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Hussein Chalayan talks making dresses dissolve on the runway

In a new film, the conceptual designer discusses fashion risk-taking and his viral water-soluble designs

In what was one of the most spellbinding moments of SS16, Hussein Chalayan’s Paris Fashion Week show closed with two models standing under a shower, their clothes completely dissolving. It was a spectacle that bordered on performance art, or perhaps even scientific experiment. In front of a live audience, these water soluble garments – crisp white shirt dresses – disintegrated to reveal two different designs, gowns decorated with thick black stitching and white appliqué petals embellished with Swarovski crystals.

Of course it’s not the first time Chalayan, who debuted his inaugural collection for French house Vionnet earlier this week, has stunned crowds with groundbreaking feats of innovation. Fusing fashion and technology is what the British designer – at least in the mainstream press – has become known for. (Think of the coffee table which transformed into a wooden skirt at his AW00 show, the dresses that morphed into different designs through hidden mechanisms at SS07 and those that lit up like pixelated television screens at AW07.) 

“If you don’t take risks in the world, nothing happens, you just stay static” – Hussein Chalayan

However Chalayan is far more than just a showman. For a start, he’s a compositional designer, industry-renowned for his masterful pattern cutting and draping – as evidenced by his SS16 collection. He’s also a self-described narrative designer; something he confirms in a new film which discusses this season’s collection and marks ten years of collaboration with Swarovski. “In order to create really inspired clothes,” he says, “I create stories.”

This season’s story was inspired by a recent trip to Cuba. “It was like going back in time, which is why this collection is called ‘Pasatiempo’ (which means ‘pastime’ in Spanish),” he says. “The way Cubans live, for me, is very important. Through music, and movement, and enjoyment of life, they make the best out of their predicament.” By this, Chalayan refers to the country’s turbulant history; its time under Spanish colonial rule, its revolution in the 50s and its troubled relationship with the US. 

If there was one thing this collection illusrated however, it’s that Chalayan is a designer who looks to the future, while many many of his contemporaries (in his words) regurgitate the past. He does this, even when it requires a certain level of risk – like attempting to dissolve two dresses in water in front of a live audience. “But if you don’t take risks in the world,” he says, “Nothing happens, you just stay static.”