HUSSEIN CHALAYAN’s Utopia

“Design that is led solely by technological innovation fetishises the new and invokes redundant myths of progress that are no longer viable in the early 21st century, following the dark history of the twentieth.”

“We claim that the nostalgic man, in his attachment to the past, searches for his lost childhood from where he is henceforth exiled. Yes, no question. But I think that his homesickness has another source. It’s not the past that he idealizes; it isn’t the present on which he turns his back, but on what is dying. His wish: that anywhere – whether he changes continents, cities, jobs, loves – he could find his native land, the one where life is born, is reborn. Nostalgia carries the desire, less for an unchanging eternity than for always-fresh beginnings. Thus time that passes and destroys tries to take away the ideal figure of a place that remains. The homeland is one of the metaphors of life.”1

With this quotation from the psychoanalyst J.B. Pontalis, the curator Judith Clark opened the “Nostalgia” section of her exhibition “Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back,” at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (January-May 2005, shown in 2004 under the title Malign Muses at MoMu in Antwerp). Following Pontalis’ suggestion that nostalgia may be for fresh beginnings as much as for a lost past, Clark’s “Nostalgia” installation was the only part of the exhibition not to feature real clothing. Instead, fleeting moments in fashion were idealized into giant 2-dimensional wooden figures that loomed above the visitor, saw-cut from flimsy plywood with frayed edges, taken from the fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo’s catalogue drawing The Avenue of Silhouettes.

Our sense of what it is to be modern today is haunted by the ghosts of modernity, and for Judith Clark, too, “nostalgia and a sense of impossibility go together.”

Were the silhouettes historical dresses or designs for the future? They were festooned with giant iron locks and keys that suggested the figures could be understood as doors opening into other routes and ideas. The exhibition was concerned with genealogy and “fashion memory” in contemporary dress; it showed the hidden, yet haunting, connections between recent fashion and its past. For the curator, this was much more than a question of mere fashion history, or the recycling of past styles. By using a psychoanalytical quotation in the “Nostalgia” section, she unequivocally inserted the idea of psychic longing into fashion and design history. Susan Stewart describes nostalgia as a form of sadness without object, a yearning for a past as unreal as its future is unobtainable. “Hostile to history and its invisible origins … nostalgia wears a distinctly utopian face, a face that turns towards a future past, a past that has only ideological reality.”2 Our sense of what it is to be modern today is haunted by the ghosts of modernity, and for Judith Clark, too, “nostalgia and a sense of impossibility go together.”3

Clark presciently put her finger on a very modern problematic: in the absence of any meaningful utopian ideas today, how can a designer access moments from the past that carry that meaning yet avoid naïve optimism? How to articulate a new design language that does not resort to excessive historicism or nostalgia for the past? Many contemporary fashion and textile designers are fired by the exciting possibilities of new technological processes, and this recalls the way early 20th-century modernist designers experimented with utopian ideas, speculatively mapping the future through imagined technological utopias, resolutely turning their backs on the past. By the early 21st century, however, for a designer to fetishize technological progress and novelty suggests a double ghosting: a return to heroic modernism that refuses the sedimentation of history, seeking to expunge the insistent past-in-the-present of modernity.

Clark’s specters questioned whether nostalgia consists of hoping for a forgotten past, or longing for an impossible future. These elusive ghosts were raised in another fashion display without fashion, Hussein Chalayan’s short film from 2003, Place to Passage. It follows an androgynously styled woman traveling in a self-piloted pod in a state of perfect self-sufficiency. Setting out from an underground car park across London, as night turns to day the white pod flies smoothly and swiftly about a meter above the ground, its jet thrusts pulsing regularly. While its inhabitant eats, sleeps, and dreams, troubled by only the occasional faint turbulence, the pod glides on across Europe through anonymous post-industrial wastelands and over indeterminate icy wastes, Russia perhaps, that leave one wondering if this is a real landscape or a fantasy of a post-Chernobyl nuclear winter. Approaching Istanbul via the Black Sea, it skims up the Bosphorus and comes to rest in an underground car park identical to the one it left in London. The film suggests that travel itself is a kind of no-place or no-man’s-land that takes us out of culture and history. Chalayan’s itinerant model is like Pontalis’ nostalgic man, cited at the beginning of this article, who changes continents, cities, jobs, loves, searching for his native homeland. Paradoxically, the more the quest for origins remains unfulfilled, the more it produces new beginnings, through restless searching and endless journeying.

