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August 28 2014

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The Smart Set: Hussein Fêtes His 15-Year Retrospective

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Who knew so-called intellectual fashion could be such a crowd-puller? Anyone who thought they were in for a meditative waft around Hussein Chalayan’s exhibition From Fashion and Back at London’s Design Museum was in for a rude awakening at the opening last night. By 7:45, there was a line snaking around the block and a good old-fashioned nineties-style fashion show shouting match was brewing up at the door, while inside, the bar was so besieged that the staff stopped serving at one point. After that, there was another 15-minute line, up a stairway no less, to gain entry to the show itself. “This had better be good,” muttered one disgruntled arrival. Not to worry: The 15-year retrospective provides a surprisingly intimate close-up of Chalayan’s work. Shown on mannequins variously drinking coffee, painting walls, and even polishing the inside of the glass case they’re standing in, the clothes appear charmingly human even while the designs are revealed to be technically accomplished to a degree that can’t ever be appreciated from a runway. Although aficionados will know the complex anthropological, technological, and political meanings sunk into every collection, Chalayan is light on the annotations. Therefore little comes between the viewer and her response to a dress. The result is a new respect for his technique—say, the draping and ruching on the faux-Hawaiian print dress from the Temporal Meditations show of Spring 2004 or the tightly packed, sculptural foliage of the topiary pieces in Before Minus Now, seen in Spring 2000. Other installations frame his unforgettable contributions to fashion in film and performance, where his brainy talent for theatrical ingenuity has given audiences some of the most spectacular chills ever. (To see a few of those moments in action, click here.) Most mobbed was the room showing footage of the time-traveling mechanical dresses from his Spring 2007 show—which morphed on the body from Edwardian through flapper to New Look—thanks to the wizardry of the animatronics design team from the Harry Potter special effects department. Back downstairs, there was nothing lofty about the shenanigans. The party had taken off with the uncorked bar, platters of Turkish meatballs and dolmas being passed around, and a wholly non-intellectual mezze of eighties disco music.

Photo: Dave Benett

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