August 23 2014

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EXCLUSIVE: Hussein Chalayan Transforms Infidelity into Costumes for Così Fan Tutte


Hussein Chalayan Cosi Fan Tuttu

In 2012, it was Rodarte and Frank Gehry. Last year, Azzedine Alaïa and Jean Nouvel had their turn. On Friday, Hussein Chalayan and Zaha Hadid will be the last mega-talents to impose their visions on L.A. Philharmonic’s Mozart/Da Ponte Project. The opera trilogy–Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così Fan Tutte, respectively, all conducted by Gustavo Dudamel – has been nothing short of ambitious in partnering architect with fashion designer (or designers, in the case of Rodarte’s Laura and Kate Mulleavy). Even for Chalayan, whose runway shows have often bordered on performances and who is no stranger to conceiving costumes (for Michael Clark’s current/SEE in 1998 and the Saddler’s Wells Theatre in London in 2010), this production challenged his thinking. When the designer spoke to from London, he was preparing to visit L.A. for the final rehearsals. And unsurprisingly, he remained somewhat elusive on details, only to emphasize that his interpretation of Così Fan Tutte will be contemporary. Certainly his sketches – alternately diaphanous and sculptural – suggest an outright dismissal of late-18th century fashion. They, along with Hadid’s vision for the set, debut exclusively here. With only four performances, it’s a short run for so much effort. But there’s no doubt that the reward will last long past closing night.

There is a long history of fashion designers trying their hand at ballet or opera costumes. How do you explain the appeal?
You put yourself into a different realm. You think of your clothes in a broader context. It’s something different from what you normally do. It helps to also be thinking within a team. You’re thinking not only about your part but all the other parts. Normally with fashion, you can feel quite isolated. I find these experiences kind of nice; you learn and, hopefully, you become culturally richer for it. Simple as that.

When you came on board, the Rodarte/Frank Gehry production had already taken place. Did it guide you at all?
I had not seen it other than in pictures. And remember, I have done collaborations like this, just never with an architect. So I had some ideas; but this was another situation entirely because what I am doing still has to work with what Zaha is doing and [our work] evolved as islands that met and separated and met again, let’s say.

How do the design considerations change when making costumes for performers?
It is very satisfying because your clothes are on realer looking people. And those people have to be in them for a long while. And they have to feel comfortable in them. And look good in them. It wasn’t like I just plunked onto them whatever I wanted; I needed to consider what I felt was right for their neck height, their shoulders, etcetera… It’s the same kind of effort that I would make for my showpieces plus more. Everything had to be done individually for each person. And they were all different sizes and shapes. It was quite a challenge in that sense – but also very enjoyable because these people animate your clothes in a way that you’re not used to. And that adds another dimension to what I’m doing.

Hussein Chalayan Cosi Fan Tutti

Were you familiar Così Fan Tutte already and how did you go about distancing the costumes from typical period pieces?
Well, of course, I had heard of Così Fan Tutte before, but I had never sat down and watched it. So the first thing was obviously to get familiar with the plot. And the whole story is based on infidelity. I interpreted that as clothes that would change function a little bit or have a deceptive element that would appear to be one thing and then become another thing. I think those ideas as represented through clothes is a lot more abstract. But there’s no point in approaching a designer like me to do period costumes. Zaha as well.

Do you think the audience will pick up on these ideas?
To be honest, I think they’re not so in your face. I mean, there’s a lot of texture and color and stuff. But there is a minimalism to them as well. So I’m hoping they won’t become cliché or anything like that. I’m hoping that they will be unexpected.

Indeed, there is always some element of surprise and whimsy with your collections—a dress covered in artificial nails or a hat that doubles as an umbrella. Can we expect any of that in the production?
There’s some of that, yes, but there are no accessories; it’s all within the clothes. A lot of work went into them. Every single piece is quite monumental. With my collections, you have clothes for different occasions; I am always thinking of the wardrobe. But here, if you can imagine, every single piece behaves like occasion wear.

Zaha Hadid

Costumes can shape how characters perceive themselves in addition to how the audience perceives them. Were you keeping both sides in mind?
The idea is not that the costumes take over the characters. The idea is that the costumes create an ingredient to help enhance the characters. It is about the storyline and the feelings that [director Christopher Alden] wanted to portray. I felt I had to honor what he wanted. And we got on harmoniously from the start.

What kind of synergy is there between your costumes and Zaha’s sets?
I knew right from the beginning what Zaha was doing and I went to meetings at her office so I had an idea. But the main way they connect is that there is a sense of change—an element in transformation—in both my clothes and in the sets. Apart from that, it wasn’t like I wanted the clothes to look like an extension of the set or they wanted the set to look like an extension of the clothes.

Photo: Courtesy of Hussein Chalayan and Zaha Hadid