Exhibit Review: Hussein Chalayan: Fashion Narratives at Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Last week, I spent the Fourth of July as an American in Paris. I was there for five days installing the press exhibition of Faberge’s new collection of jewelry. So, in lieu of roman candles, there were multi-coloured gems lighting up the skies. And of course there were eggs!  (If you follow the link above, you will be greeted by a photo of the lobby installation; a giant dapper egg, with face painted by yours truly!)

But before the long hours of detail work and copious splendid canapés served, I had the good fortune to be treated to a ticket to the opening of  Hussein Chalayan: Fashion Narratives at the Musees des Arts Decoratifs (of the Louvre) curated by Pamela Golbin.

Photo by Simon Costin using Hipstamatic on iphone

London-based Cypriot-born designer Hussein Chalayan is known for artful and conceptual, yet alluringly wearable collections, all deeply thematic, political and poetic. You might say he is one of my favourites. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs boasts a state of the art purpose built costume gallery which hosts temporary fashion exhibitions, notably Madeleine Vionnet, and An Ideal History of Contemporary Fashion Parts 1 and 2. I had been deeply satisfied and mesmerised by both. (You can see video clips of both by clicking the links above.)

Going to this opening for me was a bit like having your two favourite flavours of ice cream in one cone.

Upon stepping into the darkened gallery eerily lit by a showcase recessed into a white wall, I was handed a visitor’s guide. The booklet contained texts on each of the collections presented and an introductory panel identical to the on on the wall. The  introductory text served up a concise and eloquent summary of Chalayan’s career and contextualises his work in the broader sphere. There was no other explanatory text in the exhibition, leaving the visitor with the choice to simply look at the exhibits or to read along in the guide while looking. I did the former.

Photo by Simon Costin using Hipstamatic for iphone

I am largely familiar with Chalayan’s work, and recognised many of the pieces from photographs and runway footage, but also visited the London Design’s Museum’s Chalayan exhibition in 2009. The exhibition brought on a fashion deja vu. I had seen these pieces in another gallery, in another city, curated by another museum. But it was different there, and I relished the opportunity to see how an identical set of objects could be presented differently  – curated differently – exhibition designed differently. For myself, the Arts Decoratifs exhibition conjured a deeper experience of the work than the Design Museum’s. and turned the gallery into a place of reverie and contemplation.

The exhibition consists of a labyrinth of vitrines, nost dimly lit, populated by uncanny human-faced mannequins. Each display bears a digital sign with the collection’s title and year. These signs make the space seem like an airport, or a futuristic train station, full of beings trapped in time – like sculptural monuments from a moment that is right now. Chalayan’s Remote Control Dress (2000) and Inertia (S/S 2009) were among the many collections displayed in which speed, travel and time were inspirations. The work is presented non-chronologically, and instead of a timeline immerses the viewer in what curator Pamela Golbin calls ‘Hussein Chalyan’s universe.’ This universe is one in which we can think about and even see ‘the body’s movement and  displacement, as well as migration, speed and…time’ in isolation and in three dimensions.

A highlight of the exhibition (these would be the sprinkles on top of the ice cream cone) were the displays of Chalayan’s sketches and design diagrams. His dynamic and expressive drawings provided a real insight into his working process and were powerful in their humble honesty.

Photo by Simon Costin using Hipstamatic on iphone

Throughout the exhibit, garment displays incorporate video elements, many of which were films created by Chalayan himself to present or accompany the collections. These videos were presented as fully integrated elements, that succeeded in accompanying but not overpowering the material artefacts.

The mannequins were no “museum dummies” striving for invisibility for the sake of the clothes they wear. Chalayan’s mannequins are all doing things – painting walls, standing on impossible chairs and crawling through earth. They just happen to be wearing Chalayan while doing it. But most importantly to the exhibition – and to Chalayan’s work according to it – is that these collections tell stories.  And it is this narrative quality perhaps that make Chalayan’s work seem so at home in a museum setting, where the curator can ensure that these stories will still being told.

Hussein Chalayan: Fashion Narratives runs through November 13, 2011.

All photos by Jenna Rossi-Camus except where noted.

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