'I love referencing period dress and costume in my work but the common misconception that my work is costume and fantasy is totally false', Australian-British designer Jordan Dalah says over email. Knowing the past is a must for anyone in fashion, referencing it as a designer often becomes a pitfall. Period-inspired dress has seen a resurgence over recent seasons, with pannier skirts at Matty Bovan to a craze for corsets made by graduate designers on Depop. Central Saint Martins alumna Dalah, however, is more interested in using theatrical period references to play with the space around the body. Included as a designer to watch by the New York Times and featured in editorials in the pages of AnOther and i-D, Dalah's bendy hems and bulbous silhouettes - like the wonderfully rounded 'Marshmallow' dress - don't speak to the period trend, and rather remind one at times of Rei Kawakubo's 'Lumps and Bumps'. Dalah, who founded the brand in 2018, walks to the beat of their own drum. Historical codes might be key, but just don't call it costume.
In May, they presented their first runway show at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week for Cruise 2022. 42 looks featured leather and silk robes in collaboration with COMMON HOURS, monastic hoods, padded hemlines which bounced like rings on a children's toy at the ankles and round the hips, with leather shoes to match by Actually Existing. To find out more about their work, SHOWstudio spoke to Dallah.
Hetty Mahlich: Where does the fascination with period costume and theatre come from? Would it be wrong to say it's more the silhouette than the context it comes from which interests you?
Jordan Dalah: The fascination with costume and theatre is definitely more driven by the silhouettes than the context. Through various methods, including the style of photography, the set of the runway, the location of the shoot, the inclusion of easier pieces like wool tailored pants and merino wool jersey layered tops, or through the casting, hair, and makeup, I intentionally remove the more literal historical references from my collection.
I love referencing period dress and costume in my work but the common misconception that my work is costume and fantasy is totally false and I find that the people that interpret what I do purely through that lens are in many ways missing the nuance of what I do and are potentially too used to seeing and wearing clothing that all looks the same.
For me, costume is something I also look back to because every element of a costume for theatre is exaggerated for an audience to more easily understand the character. Costume cleverly manipulates ordinary silhouettes, which really interests me. For me that might involve doubling or tripling the heights of a shoulder pad in a tailored jacket or increasing the circumference around a gown. I love incorporating these techniques into my work.
HM: What's your favourite period reference point that you've worked from so far?
JD: My favourite period is probably the medieval period. I particularly love the wimpy proportions of the men's linen undergarments balanced with the heaviness of their armours and outerwear. There is something quite relevant in those silhouettes that I always refer back to.
HM: How do you ensure that historical dress references feel modern and contemporary, rather than like costumes?
JD: Like I mentioned earlier, it is all about curating what elements are literal and which are not. It's about finding that perfect balance and then testing that 'balance' so that in some moments the collection is pushed to be far more 'costumey' than others. Ultimately, it’s about making sure that each collection as a whole feels modern and fresh whilst also maintaining what it is that adds drama to it. Finding the balance between historical dress and contemporary ready-to-wear is not about diluting both elements so that a happy medium is found. I find doing that is when my work loses what makes it my own. As a designer one of the things I fear most is people pressuring me to make my clothes too commercial and palatable. If you look at the collection piece-by-piece you will see that there are already so many gentle pieces, they are just shrouded by those other pieces that scream “look at me”. The trick is to allow what is loud to exist, as it should, and then cleverly incorporate those subtle moments of clarity into the mix where they belong.
HM: What role does collaboration have to play in your creative process?
JD: This is the third time I have collaborated with Actually Existing on shoes. They are always up for the challenge and end up producing the most beautiful shoes that, like my clothing, are referenced from historic shapes but brought into a contemporary space...without shoes, a collection feels incomplete.
This season, we worked on a design that was equally as dramatic as our previous shoes, but with more wearability. We came up with a mule-like moulded leather heel that blended into an exaggerated squared toe sole. We wanted to experiment with different fabrications for this shoe, so together we came up with a really interesting colour palette consisting of tomato red leather and suede, chocolate brown suede, dark green paisley wool, sandy coloured leather, and some more interesting combinations where we used vintage bed sheets and cushion coverings. Lastly, we developed a limited edition silk pair with hand-beaded French lace. They are a real showstopper.
Actually Existing had already started developing a sandal with puffy straps, and together we decided to exaggerate this strap and make it more voluminous. Moving forward, we would like to see these shoes offering the standard selection of leathers but also offering the consumer the ability to purchase a pair made of repurposed textiles.
I also collaborated with COMMON HOURS on a silk crushed pleated robe and a leather pleated version. Together we ended up producing the perfect hybrid between what we both do best. We both share the same values when it comes to clothing [craftsmanship and creativity], and although my collection might scream a little louder, you start to understand that we are both making clothes for the same person once you start seeing the attention to detail in both of our work.
HM: Where do you source your fabrics from?
JD: 90% of the solid fabrics I use are designer dead stock. When big brands cancel styles or production runs they are often left with huge amounts of beautiful quality fabrics that they cannot store. I collect these deadstock fabrics and reuse them to create my collections. Because I only take solid coloured fabrics (I never use other designers’ printed fabrics) you would never know that I am using old fabrics. The quality is not compromised because I only source my fabrics from good designers. I am doing my best as a young designer to minimize the waste associated with the fashion industry.
HM: What does the Jordan Dalah customer's post-pandemic wardrobe look like?
JD: My customer’s post-pandemic wardrobe looks the same as it did before the pandemic started. Their style hasn’t changed; they just weren’t necessarily reaching for my pieces like they were before the pandemic started. Although [the clothing] is playful, it is attainable and is designed to exist in a wardrobe.
HM: Where do you see the brand in a year's time?
JD: I see my brand in a similar trajectory to where it is now, but with more stockists. Although I know my brand is visually strong, I am in the process of strengthening my online presence as we speak. I want you to be able to buy my brand from anywhere in the world. I am lucky enough to be working with Afterpay on this journey.
I don’t want to compromise or dilute my aesthetic so that it becomes more commercially viable for the online market. After all, it is the uncompromisingly distinctive nature of what I make that got me to where I am today. It is my duty as a designer to dictate to customers what they should be wearing, not the other way around. Ultimately, it is this that differentiates a clothing label from a brand.