The Butler Scholarly Journal

Fashion Debate Part 2: Fashion as an outlet for big ideas

By Jennifer Loughran Martin

‘Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening’ – Coco Chanel (cited in Madsen, 1991).

‘Hussein Chalayan is a politically engaged designer whose view of fashion succeeds in awakening an awareness of the challenges facing our civilisation’ – Visitor’s Guide to ‘Hussein Chalayan: Fashion Narratives’ (Le Musée de la Mode et du Textile Exposition, 2011).

In many ways, despite its adversaries, fashion is an outlet for ideas, and big ideas at that. Although it can be a product of shallow capitalism, it is not reducible to this. In fact, it need not be a product of any one thing in particular. Fashion is multifaceted. It is inextricably linked to society, culture, politics and even religion. Rather than the somewhat cliché view that fashion is an extension of self or an expression of our idiosyncratic identities, a view undermined by the argument that individuality is no longer a stable anchor of identity in the modern, technological age, fashion can be seen as symptomatic of the big issues we face every day. ‘Fashion is not created by a single individual’, (Kawamura, 2005), rather it is an ‘international language’, (Jones, 2011). Thus it speaks not of one person’s character but of the human condition generally. Two designers who are finely in tune with this idea are sustainable fashion designer Stephan Hann and multimedia designer Hussein Chalayan.

Stephan Hann brought ‘recessionista chic’ to Berlin fashion week in 2009. The term ‘recessionista chic’ was originally coined in America to describe a fashion victim who was forced to don second hand garments, though Hann’s collection, which included a dress made from recycled light bulbs, brought the concept right up to date. Though Hann struggled to make a name for himself at the beginning of his career, economic circumstances, particularly the recession, have resulted in a great social interest in his work in the last five years or so. In his fashion creations Hann combines fashionable materials with materials that perform practical functions in other areas and which are not necessarily associated with fashion, for example Tetra Paks, photo negatives, and construction plans. Since Hann breathes new life into whatever material he works with, cutting resources into small pieces, sewing them together, embellishing, and embroidering, it is not always possible to recognise the ‘trash’ elements. This is something Hann revels in; he argues that we can ennoble the trivial things of everyday life only when they are decontextualized. Hann’s work is something that speaks out directly against superficiality. ‘Recessionista chic’ proudly waves goodbye to ‘“fashionista” brands, where neither the price nor the planet counts’, (Armstrong, 2009). However, despite being made of actual rubbish his work is beautiful and so delicately assembled.

Incorporating fashion, architecture, video, special effects, and design it is also often said that Chalayan defies fashion stereotypes. Though astutely aware of his Cypriot roots, rather than attempting to explore his cultural history alone Chalayan also draws inspiration directly from the political, social, and economic realities of his era. Chalayan’s 1998 collection ‘Between’ is primarily concerned with the universal notions of worship and territory. It aims to deconstruct how we define our territory through belief systems. During the creative process Chalayan asked nude models on a beach in Dungeness, East Sussex to stake out their territory using rope and poles. Once their territories were defined Chalayan interrogated the idea of identity by concealing some of the models faces. Models dressed in red wore egg-shaped capsules that entirely covered their faces, offering a certain protection from the gaze of others but completely removing any sense of their individuality and eliminating their personality. Others wore headpieces framed in mirrors that allowed the spectators to see and be seen in their reflection. The collection culminated with six models dressed in black chadors of varying lengths. The first model was completely naked and wore only a minute yashmak that hid her face. The following models wore chadors that increasingly concealed their nude bodies.

As debates about religion and religious codes that prescribe what individuals must wear endure, Chalayan’s collection becomes as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1998. Arguably ‘[c]ontroversial but not confrontational’ ‘Between’ aims to show how through ‘the religious code you are depersonified’ (Chalayan, 2011). The collection is deeply poignant for this reason. Rather than a glaring and pretentious statement about personal identity ‘Between’ considers identity in its broadest terms. Much in the same way Hann breaks the mould. Rather than reproducing fashion that strictly adheres to the industry’s ‘image’, Hann’s ‘recessionista chic’ produces pieces that are freshly symbolic of new ideas. Chalayan is not simply concerned with the covering (or non-covering) of the body as most designers are, rather the pieces that he creates in ‘Between’ make enquiries as to why and how we choose to cover our bodies. Hann similarly implores us to consider what we are covering our bodies with. Thus these two collections go far beyond the perimeters of pointless fashion. The designer’s works thereby exist as much more than products of shallow capitalism. Fashion like this offers something profound about humanity, much in the same way as art, philosophy, or literature may do. It is important that we therefore approach Hann and Chalayan’s work in the same that we would DeLillo, Beckett, Picasso, or Sartre’s. We may be critical, we may even eventually disagree with what the piece stands for but we must respect its artistic and intellectual construction nevertheless. With this in mind, it seems senseless to dismiss fashion, as the likes of the disillusioned Jones do, as simply a superficial bane of society. Fashion is a powerful and evocative way of expressing humanity in the twenty-first century.