Representing the creative future

Jordan Dalah on making fashion, not costume

Valuing craftsmanship over conceptualism and the showroom over the show

Sydney-based designer Jordan Dalah by Harry Ecroyd

It is tempting to call Jordan Dalah a theatricalist, but it isn’t true. The Sydney-based designer has won fast acclaim for contemporizing Renaissance references as approachable ready-to-wear. Inspired by the exaggeration and distortion through which Tudor fashion translates into period costume, he scales up frothy techniques of historical dress into crisp and architectural forms. “It’s the dialogue between costume and everyday clothing that really interests me,” he said. 

 

Bulbous sleeves outshine (and sometimes outsize) the bodices to which they attach. Necklines extend up to frame the face like a gable hood. Puffed-up hems hover away from the body as if frozen in perpetual sashay. Some garments even ruche up the center-front like a stage curtain lifting. This all may sound highly theatrical, but its overarching sensibility is anything but. Jordan Dalah values craftsmanship over conceptualism and the showroom over the show. Beneath the veneer of theatre beats the decisive heart of a modernist.

Jordan Dalah on making fashion, not costume
Jordan Dalah by Harry Ecroyd

Jordan Dalah first encountered Tudor aesthetics as a teenager while learning how to paint in the style of Old Master realism. Each painting was an exercise in layering: hours of painstakingly adjusting lights and darks destined to disappear beneath the surface of the painting. “So much of it you don’t see, and at the last minute it comes together with like the subtlest touch of red,” he said. It was this aspect of painting that intrigued him – the gradual, meticulous build-up – a quality Tudor-era portraiture shares with the historical fashion it portrays. The period owes its fulsome silhouettes to armatures of “undergarments and underbustles,” basically three-dimensional underpaintings. “There’s a lot of layering that goes on in order to get that final product, like a corset or a big dress,” he said. Contemporary costumes of the period work like this too. “It’s basically a shell of so much stuff going on underneath, exactly like the principle of painting.”

“I’m inspired by theater and costume, and I say that a million times, but I’m not making clothing for theatre or costumes. It’s inspired by that.”

Despite Dalah’s fascination with costume, he hates his work’s designation as such. “I’m inspired by theater and costume, and I say that a million times, but I’m not making clothing for theatre or costumes. It’s inspired by that.” To him, the difference is categorical. “A costume is just shapes placed on a body,” he said. “Nobody cares about what the inside looks like.” It exists only as an exterior for an audience. To look within a costume, then, is tantamount to trespassing. On the other hand, a garment has no secret interior given that its viewer is a wearer who has full access. “You turn my stuff inside out, and there’s just as much thought in the inside of the garment,” he said. “All my stuff has to be made beautifully. That is the difference between costume and what I do.”

This stance Dalah learned on the BA womenswear course at Central Saint Martins. “My tutors would say to me, you can make a white t-shirt, but if you’ve not thought about the finishings of that shirt, for them, it’s not deemed fashion, it’s costume. But equally, you can get a TV screen and plaster it to a body, and as long as you’ve thought about the finishings of that, they will validate that as fashion.” No matter materiality, wearability, or disposability: of principal concern here is technique. “That really stuck with me,” he said. Not all the orthodoxy did though. “I was always battling a little in tutorials because I would never have enough 2D work to show. My sketchbooks didn’t look interesting enough, just very functional books of work I wanted to make.” He hated the pretense of retroactively curating process pages to justify ideas he’d already had. “It was so two-dimensional, and that really frustrated me. I spent my teen years just drawing fashion because I didn’t grow up learning how to sew. I drew and drew and drew. And then I got to fashion school and it was just more drawing!” He persevered, graduating in 2017 alongside Mowalola Ogunlesi, Goom Heo, Alex Wolfe, and Sheryn Akiki – an illustrious year for the course. Unlike those classmates, he evaded the gravitational pull of the MA and created his business right away.

Sydney-based designer Jordan Dalah on making fashion, not costume
Jordan Dalah by Harry Ecroyd
Sydney-based designer Jordan Dalah on making fashion, not costume
Australian designer Jordan Dalah shot by Harry Ecroyd
Australian designer Jordan Dalah shot by Harry Ecroyd

While Jordan Dalah intended to start out in London, he ended up indefinitely extending a trip home to Australia after realizing he could find enough resources there to sustain his practice. He now designs and produces his collections entirely in Sydney. It took him a while to forge connections with Australian machinists, most of whom expect to sew uncomplicated garments in vast quantities, he said. “When they see me come along with pieces of fabric and patterns everywhere and, like, the giant Marshmallow Dress, generally they run for the hills. It’s more thinking than they want to do,” he said. Understandably so. Who wouldn’t balk at sewing a biker jacket with voluminous shoulders wrapped into place by a sleeve-truncating yoke? A boned and topstitched leather bodice? A dress literally called the Monster Frock? “It’s a headache,” he conceded. “But I found people that were willing to do it.” Still, the city’s decimated garment industry keeps his network tenuous. Many garment-making businesses are the last of their kind in Sydney, he said. “If my fusing place closes down, which it might, I’ve got no one to fuse my stuff.” But he intends to stay until it becomes impossible. “That could be in a year or two,” he said.

