Fashion

Jordan Dalah’s new line features giant sleeves and puffy bows, face-covering designs and foam rings. It’s spectacular, technically skilled and surprisingly wearable. By Lucianne Tonti.

Jordan Dalah takes a bow

A design from Jordan Dalah’s spring/summer 2022 collection.
A design from Jordan Dalah’s spring/summer 2022 collection.
Credit: Supplied

When Jordan Dalah was asked to open Australian Fashion Week in Sydney last year, more than a few people in the industry were surprised. It was four months before Woolmark announced him as a finalist for their international 2022 prize and just four years after he graduated from Central Saint Martins college at University of the Arts London. The occasion marked his debut runway show.

The opportunity would become the driving force behind his spring/summer 2022 collection. The size of the platform inspired him to create 43 looks, an ambitious undertaking for a one-man operation. He drew on historical codes of dress he’d worked with before and paired them with new ideas. Over the phone, he describes it as “decontextualising these kind of interesting silhouettes … because I’m doing a show let’s heighten it, let’s make it more dramatic”.

These codes are what has captured the attention of press and stores. Dalah’s signature is voluminous, Tudor-inspired garments that look as though they should be on a stage in the 16th century or in a parody of a fashion show. His sleeves are so exaggerated and puffy they rise to the chin and envelope the torso; his bustles are constructed from bouncy foam; his enormous hems are so wide and thick he has named them the “doorstopper”.

The show received rave reviews. It was described as spectacular, emotionally charged, an extravaganza. The collection itself – a mishmash of teal, creams, whites, blacks, navy, prints, stripes, maroon, soft pink and bright red – has been bought internationally by stores including Dover Street Market, Joyce, and Macondo. Almost every look swathed the body in reams of fabric – weighted silks, technical wools and polyester blends – beginning at the shoulders, sometimes covering the face and, more often than not, stopping at the ankles.

Dalah talks a lot. He is intensely theoretical about the brand, “the world” he has created. He says it was important the show was a “story told properly”. He began with the story within each look, from the shoes, which were a collaboration with Melbourne label Actually Existing, to the styling and the models he chose.

It’s not entirely clear, even to Dalah, what the inspiration behind this story was. He says he was “not inspired by one thing” and that it was about “finding the normality of some silhouettes and playing against them”. He cites dance as an inspiration, “this idea of a girl, half in her ballet costume, half in her leotard”. He also draws from theatre archives, the way shoulders and sleeves were exaggerated to enhance a character’s attributes so the audience could tell from a distance who they were. He says that while he didn’t spend time in theatre, he “grew up painting portraits of women” and his desire to create womenswear “naturally kind of progressed” from there.

That he was drawn to painting portraits of women is curious in the context of the silhouettes in the collection and in this moment in society when women are more visible in their fight to escape subjugation. The proportions on the body are exceptionally exaggerated, so much so they don’t evoke a woman’s body, or curves, as much as they disguise and distract from them entirely. More than one of the pieces on the runway would be impossible to move in, to sit, or dance, or go about a busy day. This tension is inherent to men designing for women in 2022 and not at all exclusive to Dalah. Fashion has a gender equity problem. One 2019 study by PwC revealed that despite women being 78 per cent of the students at the world’s leading fashion schools, only 4.8 per cent of clothing companies in the Fortune 500 had female chief executives.

One of these silhouettes is a teal dress made from a shiny polyester and acetate blend. Jordan calls it “the pool toy dress”. The form of the dress itself is beautiful. It has a high neckline and long sleeves artfully tucked beneath the arm to create volume, each drape secured to the space in-between where the bust and the underarm meet. The front panelling is simple but cleverly masks where the reams of polyester that make up the full-length skirt have been inserted. The shoulders are an example of Dalah’s exaggerated silhouettes, they are heavily padded to appear artificially wider and higher. More foam has been inserted beneath the skirt of the dress – it looks as though an inflatable pool ring is magically suspended around the model’s thighs – and draped in heavy luminous satin. This pool ring or bustle is sold separately and Dalah confesses the dress is often bought and worn without it, although the shoulder pads remain.

Another dress with outsized proportions is made of tomato red polyester. It drops to the knee and has a bow attached to the chest so enormous that the model’s arms are hidden. A similar style has black and white horizontal stripes. The hem at the knee is ruched and tucked under. It has four enormous bows that look like inflated pillows cinched in the middle, positioned around the body. One is in the middle of the back and the other three form a line on the front from shoulders to hips, one at the navel, one at the base of the neck and the final one sitting over the model’s shoulders like a collar. Dalah says this piece is easier to sell without the bows but the red bow dress is a bestseller.

This exemplifies a tension in Dalah’s business: he is constantly working to balance, between theatre and function, costume and reality, art and commerciality. He clarifies the styling for the show was about the theatre of it, and that the collection has key pieces that will “look good in a wardrobe that already exists”. He also has a line of jersey knitwear that has continued since the label’s inception and that pares back the more conceptual items.

Some of this commerciality is captured in the simplicity of a black wool coat with short, puffy sleeves, one of the only pieces that follows the line of the body. It has a simple pointed collar and 18 wide, round buttons. The fabric is a bonded wool and nylon blend, so it is slightly water-resistant and has a thin wadding so it is both stiff and soft. The coat is a good example of Dalah’s immense technical ability and skill.

He acknowledges that a lot of what the brand is known for are the “things that stylists want to shoot”, but insists the collection is more wearable than it appears on the runway. He says that among the powerful moments, there are pieces that are simpler. “I feel like it’s a lot about what people see as opposed to what’s actually there to be seen.”

I ask if he wears the clothes himself. He pauses and asks me to repeat the question. He says, “I don’t feel comfortable in it, because my stuff is womenswear.” He tells me his preference is for simple menswear. “Even though I don’t personally wear it, I don’t feel like it’s the most outrageous thing … it feels quite normal in my head.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Take a bow".

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Lucianne Tonti is The Saturday Paper's fashion editor.

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