Financial frustrations, off-the-wall ideas and computerised frocks: welcome to the world of Hussein Chalayan. Today in Paris Hussein Chalayan will no doubt give us another groundbreaking show. We ask him how he created some of his most breathtaking to date...
The dress starts to jolt, agitatedly, the fabric apparently having some sort of spasm until it morphs right before our very eyes from a long, corseted Victorian-era inspired gown into a short, beaded 1920’s flapper dress. What the fuck is going on? Then a full-skirted 1950’s number shrinks into a futuristic ‘60s shift. In exactly five frocks, and just as many minutes, Hussein Chalayan runs through more than a century of fashion history; taking the stunned audience from Worth to Chanel, from Dior to Rabanne, all to a soundtrack of warfare, fascist tirades and aircraft, until a flying saucer hat sucks up the finale dress, leaving the model butt naked, the hat spewing a cloud of dust before vanishing. Magic. After the whooping and cheering and jumping stops there is just one question on everyone’s lips: how did he do it?
"I never call myself an intellectual. I think that when you have ideas and talk about them, people think that you’re intellectual because most fashion people are not like that. I do think and use my brain but I am ultimately into aesthetics; that’s why I do fashion.”
"The spring/summer 07 collection was inspired by the way in which world events over the course of a century have influenced and shaped fashion,” explains the 43-year-old London-based Turkish Cypriot-born designer. “The corset was wired and programmed; everything was built into the clothes so they were self-programmed. I’m interested in movement. With this collection I wanted to do garments that change shape.”
Chalayan, whose furrowed brow makes him look as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, worked with product designers Topen for the fabric-sucking, self-combusting hats, and animatronic design company 2D: 3D for the mechanics that turned the fabric from intelligent to thinking. The challenge for 2D: 3D was “mechanising fabric, applying an engineering idea to something soft. We’ve never done anything quite like this,” says animatronic designer Joe Scott who created the hippogriff for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “With film you can do retakes, but this was a one-off.”
Indeed, when such high theatrics are live, a lot is at stake, admits Chalayan. “I get very frightened when it comes to anticipating a show; there is an element of angst. Last night I couldn’t really enjoy myself because so many things could have gone wrong.”
When it comes to fashion shows, Chalayan has elevated them - and the fashion picture at large - beyond the mere seasonal; his shows having more in common with happenings or art installations than frock parades. Chalayan’s show antics are not rooted in shock value but in intelligent dialogues on genetics, anthropology, migration, cultural prejudices, environmental influences, identity and architecture. “For me fashion now is not about anything new; it’s about the past put together and at what level it’s done. It’s about at what expense and who puts it together because when certain names have done it the customer wants to like it. It’s about who has the biggest muscle in the market. There are lots of talented people who are never seen or who are not seen enough. Styling has a lot to do with it, too. Take a fashion show: the show is the marketing tool. Then again, it shouldn’t really be about reality otherwise it’s dull. The reality is your selling collection. The show should be desirable but I think that it should also capture an atmosphere.”
“For me fashion now is not about anything new; it’s about the past put together and at what level it’s done. It’s about at what expense and who puts it together because when certain names have done it the customer wants to like it. It’s about who has the biggest muscle in the market.”
Seminal moments in the history of spine-tingling catwalk moments include his spring/summer 98 collection, Between, with its play on the chador (the outer garment that Muslim women wear to cover the body and face below the eyes) and where models appeared either fully covered to fully naked; shows with dresses spun from sugar glass that were smashed with hammers, dresses inspired by the wings of aeroplanes where plates opened electronically to reveal body parts; and most infamously, After Words (autumn/winter 01), where chair slipcovers became dresses and a polished wooden coffee table became a skirt. Crazy? No, just a succinct and stylish comment on refugees in flight camouflaging their processions, and inspired by the situation in Kosovo.
Of course, the downside of all this is that Chalayan is labelled an intellectual. Does such stereotyping piss him off? “Yes it does. I just think shut up and look at what it is. Also I never call myself an intellectual. I think that when you have ideas and talk about them, people think that you’re intellectual because most fashion people are not like that. I do think and use my brain but I am ultimately into aesthetics; that’s why I do fashion. I guess the exciting thing for me is the connection between life and form.”
So what would Chalayan prefer to be labelled as? “It would be nice to be considered a contributor,” he says in his usual self-effacing manner. “When someone buys a dress, they don’t buy it because they like the story behind it, they buy it because it looks good on them; they like the cut, the way it makes them feel. I hate the idea of being labelled cerebral. Of course, I’m interested in form and shapes and the body. But people always want to pigeonhole you as one thing.”
