Representing the creative future

Jordan Dalah: balancing theatricality and wearability on the runway

The emerging designer talks about the value of the fashion show in his work and the importance of sticking to your ideas

What is the purpose of a physical runway show in the age of digital communication and travel bans? That question has been the hook of fashion writing for the past year. By now, we know that the system is changing, that we need to adapt, and that the convention of a seasonal ceremony won’t survive the transformation. But as we criticised and griefed from behind our glowing monitors, literally losing touch with our industry, the impact of a live experience couldn’t be ignored.

One designer who never doubted the necessity of a physical runway is Jordan Dalah . The Australian designer had the opportunity to show on schedule during Fashion Week in Sydney, the first city to hold an in-real-life fashion week since the pandemic. His elegantly theatrical designs, inspired by historical dress and Old Master portraiture, found their home in the straightforward setting of the sponsored catwalk. This context positioned the designer firmly in the realm of pret-à-porter, an important step for a designer who loves to flirt with the boundaries of costume, fantasy, prettiness, and wearability. Here, he spoke to 1 Granary about the practical decisions that help balance that tightrope.

You were selected to show during fashion week. How did that influence your design process? 

From the start, I knew that if I did a show, it needed to be the best version of what it could be. The timing between having received the slot on fashion week and having to produce a collection was very tight, so the collection came together quickly – well at least for me – so I didn’t design it with a sales perspective in mind.

I didn’t want to limit myself to the fabrics I had available for production. I wanted to start with what I love and then work backwards from there. My previous collections, AW20 and SS21, were definitely more logistically realistic. I had to source my fabrics and make sure I could produce with those.

This season, I needed those 43 looks to present a solid story, to really have that narrative in the collection. This doesn’t mean I’ll always do that many looks, but if you give me the opportunity to do a runway show next season as well, I’ll do 43 looks. But to produce and sell that many garments, working by myself with my machinist, is a challenge and not in a good way.

“I want people to see the clothes in movement, but the collection was never executed in that way because, as a young designer, a show is not always a smart move. You don’t always have that financial capital.” – Jordan Dalah

What do you mean with the importance of a narrative? How do you develop that?

The collection was a continuation of the strongest things I have found myself making from when I graduated from Central Saint Martins and set up my brand. It was looking at the things that speak to me from what I’ve already made. But it was that platform of the runway – being able to do it for the first time in front of a live audience in motion – that really triggered the narrative for this collection. That is what I think about when I design. I want people to see the clothes in movement, but the collection was never executed in that way because, as a young designer, a show is not always a smart move. You don’t always have that financial capital.

I was given the opportunity to do it, so obviously, I wanted it to be the truest and the best version of what I can produce. That might not seem like a creative starting point, but it really was – it was picking up on the strongest silhouettes I had done so far.

There wasn’t a lot of drawing, I don’t draw so much, I started straight away in 3D. It was a big process of each part coming together slowly. I first got the opportunity to open the show, then I selected the venue, and all these parts played into the design process.

“Fashion in Sydney is more trend-driven, it is not necessarily boundary pushing. But this also excited me. Here we are, the first country to put on a show since covid. Why not show a different interpretation of fashion week?” – Jordan Dalah

What was it like to construct that narrative, not only through a collection, but also in the way it is presented?

I made it happen. Take the casting, for example. I managed to find a quirkiness in all the models I selected. I managed to find the right mood. Because in Sydney, fashion is looked at through a particular lens. There is room for what I do, but people don’t understand it until they see the final product. In Sydney, fashion is perceived as very glossy, refined, and edited. It’s looked at through a glamour lens. For example, I wanted the make-up to be very “no make-up”. You might understand what I mean by that, but in Sydney, these conversations are a bit more foreign. Fashion in Sydney is more trend-driven, it is not necessarily boundary pushing. But this also excited me. Here we are, the first country to put on a show since covid. Why not show a different interpretation of fashion week?

“I knew it wouldn’t land well with everyone. People think it’s costume, or making statement for the sake of a statement.” – Jordan Dalah

Were you aware your work would be different from the other collections presented?

100%. I knew my work wouldn’t fit with the other designers. There are enough people in Sydney who are desperate to discover a different world. It exists, the more artistic view on fashion, but it just hasn’t penetrated the industry yet. So I knew it wouldn’t land well with everyone. People think it’s costume, or making statement for the sake of a statement.

I don’t care how people interpret what I do, but I always want to make clear that my work doesn’t come from a place of costume, it is fashion. It’s not pure pantomime.

Yes, I see what you mean. If you were showing in London, that aspect of your work would be understood instantly. Now you show in front of an audience with a very different visual background and language. Did that make you adapt the way you present your work? Did you try to explain, or “translate” your vision?