Traveling light, the pod’s gnomic inhabitant eats and sleeps as she travels in seamless symbiosis with her vehicle. The design of the pod borrows the utopian design language of 1960s architectural groups such as Archigram. Constructed with 3D modeling techniques inspired by a visit to the Formula One car factory (the film was sponsored by Formula One racing team BAR Honda), the pod is something between a car, a plane, and a platonic ideal. A sensitive membrane bordering on a home, the pod-vessel of Place to Passage begs the redefinition of comfort, familiarity and nostalgia. Chalayan speculates on the possibilities:

“Our lives are in a constant state of mobility and … in some ways that could affect memory, could affect our attachment to domestic things. What would new comfort zones be in those kinds of situations? You know it’s this whole idea of creating a refuge wherever you are. It’s quite abstract, in a way it’s like meditating on solitude, maybe a bit about nostalgia, how we reminisce, creating a place within a cavity, all those kinds of ideas.”4

The pod’s inhabitant wears her home like a shell. She finishes her meal of fresh food served from an automated white plastic compartmentalized tray that seamlessly glides back into the fittings, her leftovers having been vacuumed into the refuse slit in her arm-rest, before watching comfort images – memories? projections? – on the panel ahead of her of traditional domestic food preparation and dish-washing. Clad in a pale, minimal vest and knickers, she tears large sections of pre-cut cloth from a dispenser to her left when she needs it for warmth or comfort, and discards it to her right afterwards, where it disappears by suction down the elongated slit set in the right-hand arm rest. At one stage the pod’s concave, molded interior fills with water, perhaps for washing or perhaps – since the model remains immersed for some time – as a heating and cooling system, a kind of automated amniotic fluid for embryonic adults.

Yoking together domesticity, refuge, and the cavity, Chalayan’s comment on Place to Passage evokes Gaston Bachelard’s images of rootedness, such as “the house, the stomach, the cave.”5 Bachelard relates these images to the overall theme of the return to the mother, the idea articulated by Sigmund Freud in the saying “love is homesickness.”6 In his 1919 essay on the uncanny, Freud argued that whenever we dream of a place which we think we have visited before, we are in fact dreaming of the maternal body, the place from which we all came and to which we cannot return. The first home, which is lost to us, except as a form of congealed longing, is the womb, and there is something of this nostalgia for the maternal space in Chalayan’s pod.

The pod thus embodies a contradiction. It is, on the one hand, a version of the modernist ideal first formulated in 1923 by Le Corbusier in his rational “house-machine” of the future, “healthy … and beautiful.”7 On the other hand, traces of history and the past produce their own ghosts. Set against any utopian fantasy of self-sufficiency are the claims of nostalgia and home, even if only of an imagined home,8 such as the domestic images watched by the model on the viewing panel in front of her. The idea of home thus becomes an object of generalized nostalgia and, precisely because it is an imagined home, we cannot get back to it: “You can’t go home again. Why? Because you are home …”9

For Pontalis’ nostalgic man, the invisible companion to Chalayan’s migratory model, “the homeland is one of the metaphors of life.” Homesickness without an object produces the deracinated longing encapsulated in Susan Stewart’s idea that “nostalgia is sadness without an object”10 which is part of the alienation that attaches to fashion. Place to Passage, a film made by a fashion designer and reprising many of his previous themes, suggests that in fashion we are all migrants, and there is no such place as home. The fashionable being is constantly in the process of re-imagining and re-creating him or herself in a rootless world, and this process of self-fashioning may be simultaneously pleasurable and alienating, nowhere more so than in the metaphor of the journey that has patterned Chalayan’s work from the beginning.

Hussein-Chalayan-Airmail-Dress-1999An early Hussein Chalayan jacket in paper fabric stamped on the reverse with the “par avion” postmark was redesigned as an envelope sent through the post that unfolded into a wearable dress. “Absence and Presence” (Spring/Summer 2003), his first menswear collection, contained T-shirts that could transform into A3 envelopes and be posted. Several other collections have featured a range of travel motifs. Along “False Equator” (Autumn/Winter 1995) included dresses printed with the flight paths of airplanes and paper suits embedded with fiber optics that flashed like airplane lights at night, tracing flight-path patterns on the paper. “Geotropics” (Spring/Summer 1999) explored the idea of an itinerant existence through the idea of carrying a chair with you, so that you can sit down wherever you are. This concept carried the germ of a later idea, that travel can be a permanent state of being as much as a functional way of arriving at a destination.

