LONDON, United Kingdom — Sadler’s Wells was the scene of some of Hussein Chalayan’s greatest triumphs at the turn of the century – presentations in which he used technology to reconfigure what clothes could be and do — so it felt right that he went back to the theatre to show his 25th-anniversary collection. And, in calling it Pre-Tension, this most cerebral of designers grabbed the bull by the horns, courting the opinion that the industry has of him. The Man Who Turned A CoffeeTable Into A Dress. Like a magic trick. But the comment that the A/W 2000 show made is possibly more relevant now than it was then, in a world where millions of people are on the move with their entire lives quite literally attached to their bodies.
Chalayan was always acutely sensitive to context. Take that title: Pre-Tension. Or “pretension,” the contemptuous dismissal of anyone who tries to act above their station. Chalayan scoffed at the notion. Everyone pretends, he said. Everyone is creating social media personae for themselves. Actors, artists, writers, musicians — their job is to make things up. Chalayan’s soundtrack included Bryan Ferry and Kate Bush, two of popular music’s greatest actors. Pretence, he insisted, is a catalyst for the imagination. The models who closed his show were accompanied by Bunraku puppeteers, swanning around the girls, lifting their skirts. “They were pretending to be the wind,” Chalayan said.
Then there’s the other interpretation: pre-tension, like pre-stress, applying tension to an object before use, making it stronger and more resilient. That idea was explicit in the collection’s structure, the way that corseting cased the body, restrained cloth, created drapes and tucks of fabric. The corsets made a silhouette that was reminiscent of riding jackets. Later in the show, there were jodhpurs. Something that people have often missed in Chalayan’s designs is that he has a finely honed appetite for fetishism: the gentle tension between spirit and flesh gives his work a sensual undertow which is occasionally missed in the folderol attached to his setpieces.
Was it the Bunraku guys who filled the setpiece shoes on Monday? Or was it the pair of sculptural headpieces designed to evoke the shapes cast by participants in Harlem’s famous vogueing balls? Chalayan roped in that phenom to amplify his central theme of pretence. Maybe he needed something that graphic to make his point. Otherwise, you would have had a collection of subtle, sensual, somber jackets and dresses. It was all I ever wished that the rest of the world could see the simple power of such a proposition. A quarter of a century? Come on, guys!