For Hussein Chalayan, it seems, fashion has always been about applying artistic practices to the design of clothes, employing technology and narrative to move the audiences of his theatrical shows (which often have live music and choreography), while bucking convention. Simply put, he is an innovator, often first to explore new materials and techniques. He applies these to themes and ideas with political, social, scientific and cultural resonance, transcending typical fashion references – usually so derivative they verge on necrophilia.
As a result, Chalayan’s work has often been seen in a gallery setting. He has had major shows at the Design Museum, Lisson Gallery and Spring Studios in London, the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. In 2006, during a BBC documentary, the art historian and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon said that Chalayan’s work was “as close to contemporary art as you can get”. Looked at today, his earlier collections retain every bit of the liquid magnificence and purity that they initially conveyed. The subject of home is at the heart of them.
One has only to think of the Airmail jacket that was worn by Björk, patron saint of directional design, for the cover of her album Post in 1995, an ordinary-looking envelope that unfolds into a garment, ready to be written on or sprayed with scent and put in the post by a schoolboy separated from his mother, hoping for a piece of her to be sent back. Thanks to its paper-like Tyvek fabric, it was also unrippable, machine-washable and wearable. Later came Chalayan’s ode to refugees of war and all people who have been obliged to transplant their lives from one place to another. Afterwords (A/W 2000) featured models dressing themselves in cushion covers; chairs becoming suitcases; a table extending into a skirt that resembled a mahogany hooped crinoline.
With Between (S/S 1998), he meditated artfully on cultural identity and disembodiment, and the sense of self expressed by one of the most powerful and controversial garments in the world: the burkha. The show finished with a line-up of six women in varying lengths of the veil with, at one end, a calf-skimming version and, at the other, a masked nude. It was essentially a portrait of identity in transit, and six people in six different locations, separated by the variations of the same piece of clothing. Then, in 1999’s Echoform show, model Audrey Marnay emerged in a white fibreglass dress that mechanically unfolded before the audience’s eyes, resembling the fuselage of an aeroplane. Aeroplanes, those unique physical spaces, would become a Chalayan motif, and the timing of Echoform coincidentally came just months after Operation Desert Fox, lending it another contextual layer of cultural pertinence.
”I don’t see the point in not taking risks. In my opinion, there isn’t anyone doing this now.”
Hussein Chalayan had a peripatetic upbringing, shuttling between the sunny city of Nicosia in Cyprus, the mundane suburb of Finchley and, eventually, the uncomfortable London boarding school to which he was dispatched at the age of eleven. This was long before the advent of digital communication or everyday international telephone calls, so you can imagine the sense of displacement, isolation and longing the young Chalayan might have felt. A psychotherapist would perhaps say that this contributed to his acute emotional antennae and instinctive need to create and innovate.
London is well known as a breeding ground for radical creatives, so much so that its association with Central Saint Martins graduates has practically eclipsed the once-formidable tailoring heritage of Savile Row, yet many of Chalayan’s generation were forced to look to Paris to build viable businesses. His name is often mentioned in the same breath as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. (McQueen graduated from the MA at Saint Martins in 1992, the year before Chalayan left with a BA; Galliano, though their contemporary, was there a decade before.) Today, their era is fetishised and romanticised by a generation of social-media-savvy spectators, who admire it as a moment of inventiveness achieved despite impecunious resources – the fashion equivalent of the age-old notion of the impoverished poet.
Although Chalayan remained independent, he has held creative director roles for Asprey, Puma, and TSE. He is also head professor of fashion at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts. Perhaps because of his independence, Chalayan has been explicitly labelled as Conceptual. He has produced art projects and films, and he described himself as an “immigrant in different disciplines, fusing unlikely worlds and cultures” in his 2015 TED talk (he is the second fashion designer, after Isaac Mizrahi, to do one). That is perhaps partly because Saint Martins was a more integrated environment while he was studying there, with greater crossover between the art and fashion courses. The reason why that C-word label stuck, he claims, is because, in a pre-digital era, designers had only the whim of editors to communicate their collections.
Last year marked Chalayan’s return to the London Fashion Week schedule, with a womenswear show at Sadler’s Wells, the theatre that has been the setting for many of his iconic spectacles. The collection, titled Act to Form, centred on “isolated individuals the new world order is generating”. There were Greek folkloric references, and a sequence of final looks that featured panels ripped off by the models to create explosions of metallic confetti and feathers.
“I’m not happy with the way things are going around me, in terms of the world order,” says Chalayan. “There is xenophobia, racism, climate change. There’s Trump! There are all sorts of problems, and all sorts of nepotism. There are all of these negative things.” There are also positive things, he acknowledges, which came through in the aforementioned explosions, or “fake celebrations”, as Chalayan describes them, which marked the end of the coup de théâtre. “In a way, they were a celebratory revolt, somewhere between happiness and sadness.” Call it cynical joy or joyful cynicism, the show struck a chord with the audience, and marked the homecoming of one of fashion’s most significant modern storytellers.