In Chalayan’s case, that one thing would be ‘unwearable’, ‘avant-garde’, and even ‘pretentious’. “To call something pretentious is just the laziest thing you can do because it’s just so easy,” he has said. “Whatever work you do, you know, the months you spend working on a project, I don’t think it’s right for someone to dismiss it like that.” Still, there are lessons to be learnt in such catcalling. “The single most important lesson I’ve learnt is that it’s important to not take yourself seriously, but to take your work seriously. Too many designers take themselves seriously, especially in Paris where it is very hierarchical. I am happy to be living in an Anglo Saxon city.”
For all of Chalayan’s musings on identity, architecture and cultural prejudices, no matter how abstract they end up being, they are all rooted in the personal. “I spent a lot of time in Cyprus on my own,” says Chalayan, who was born in Nicosia, Turkish Cyprus, “but there were always things I had a real passion for. I used to love building things, creating was such a big thing for me. And Cyprus you know is a Mediterranean island so it’s very colourful in some respects. It’s also a divided island. We could see the border culture, and you grow up with this fascination for what’s happening on the other side. When I was a kid we were told the Greeks might attack at any time and yet our culture was so similar. We had exactly what the Greeks had, but we were also Oriental, because of the influence of Islam.”
It was another separation, that of his parents when he was 12 years old, that brought him to England. “I remember my mother being very dexterous, even by Cyprus standards. She made all my clothes and they looked like she’d bought them at the shops. Whatever she did, she did really well and I think that sort of set the standard for me,” says Chalayan of his life’s biggest influence. “By the time I got to England I was really into Kate Bush and I used to love Grace Jones. I was also really into the photography of Jean-Paul Goude and the films of Antonio, the Cohen brothers and Stanley Kubrick”
In 1993 Chalayan graduated from Central St. Martins College in London with a collection that had been buried in his friend’s back garden with iron filings in order to see how it would decompose. Joan Burstein of Browns gave the collection her windows, an honour that was first bestowed upon John Galliano on his graduation. Five years later and Chalayan had a string of exhibitions and awards under his belt and was designing the TSE cashmere label in New York, scooping up the British Designer of the Year award in 1999 and 2000.
Come 2001, just as dusty luxury goods brand makeovers reached fever pitch, Chalayan bagged a creative directorship at Asprey, the British aristocracy’s favourite purveyor of fancy schmancy goods, a partnership which soon faltered. Asking him what happened to Asprey’s big shot plans he declines to elaborate, stating that his contract doesn’t allow him to speak about it. He is, however, happy to talk about his ideas of luxury. “For me luxury is attention to detail and the quality of material and manufacture. It is something that endures and has timelessness about it. It is about quality, durability. Hussein Chalayan is an alternative luxury house using expensive, nice materials.”
Not to be defeated when it comes to proving his business savvy, Chalayan also launched a menswear line, opened a flagship store in Tokyo, Japan, and launched a second line simply called ‘Chalayan’.
“I do feel the pressure to have other lines because you sell them easier than clothes off the runway but I’m not excited about them, not just to make money, anyway,” he says. “No one cares if a designer stops showing. There are so many out there. Ultimately I wish we received royalties every time photographs of our work were published. When a musician’s work gets played on the radio they get royalties. They might only get two pence but if 10,000 people play the music they make money. So why is it that every time pictures of a designer’s stuff is printed in a magazine we don’t get royalties? Anyway, I think that for me there is the pressure to carry on doing what I want to do and on the other hand I have to survive.”
Despite the fact that Chalayan enjoys a reputation as one of the most directional designers (fashion or otherwise) working today, and now has a commercial collection, the financial struggle still haunts him. “What would make me happier right now is for my sales to become bigger.” He pauses, deep in thought; his mind rushing him through an endless maze of possibilities and arguments. “For me technology has a lot to do with this. In terms of developing new ways of sewing, new ways of bonding fabrics, looking at space technology and car technology. I want to go to car manufacturers and see how they use technology in making car interiors… but they think there is no money in helping me so why should they do it?”
But taking risks is ultimately what drives this visionary full thrust forward. “In order to move forward you have to take risks. What I find really boring in life is those who don’t take risks. Just think, before we discovered how aspirin works so many people must have died. In a way those risks need to be taken for people to benefit. If you don’t take risks, things won’t move on. We just end up regurgitating the past.”