In the following collection, “Echoform” (Autumn/Winter 1999), Chalayan looked at the body’s natural capacity for speed and the way it can be enhanced by technology, focusing on ergonomics and the interior design of cars in a black leather dress with a padded collar like a car headrest. In these two collections and the subsequent “Before Minus Now” (Spring/Summer 2000), Chalayan also developed a single concept in three monumental dresses that used technology from the aircraft industry. Made out of a composite of glass fiber and resin, they were cast in specially created moulds. The second – the white airplane dress from Autumn/Winter 1999, which Chalayan would subsequently develop into a film and installation project with Marcus Tomlinson, “Echoform” – was fastened with chrome automobile catches. It contained a concealed battery and gears and wheels activated through an internal switch by the model on the runway, so that sections slid down and flapped out like the moving parts of airplanes. For Spring/Summer 2000, the third dress, in pale pink, was operated by a young boy using a remote control on the runway.

Marcus Tomlinson’s film for “Echoform” made explicit the link between woman and airplane, that emblem of modernist progress and mobility. When Chalayan repeated this design motif in three rigid dresses across three collections, like a series of musical variations, he posited a series of experiments in constructing the self. The plane technology is about engineering and suggests that perhaps it is not only the dress but also the self that can be engineered, fine-tuned, technologically adjusted and played with. As Susan Sontag wrote: “the self is a text … a project, something to be built.”11 Gilles Lipovetsky has proposed an optimistic analysis of the connection between fashion and psychological flexibility, arguing that modern fashion has produced a new individual, “the fashion person, who has no deep attachments, a mobile individual with a fluctuating personality and tastes.” Thus the fashionable person is an avatar of modernity. Such social agents who are open to change, constitute “a new type of kinetic, open personality” that societies undergoing rapid transition depend on.12

For Lipovetsky’s argument that fashion trains the modern subject to be flexible, mobile and psychologically adaptable, Chalayan provided the physical cladding and the metaphysical speculation about identity in the 21stcentury. In “Afterwords” (Autumn/Winter 2000), a table becomes a skirt and chair covers turn into dresses, while the chair frames fold up into suitcases. The blurring of the boundaries between the traditional functions of clothing and dress brought to mind furniture designers who have thought of furniture as a flexible membrane, possibly an intelligent one, that mediates between the body and the built environment. For many designers from the late 1990s, thinking about how to live in the modern world involved thinking about how to live flexibly, imagining new forms of urban nomadism, in which the differences between dress and architecture diminished and cladding and clothing became – equally – flexible membranes that responded to their environment.

When, in “Afterwords,” Chalayan replaced the tailor with the furniture maker, or made pockets the same shape as possessions, he rethought fashion as a kind of portable architecture. Yet the show was about traveling light, about having to leave one’s home in time of war and to take all one’s possessions with one. The dislocation and rootlessness of enforced migrancy were evoked through the opening scene of a refugee family of five that shuffled offstage, converting pinafores into cloaks as they went. The idea was reiterated in the sparse set design of the living room, the transformation of its furniture into portable possessions as the show unfolded, and the existential bleakness of the harsh, Bulgarian singing that accompanied it. It could not, therefore, by any stretch of the imagination, be understood solely as a paean to the infinite flexibility of the modern subject.

The theme of travel so prevalent in Hussein Chalayan’s work can be understood, both literally and figuratively, as a journey of alienation and loss, as much as it is one of self-discovery and self-fashioning. Although Chalayan’s design motifs in many of his collections were the modernist ones of technological progress (flight, engineering, travel and mobility), they were shadowed by the darker motifs of dislocation, migrancy, and exile. For all the modernity and refusal of obvious nostalgia and historicism in his designs, there is a melancholy edge to them.

As guest editor of the Belgian magazine No.C (September 2002), Chalayan included in the magazine an elongated horizontal foldout of a shabby, abandoned airplane at Nicosia International Airport. The airplane was once a great icon of modernist design. Nowadays, as budget airlines proliferate and more people than ever take regular flight from reality on cheap holidays, the plane is part of the everyday technology that enables consumer desire and escapist fantasy. This loss of glamour is perhaps inevitable. Design that is led solely by technological innovation fetishizes the new, and invokes redundant myths of progress that are no longer viable in the early 21st century, following the dark history of the 20th.