You’re now back at London Fashion Week, after showing in Paris for quite a while. Did it feel like a homecoming?
”I don’t think of it as coming back to London. In the digital era, it doesn’t matter where you show, it’s just about your work. I left for a technical reason, [which was that] the press weren’t coming to London; they were going straight to Milan. We were spending the amount of money that you could spend on a house, and people were skipping our shows. Then we got used to showing in Paris. I might show here [in London] again next season, but I have nothing to do with the young generation here. It’s so different.”
How is it different?
”I think of London as a state. It is a country, not a city. I couldn’t be more grateful that I was raised here. I am a typical London, Saint Martins designer, in a way. There’s a liberalism here that is so precious. It’s the New York of Europe, and I identify with it. The weather sucks, but that means that you can get on with things. If it was warm all the time, you’d have the urge to always be out! Basically, showing in Paris was simply the means for my work to be seen. When I started showing there, our business tripled. The revival of the British Fashion Council and everything is really quite recent. Before, the BFC always had goodwill, but they were not as powerful as they are now.”
You experienced success at a time when a wave of British designers were taking fearless risks with their fashion design.
”I’m the only one left. Those guys are not doing their own thing any more, unfortunately.”
I think a generation of designers and spectators look back romantically at the 1990s and even early 2000s as a time of creative freedom. Was it really like that for you?
”Yes, it was, it was very exciting. And I am still a risk-taking [designer]. There were more of us at the time: McQueen and myself in London, and other things going on elsewhere. I don’t see the point in not taking risks. For me, it was always about having a business – and taking risks. In my opinion, there isn’t anyone [doing this] now. That’s what happens when people start to get scared about not making a living.”
”Fashion became more democratised. Everyone started to think that they could do it, which is great on one level, but it means there are a lot of designers doing it without the education to do it. They’re not from that background, and then they want to be a designer. And, perhaps, why not? There’s room for everyone. As long as everyone is welcome and the BFC and the industry are inclusive. Lamenting is boring! It’s more about what you can do within the world order that exists, and finding a niche for yourself. Therefore, what’s really important is your relationships with people, not the competition. The competition is draining. It’s about relationships with people. If you compare yourself, you go crazy.”
It must have been hard, though, because some of your peers were invested in by the big luxury conglomerates and given huge roles at couture houses.
”In my opinion, what has killed a natural creative environment is the conglomerates. They have been so non-inclusive and so, in a way, power-struck. By picking out designers and investing in them and fast-forwarding their careers, [they have] created an imbalance. Imagine you are a designer contributing to a movement, an environment, an atmosphere and then, suddenly, another designer gets taken and slotted into a typical luxury-brand mould. It kills the natural momentum. It starts to become a very artificial interjection that kills movements – because you can’t have kinship with someone who has gone from a hut to a palace. It’s perfectly normal for a big company to invest in another brand. [But] the way it’s been done hasn’t necessarily been, in my view, in harmony with the natural development of a designer. If you take a designer overnight and open 30 stores for them within three years, I don’t know how that designer can go from nothing to that. Not only is it damaging to the designer, but it’s damaging to the movement. We all had our own voice, and we respected each other, and we were all equal. It was like, suddenly, you had a Big Daddy who was favouring you and leaving the others out. And actually, the ones who were favoured were so extremely pushed that it was horrifying for that person.”
I wonder if that is what is putting off a new generation from those big conglomerate jobs today?
”Maybe that’s why they’ve become more safe.”
I know you’ve been talking about issues around social media in your recent collections. How do you feel about it?
”I think social media can be great, but I don’t think it’s great when it eliminates experience and cognisance. Also, when it gets a bit pornographic. I don’t mean pornographic in a sexual sense, but in the sense that you share the private. I couldn’t give a toss what Kim Kardashian is sipping right now at Chateau Marmont in LA. But other people do, and that cheapens life. People who are obsessed with every moment and want to know every detail about other people – it cheapens experience and it cheapens time.”
”An aspect of the projects I’m working on is about the despair, the “FOMO”. Why do you have to be unhappy because you’re missing out on an event? Can’t you be content with having an eye-to-eye conversation with your friend wherever you are? I think it has something to do with the dissolving of personalities: you become a property of this kind of digital flow, and your own sense of solidity can go. I’m talking about young people who only live through social media.”
”Clothing is my tool and the body is the ultimate cultural symbol.”
It can be slightly worrying just how much people share. And you are traced. It can sometimes feel like CCTV or a Big Brother society.
