The fashion designer warping the body with radical silhouettes
Australian fashion talent Jordan Dalah discusses the line between fashion and costume, ‘wimpy bottoms’, and his innovative approach to ready-to-wear.
Photography Donny Vandevelde. Image courtesy of Jordan Dalah
Until just a couple of weeks ago, Jordan Dalah hadn’t had to deal with any of the obstacles that most of the emerging designers we’ve spoken to over the past 18 months have been marred by: production dramas; having to make do without in-person fittings; dealing with everyone from pattern cutters to printmakers over Zoom. “I think my experience has been a lot different to what a lot of designers back in the UK, for example, have had,” he reflects over Zoom from his home in Sydney, Australia, a city which, until very recently, had passed through the pandemic more or less unscathed. “We’re actually in lockdown now, but we haven’t been for most of the whole COVID period. I’ve felt really lucky to be able to go to my studio, and the manufacturers that I work with in Sydney didn't really shut down at all.”
Jordan has put his advantages to good use. His SS22 collection was by far his most comprehensive collection to date, boasting 43 looks that cemented his reputation as one of the most playful silhouette innovators of his generation. What’s more, it was presented on the IRL stage that the commanding clothes he creates deserve -- a fully-fledged runway show in the opening slot of Australian Fashion Week, with a live audience, a cast that included Georgia Fowler and Aweng Chuol and all.
It was a change in tack for the Central Saint Martins alum, who in previous seasons has travelled to showrooms in Paris and Milan to present. Take even a glance at the dramatic, inflated forms of his work -- think scarlet leather coats and satin shift dresses with hulking, gathered shoulders, shift dresses that flare out into stuffed hoop hems -- and you can understand why these demand to be seen in motion on the catwalk. “I call the silhouette I love the most ‘wimpy bottoms’,” Jordan says, no doubt raising the eyebrows of the filthier-minded among you. “It’s a really top-heavy shape, with a puffy bodice and a really thin stocking-y kind of bottom. It feels a bit like the way that Tudor men would dress,” evoking, to a certain degree, Holbein’s renowned portrait of Henry VIII. That’s not to say, though, that these are clothes that feel consigned to history. “I think it's actually really relevant to the way that a woman would dress now,” the designer says, “and in my work, it often translated to something like a mini bodice dress with a warped sleeve.”
We will concede that, at first glance, Jordan’s clothes might feel a little imposing. Seen on the runway, some of the more eccentric forms -- particularly those inserted with bulbous doughnut bustles at the hip -- might look like the sort of thing that it takes an especially daring personality to pull off. “I do think that people have a hard time digesting my work,” he says. “People seem to love what I do, but they often see it as this theatrical act of self-expression, rather than as serious fashion. It kind of bothers me because, yes, it's totally expressive, but it’s not intended as 'wacky clothing'. To me, it's as strong as ready-to-wear can be.”
Sure, these may be clothes imbued with a sense of performativity, but at no point does this result in any compromise when it comes to their wearability or the quality of their make. Those bustled dresses, for example, are far more versatile than they may appear on the runway -- their inflated forms can easily be removed to reveal freeform, flouncy drapes. “Of course, the huge proportions of some of the pieces are sometimes very costume-y, but the styling accentuates that,” he says. “It's up to the wearer to choose how they want to wear it, really.” Amid the 43 looks he showed on the runway, there’s no shortage of more immediately ‘approachable’ silhouettes -- merino jersey tops, for example, and button-down smock dresses with cropped puffball sleeves.
While the faintly historical motifs and the space and attention that certain looks command may tempt audiences to view his work as costume. As we’ve seen over the course of fashion history, though, in the cases of designers from Rei Kawakubo to John Galliano to Gareth Pugh, the line that divides the two disciplines has always been blurred. “People ask whether it's ready to wear or costume, and to me, it sits in between,” Jordan says. “When you see a play, for example, pieces are always exaggerated slightly, and characters are often made to be enhanced versions of what they would be in real life through their costumes. If it's a coat on a man, for example, the shoulder is brought forward and the tailoring is really amplified. For me, it's about placing those kinds of details into the ready-to-wear.”
In bringing this conscious-yet-subtle performative spirit to fashion, what Jordan’s work does is offer a welcome reminder that that fashion doesn’t need to be entirely sober to be taken seriously; it isn’t just about a perfect cropped leather bomber or pair of selvedge denim jeans. Flair, pomp and -- in careful measure -- comedy are all part of what attracts so many of us to it in the first place, and the capacity it allows for the expression of exaggerated versions of ourselves is one of fashion’s most powerful, emancipatory traits. To paraphrase Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, if all the world’s a stage, and we are merely players, then costume is surely fashion at its best.
Photography Donny Vandevelde
Images courtesy of Jordan Dalah