In work in which, however, the ghosts of modernity are permitted to trouble the present, although without falling back into pastiche, its complexity and nuances can be acknowledged. This dialectic underpinned Chalayan’s melancholic modernity. For, as Susan Stewart writes, nostalgia is a social disease, and longing is always a “future-past, a deferment of experience.”13 Whereas early 20th-century modernism effaced history in its revolutionary pursuit of the new, at the end of the century it was possible to glimpse the ghosts of modernity in Chalayan’s thoughtful and poetical modernism. If we overlay his experimental forms with shadows from an earlier moment of commodity culture we can see traces of earlier reified, technologized and fetishized bodies. Chalayan takes the tropes of modernist progress (travel, technology, aerodynamics) and inflects them with modernist trauma (alienation, reification, and the uncanny). His model in the airplane dress is generic, robotic, and mechanical in her gestures. His eloquent technological modernity is haunted by the ghosts of commodity fetishism and modernist alienation. At the same time, he makes modernist design complex, by patterning it with echoes and whispers: of soft dresses mimicking hard ones, of morphs in time and space, of correspondences between virtual and real environments. Thus, while his work is abstract and pure in formal terms, it is also complex and nuanced in terms of its suggestive possibilities, shadowed by history and time. It raises the bigger question of how a late 20th-century designer might draw on the aesthetic and language of early 20th-century modernism, even though the historical conditions that gave rise to the early optimism and utopianism of modernism are long gone, without falling back on a contemporary sense of cynicism and ennui, or on millenarian visions of apocalypse.

1 J-B Pontalis, “Nostalgia” in Windows, University of Nebraska Press, 2003, quoted in Judith Clark, “Spectres: When Fashion Looks Back,” Victoria & Albert Publications, London, 2004: 27
2 Susan Stewart, On Longing, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1993: x and 23
3 Judith Clark, “Spectres”: 25
4 Marcus Fairs, Icon, December 1993: unpaginated
5 Gaston Bachelard, La Terre et les reveries du repos, 1948, quoted in Anthony Vidler, “The Architectural Uncanny,” MIT Press, Cambridge Mass & London, 1992: 64
6 Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” [1919] in: Works: the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. xvii, Hogarth Press, London, 1955: 245
7 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, The Architectural Press, London, 1946: 227
8 Anthony Vidler, “Architectural Uncanny”: 64
9 Margery Garber, Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers, Methuen, London, 1987: 159
10 Stewart, On Longing: x
11 Susan Sontag, Introduction to Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and other Writings, London: Verso, 1985: 14
12 Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994: 149
13 Stewart, On Longing: x
Caroline Evans

Caroline Evans is London-based writer and professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins.


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Published in

Issue #9 — Summer 2005We Are Synchro Time

“The extreme compression—the thickness—of the present, as we’ve only just now become able to experience it, brings with it an acceleration and a deceleration simultaneously—that’s why it’s also become extremely difficult to differentiate between the just past and the present,” says curator CHRIS DERCON on his theory of SYNCHRO-TIME.

Meanwhile, artist JAN DE COCK mixes Minimalism in Basque Country; Hungarian photographer GYÖRGY LÖRINCZY documents the feverish instability of downtown New York in the 1970s; artist collective ASSUME VIVID ASTRO FOCUS flaunts what’s sexy, devastating, awesome, and precious; artist CARSTEN NICOLAI pulses crystals with sound; writer DAVID FRANKEL uncovers the perfect absurdity about 1970s cult magazine ART-RITE; fashion historian CAROLINE EVANS distills HUSSEIN CHALAYAN’s utopia;

VITO ACCONCI practices an un-monumental architecture; photography duo INEZ VAN LAMSWEERDE and VINOODH MATADIN showcase MAN; photographer LEONORE MAU captures the Angel of History, rituals, and ethnography; art critic NIKLAS MAAK says goodbye to retro-futurism; writer ULF POSCHARDT on PRADA’s “Thunder Perfect Mind”; artist JONATHAN MEESE screams, “Richard Wagner is the greatest! He is his own law”;

the Berlin Review reflects on ten events, projects, and people from the last six months in the great cultural laboratory; and so much more on 176 pages …

Contributors: Albert G. Almond, assume vivid astro focus, Jens Balzer, Joachim Bessing, Klaus Biesenbach, Jan de Cock, Giannie Couji, Caroline Evans, Bertrand Fleuret, Nicola Formichetti, David Frankel, Lörinczy György, Heiko Hoffmann, Max Hollein, Ines Kaag, Heinz Peter Knes, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, Niklas Maak, Carsten Nicolai, Ingo Niermann, Ulf Poschardt, Sebastian Preuss, Norbert Schoerner, Sølve Sundsbø, Vier5