digital shows can’t replace live events.
WWD: What was the context at the time and how was it different from now?
Hussein Chalayan: This is around 1999, and I was initially inspired by the war in Bosnia and by the people being displaced from their homes. That actually reminded me that we experienced the same thing in Cyprus. I wasn’t born then — Cyprus was divided in 1974, but these events happened in the Sixties. I connected it to the idea of a universal upheaval of having to leave your home at the time of war. And what I wanted to do was to look at how you protect your possessions by having them as chair covers or how you can put the objects in a room into the pockets of your clothes and take them with you, so it was about that carrying your home with you….It was the idea of trying to capture something in my opinion quite horrific in a very sort of stripped-down way. I thought there was universality to it, even though Bosnia was the trigger….And then it became a performance on how you empty the room, so that’s why models entered one by one to pick up objects. The wardrobe of the whole collection, I wanted it to feel a little bit Eastern European as well, so that’s why you have this kind of floral mixes that I had not done before and that were present inside the linings of the chair covers, too. So in a way I think it was timeless and today it can still apply. We’ve had a massive influx of immigration from the Middle East again, for all the same reasons, from where there is a war and you have to leave your home to safety and I think this is an ongoing universal issue.
WWD: If you were to re-create the collection today, what would you change?
H.C.: I don’t think there would be anything different now, if it were to happen. You still sit on chairs, you still carry suitcases, you still have tables, so I don’t think it’s that different. The only difference I guess are iPhones and we have small computers but apart from that, I don’t think much has changed.
WWD: How technically difficult was it to realize the show at the time?
H.C.: It was definitely technically difficult; there was a lot of back and forth because there were scaling issues. We made a little chair model that could fold up and a garment was also made as a mini-version, so that it fit the chair that was to be scaled up. Whatever you wore on the body had also to work as a chair cover and had also to become invisible, and then the chair itself had to fold up to become suitcases you could be carrying. And the table as well it was definitely [difficult] and technically took a long time. And then at the end we also had to make sure that the models in the show knew how to use them because you could have spent all that time making these pieces and if the models got it wrong, you could have completely failed. Even the musicians were coming from Bulgaria and [needed] a special invite. The whole thing was a big production. A lot of things could have gone wrong technically and somehow they didn’t. I’m really glad we did that project with a massive risk — this was very risky but later with other technology we took even bigger risks.
WWD: Do you recall any favorite moment or particular emotion linked to the show?
H.C.: The best moment for me was when the Bulgarian [choir] arrived. We were rehearsing the night before the show in our studio, which was in Covent Garden at the time and there was this kind of courtyard. While we were all getting ready with the clothes their voices were really filling up the space and the whole courtyard and I think that, for me, was probably one of the nicest moments. Hearing that rehearsal with our show director at the time, Alexandre de Betak, and getting ready with the clothes, that was a memorable moment.
WWD: What about the reception? Were you afraid of the reaction the collection would have had?
H.C.: The reception was really good. You never know what reactions are going to be to these shows. I would say that with this project, the reception got larger and larger in time, actually. Yes, we had an initial reaction but it was tabloids and papers in the U.K. and also in some other places but it became a bigger reaction in time. Also people used to comment on shows at the time, or shout or clap or whatever. This is a time well before iPhones and tablets, so people’s reaction — they just showed it there and then. Now I think they can’t even clap because they’re too busy holding their phones and recording: Actually all their emotions — if they have any — is through the posts. So we’ve gone through a direct emotional response to putting everything through social media, which kills the spirit, I think. In a way, it was really annoying for us after these shows to do the editing, we always had these comments in the back and at that time we didn’t record the music separately necessarily, we had just recorded the actual event, so we couldn’t mix over. What you recorded was what you had, you couldn’t cover the sound of the reaction. But if I think about it now, it was quite beautiful that people could just sort of make noise, and very real. It has now been replaced by the handset and you make the reaction on social media, but it’s not the same.
WWD: Did that kind of theatrical finale help the collection commercially or not?
H.C.: If I’m being really honest, I think what happens is that with designers like myself or with other designers that had moments like these in their shows, I think that the finale pieces are the ones that are very visible, but actually, I remember lots of our actual compositions of the clothes. And no designer is going to reference the table skirt or the chairs but they reference your other things. What gets noticed by the public is show pieces but actually what really in my opinion has an impact on the industry is the designer’s composition from the collection, from the main selection. Show pieces become the talking point and get covered in editorials, but the real effect you have on the industry is actually the clothes and when you start to see those lines, the structure.
WWD: Do you consider this show a pivotal moment of your career?
H.C.: I would say the pivotal moment is not this collection, this is probably the gasoline moment. The pivotal moment is the “Between” collection with the chadors [spring 1998] because this is the collection where we got the WWD cover from the U.S. and for a young London designer, this is a big deal. It was the pivotal moment because Americans started to come to London and I remember us really having lots of coverage. But “After Words” was probably the gasoline, the spark, the one that really got us known much more. And I would have never imagined that at all.
WWD: As there’s much talk around digital fashion weeks, do you think the digital format will spoil the way emotions are conveyed through fashion collections?
H.C.: I think you can’t replace the magic of the live event. We have to see the digital platform as a bridge, which helps us to stay in touch. I don’t believe we have to think of it as being an end of everything. Because I would rather, in a case like this, do smaller presentations than have lots of people coming. And I don’t think that right now the priority is to do shows but to keep the contact going, try to rebuild the businesses and get the momentum back again. I don’t think anyone right now is in a position to think about doing fashion shows. But you can still say a lot digitally, I’m not against it but that’s not necessarily the only way. For me, looking at the future, I would just love to have much more than an exclusive way of presenting things, maybe to a lot less people or to more people but in a different way. It’s a good time to rethink everything.
WWD: What about creativity? You have been ahead of the times in terms of transformative clothes and experimenting with technology. Do you expect these to be more and more present in the future? How do you think creativity will evolve?
H.C.: I think when we say technology and transformation in fashion, it’s all about how you use them. Technology exists for a long time now, there’s technology of communication in fashion and then there’s technology that you could apply to clothing. For clothing I think it’s still behind, because a lots of things can’t be that easy to integrate into fabric and construction, but obviously technology in fashion communication is much more ahead, there’s much more possibility. Technology in fashion, there’s also a possibility and we can do things but often it has to go hand in hand with sustainability and I think it needs to become part of a broader system for it to become more effective. Right now there are lots of small groups of people doing things but I don’t believe this kind of technological, sustainable angle is yet part of a bigger picture. Being also a professor in Berlin at the HTW university and in charge of innovation and technology, I can see generally there’s still a lot of work to be done to make this system possible. So I think people’s individual endeavors of course will help but for companies to really embrace this, it needs to be part of a broader strategy.