The girl walked in and stood stock-still, dressed in a long, high-necked corseted Victorian gown. Then her clothes began to twitch, move, and reconfigure of their own accord. The mono-bosom top opened, the jacket retreated, the hemline started to rise, andfinally, amazinglythere she was, wearing a crystal-beaded flapper dress: a woman propelled through fashion history from 1895 to the twenties in the space of a minute. This was one of six incredible feats of technology and conceptual commentary at the heart of Hussein Chalayan's show. The others also moved through decadesone from the hourglass Dior New Look to the Paco Rabanne metal-link shift.
Today's spectacle was one of the increasingly rare occasions on which fashion still has the power to astonish, provoke, and send a visceral sensation through its audience. This was fashion addressing the subject of fashion, a dissection of our contemporary habit of recycling "vintage," and an embrace of high technology, all at the same time. It wasn't just the uncanny sight of the self-undressing clothes (tech-genius courtesy of the team who made the hippogriff in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) that provided the chills. That would have left it at the level of childlike entertainment. What really gave the show a disturbing sense of wake-up-to-reality was the soundtrack. Here, the changing shapes were connected to the sounds of the twentieth centuryfragments of music, trench warfare, the ranting of Hitler, aerial bombing, jet engines, the beating of helicopter rotors.
Chalayan, rare among designers, is a true now-ist (more than a modernist). He is excited by science, fascinated by world politics, and recognizes the fact that the way we dress is a reaction to the times we live in. Since 9/11, fashion's response to reality has been to hide in the past. Now that mood is lifting, and Chalayan, like Nicolas Ghesquière, is right to be bringing us face to face with something that is, too sloppily, being dubbed "futurism."
This designer's sense of the now is too nuanced for easy labels. For all the tech wizardry, Chalayan has reached a place of serenity and maturity that is producing simply beautiful dresses. Shorn of angst and overt symbolism, his clothes are now young, delicate, ingeniously pieced, and finely layered, using all the techniques he's refined during a decade of experimentation. "I like graphic play around the body, and if I can get a sense of life in the clothes, I'm happy," he said, simply. "I wanted to prove that my approach is nothing to be frightened of, that people can wear these things." Even with a collection that included those provocative, morphing outfits, that mission was fully accomplished.