No. I’m going 100% for my vision. It’s an international audience, it’s not just Australian. But it’s interesting you mention this. The justification of what I do here – and I wouldn’t need to do this in any other city – is through the fact that I went to Central Saint Martins. People love to justify my actions by mentioning the university I went to. Here, it feels like where I went to school is enough to explain my work. Obviously, where I got my education has influenced my perspective on fashion, but I’m not doing what I do because I went to a certain place.

My clothing is about subverting prettiness and turning frilly dresses on their head, but it’s not with the object of shocking. I really was looking at subverting these very slinky, silky dresses. There is something tongue-in-cheek to it. There is a very successful Australian brand that makes very pretty clothing – dresses with a lot of frills, a lot of fabric. I don’t personally like it, but it knocks what I do out of the park financially. I like creating my version of that dress. With the pool toy inside it, it turns it onto its head. Not a lot of people saw those references.

“Half of my stuff looks more effective with a pair of jeans.” – Jordan Dalah

Who do you design for?

My main message with what I do, and what a lot of designers in my realm do, is creating something that makes people question – where does this lie on a practical level? Yes, there will be some people that take my clothing and pair it all together and walk down the street and look like total characters, but at the same time, you can see those pieces as highly functional separates. They are designed and made to be worn within a wardrobe. They’re not bound by my aesthetic but designed to be integrated in a collection that already exists. Half of my stuff looks more effective with a pair of jeans.

“The runway show is the most sophisticated way to present it, and it strengthens those next steps in my journey as a brand.” – Jordan Dalah

Over the past year, our sector has questioned the function of the fashion show. The system is being questioned. But to you, the show appears crucial in expressing your story.

I don’t think that COVID was ever going to change the fact that designers need to do a show. Obviously, it’s harder to travel and see a live show, but there is something about having that full vision of a space and a model walking down the runway…

Designers are changing and opting for video, but it’s something I would never do. When I see bigger brands creating videos to promote their work, making it more performative, that is not how I would ever show my work. My brand already skims that fine line between theatre and ready-to wear, so the runway is what stabilizes and solidifies my work as fashion.

There are enough people telling me my work is otherworldly and eccentric and impractical. To me, the runway show is the most sophisticated way to present it, and it strengthens those next steps in my journey as a brand.

The clothes looked very sophisticated and luxurious. It felt like a classic designer experience. It didn’t feel like an art project.

It was a very conscious decision to not make it feel compromised. I really was looking at my favourite designers. I wanted to emulate the shows I always looked up to. I consistently love everything Marni or LOEWE puts out, for example. I love the layout of their shows. If I’m doing a show, I want to push for that feeling of luxury and fantasy.

Is the show also a form of validation in your career, a benchmark you want to achieve? Is there status validation here?

As a designer, to have the clothes make sense on a runway and not just a lookbook where you can nip and tuck and edit, to have it live and for people to see it from all sides, is validating. I wouldn’t have imagined it at this stage in my career. The jump between my last collection and this one feels massive.

Photography by Jess Ruby James

As a journalist, the conversations I have had the past year were mostly about criticizing the industry. As a designer, how much time do you have to reflect on this?

There are obvious problems, in the way designers have to produce so quickly. Having to deliver and respond to demand. Balancing stock and making new collections and exclusivity. As a creative person, when all you want to do is offer people beautiful clothes, that can be ruthless.

There are clear obstacles, but I’m excited by the prospect of what can change. How people in the industry, those who facilitate the clothes to customers (salespeople and showroom managers and buyers), how they are looking to reevaluate their relationships with young designers to support their need more. Hopefully, people will be a bit less busy and people will have more time to look at collections and build relationships with designers.

“Everybody in our industry is complaining there isn’t enough time. We expect instant results. But sometimes you need to let something get weirder and more complex before you can understand it.” – Jordan Dalah

What is something the industry could do to support your work?

I feel more or less supported by the networks I already have. I would hope that… I sometimes think that people tend to glaze over the most out-there elements of what I do and then define my brand by those less functional aspects of the collection. Buyers and press fail to see the nuance in what I do because often these encounters are very limited. Time is always limited.

My brand doesn’t exist in a fantasy world. I approach fashion as a playful medium, but it’s full of function. Of course, if I would take away that playfulness, I would disappear, but I wish people could see the gestural components and put them into perspective.

Designers are very easily pushed towards something that is going to sell, something that is palatable. I wish people would see the value in sticking to one idea and letting it sink in for a while, instead of expecting brands to dilute what they do so it becomes a regurgitated version of something that has already done well. You see these brands that launch with an amazing new idea, but by the third season you start to see, they’ve been told what sold and what didn’t, and that dictated their designs.

Give designers enough time, and you will start to understand what they do. The identity will unfold. Everybody in our industry is complaining there isn’t enough time. We expect instant results. But sometimes you need to let something get weirder and more complex before you can understand it.