He works in a white-walled studio mostly occupied by a four-meter-long pattern-cutting table. No interns or assistants, only the occasional machinist to help with samples. His “very, very loose” design process focuses on advancing a sensibility rather than realizing a discrete concept. “I’m always creating new things, and at some point it starts to resemble a new collection,” he said. He researches in libraries and costume archives, in historical clothing databases and online museum resources. He’ll think of a form and scrawl it down in pencil, moving quickly into calico from there. “As soon as that idea is on paper, I start in 3D,” he said. “I have to see if I can make it.” If not, “back to the drawing board.” Sometimes he’ll slap together a couple images in a hasty collage, for example, the puffer-coat-clad torso of a mountain climber juxtaposed above an archival trouser. Then he’ll make a drape and photograph it to replace the collage, then make a toile to replace the drape. The goal is always to move efficiently from image to reality.

He submits each toile to rigorous questioning before allowing it into a collection. Are the sleeves big enough? Is it too pretty? Does it look too much like another designer? Sometimes he solicits his boyfriend’s opinion. “I’m very wary of my stuff turning prissy because there are a lot of pretty, puffy brands and I don’t want that. I’m more of a subversion of that,” he said. To bear his label, a garment can’t read as classically beautiful. If it does, “I have to rein it in and turn it a bit more awkward. I have to be very careful not to lose what’s interesting about my brand.” Sometimes the answer lies in fabrication. Chintzy textiles help subdue the monastic appeal of his silhouettes. “I’ll try and find the ugliest floral print, the one that doesn’t look like flowers from afar,” he said. Colours too – “I can’t stand pink, but I always put a little bit of light baby pink or dusty pink within my collections. It has to be the exact right tone or it doesn’t work.”

It is tempting to call Australian designer Jordan Dalah a theatricalist, but it isn’t true.
Australian designer Jordan Dalah by Harry Ecroyd

“I would love to do a show at some point, but to be a young designer and to think the show is the be- and end-all is quite naïve. You do a show and people remember it for a minute and then they move on. An image is so much more effective than a show at the moment.”

Encountered on-screen, Jordan Dalah’s garments may seem a smidge outside the realm of everyday life, but they are made to be purchased and worn. (You could click over to one of his stockists right now and nab his Draped Maria Clara Top for under £400!) “My puffy stuff – you put it with a pair of jeans or a pair of black pants and it looks really good,” he said. In his excitement to manufacture and distribute his work to the real world, Jordan often puts off making brand imagery. His most recent collection for A/W20, now in production, is still somewhat of a secret shared among his buyers and friends, he said, since he has yet to shoot its lookbook and editorial campaign. When he took the collection to the showroom, he had only hasty Polaroids and printouts to show buyers in support of the physical garments. His orders were strong nonetheless, but he wants to improve at sharing his work. “I make a ton of stuff, and I struggle to document it properly,” he said. “I have to get better at realizing that a collection from start to finish is more than having clothes in a showroom on a rail.”

His position inverts the contemporary wisdom that one accretes Instagram followers so that one day press and buyers will come. His own account mostly features straight-on photos of models wearing his clothes, though a scroll down to his 2018 posts reveals a slew of editorials featuring his BA collection – the only collection he has ever sent down a runway. He doesn’t anticipate sending a second anytime soon. The way Jordan sees it, a show done well can raise intrigue and demonstrate a brand’s point of view, but for young designers it’s often unnecessary, too expensive, and beside the point. “A runway is a PR exercise,” he said. “I would love to do a show at some point, but to be a young designer and to think the show is the be- and end-all is quite naïve. You do a show and people remember it for a minute and then they move on. An image is so much more effective than a show at the moment.”

“I’ve been told a million times, ‘Oh yeah, you make all these crazy garments, but slowly the buying market will break you down,’”

Amid the pandemic, Jordan is now developing a small-scale S/S21 collection, “a continuation of what people have started to see from me.” He doesn’t anticipate any big orders from his stockists next season given their financial duress, but that’s not the point right now. “Who cares if it sells? This collection can only be a good thing. I’m invested in it more as a success for my branding,” he said. So he refuses to swap out or soften any unwieldy silhouettes. Buyers tend to gravitate toward his most eccentric pieces anyhow. “I’ve been told a million times, ‘Oh yeah, you make all these crazy garments, but slowly the buying market will break you down,’” he said. He vows to never let that happen. “The moment I compromise what I make and start diluting what’s interesting about my brand is when I’ll get bored of it.”

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

Buy Now