”At the beginning, there was a transition from non-digital to digital and [it was about] sharing your work. It’s gone from that to sharing every moment of your life. It has become social porn. It is with you in the most private of times. You are sharing privacy with everyone, and it is omnipresent. I think, initially, it was democratising, before Instagram and all those tools that help you share a moment. If you can imagine, in the 1990s, it would take us six months to see really good images of our clothes in Collezioni [Italian fashion magazine]. That meant the editors were able to edit you in the way they wanted and portray you in the way that they wanted. They would decide that Hussein is an “avant-garde designer”. Meanwhile, I would be selling tailoring and draped dresses in the shops. What social media has done is unified [things], in the sense that everyone can see for themselves what you’ve done as a whole, [rather] than see only what a newspaper editor has decided you’re about.”
How do you feel about being quite explicitly labelled a “conceptual” designer?
”I am a very cerebral person but I’m also a very emotional person and, actually, it’s about the two together. I start off in a more rational way and then it becomes instinctive. There has to be that duality. I would never say: this is a conceptual project called such-and-such. I don’t think of any titles or names when I’m doing a project. It’s how other people read into your work. And because I have ideas, and experiment with ideas… They like to label you.”
”It is conceptual but I don’t try to make a point of that. I think that any process a designer has is for themselves. [You don’t work] because you want to talk about it, but because you love creating. I would love it if I didn’t have to say anything after a show, and people could write whatever they want but, because I’m a narrative designer, people want to hear what it’s about. And I don’t mind explaining. But if you can see a beauty in my work that moves you in some way, even if it’s hatred, or whatever, how amazing would that be?”
So, do you usually begin designing a collection with a thesis?
”I have an idea and a feeling that I want to convey. Usually it’s following on from the [collection] before, or a reaction to the one before. But because I’m a curious person, I’m constantly interested in completely different subject matters. I can’t say it’s this regimented thing. Sometimes it’s just one word that I want to explore, or one idea. It can be a very simple idea, and it grows and it starts to pick up its own life.”
Do you still see your older work in the same way?
”I do. I am able to renew myself quite often, and then I can revisit some of the ideas I have had in the past. I can weave them into new ideas. It’s a pool, and I always swim in the newest part, but I can move around a bit. My enthusiasm is not damaged. Financial restraints and difficulties with timing are the biggest problems in our industry. [The collections] all have a story. They are all births. They were responding to things then, but they could also be responding to things now. I guess the world has changed and it hasn’t changed.”
What does the concept of home mean to you?
”I guess I’m interested in [home] as a study. It’s a bit anthropological for me. I can’t not make it part of what I’m doing. I’m mostly interested in looking at the isolation side of it. My notion of home has changed as I have got older. When I go to Cyprus now, in some parts I really feel at home, and in others I really feel like an alien. It’s these zones that you create for yourself, whether they are physical, digital, cultural or even sonic. I could be in another place just by listening to music. Clothing is my tool and the body is the ultimate cultural symbol.”
What were your first memories of home?
”It’s a combination of my Cypriot upbringing and my grandparents’ house, and our family home in Finchley. My parents split when I was quite young. I’m an only child, [and] my interest in aircraft came from the idea that it marked separation and it marked reunion, but they were also a transitional space in their own right.”
”It was also language. I was between Turkish and English, a combination of grandparents and early life here. In Nicosia there’s a Chalayan area, named after my grandfather in the early 1950s. There’s a 1930s building, an institution: it’s a dance parlour and restaurant, with men in bow ties, like Harry’s Bar in Italy. I remember being there. It was unusual for Cyprus. Later, when we went back, we had a maritime upbringing because we would be in my aunt’s house by the sea.”
Did you feel resentful when you were sent to England to study?
”Of course. My life has been marked by a lot of separation from my mother. I had separated parents, and it felt quite violent. I came here for boarding school. Initially you are resentful but then you adapt. I looked European but I had a Muslim name, and that was confusing for people. They were difficult times, and I was quite rebellious. I saw a lot of bullying around me. It wasn’t comfortable.”
How do you think those experiences made you want to become a designer?
”From an early age my urge for creativity was my zone. Because I moved around a lot, creativity was the only thing I had control of and, therefore, that was my zone. When people move around a lot at a young age, if they are creative, their creativity becomes their country. That was what happened.”
And lastly, what is your actual home – as in, your living space – like now?
”It’s very simple, as I don’t like a lot of things there. There’s furniture, but it’s very minimal. There’s height, which is nice. I care about light and height. I’m really picky about furniture. It’s all quite functional, and there’s a big wall of books.”
Photography Chad Moore
Casting Tereza Ortiz I LundLund
Hair Louis Ghewy I Management & Artists and Kalle Eklund I LundLund