Hussein Chalayan is one of the most visionary designers working in fashion today. He is renowned for an innovative use of materials, meticulous pattern cutting and a progressive attitude to new technology. His pioneering work is motivated by ideas drawn from disciplines not readily associated with fashion, crossing between anthropology, history, science, philosophy and technology. Chalayan is guided by what happens in the world and by what engages him personally, and these concepts inform ideas behind his collections. His acclaimed runway shows function as performance pieces which allow him to express important concepts.
Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1970, Chalayan was educated in Cyprus and later in London.
His early years were spent living between two different cultures, Cyprus and the UK, and this has led to a particular interest in ideas such as cultural identity, nation states, migration and dislocation. Displacement is a recurring theme in his work. The history and multi-faceted aspect of the region from where he originates continues to inspire him. For Chalayan, it is a meeting point for so many different cultures — he describes himself as being part-Aegean, part-Anatolian, part-Balkan and part-Mediterranean filtered through the synthesiser of London.
In 1993, he graduated from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London where his highly inventive graduate collection, The Tangent Flows, caused a sensation. The collection featured decomposed silk dresses that had been covered in iron filings, buried in the ground for months and then exhumed. The collection later featured in the window of the London retailer Browns, and helped to launch Chalayan as a new designer with a reputation for innovation. He launched his own label in 1994 and, since then, has twice been named British Designer of the Year.
Chalayan describes his work as being a narrative — a form of storytelling, incorporating different themes. His shows are designed to be a cultural experience for the spectator. Many of the themes explored in his work derive from his own personal history and cultural identity combined with his experiences living and working in London.
Today, Chalayan runs a studio in East London. He shows bi-annually in Paris and sells internationally. Over the last twenty years, alongside his fashion collections, he has regularly extended his ideas into museum exhibitions and art installations. He has directed short films and designed costumes for opera and dance performances. Chalayan is Creative Director for Puma, where he develops their fashion and lifestyle lines.
Chalayan’s creative approach, his inspirations and the ideas which subsequently influence his work range from genetics and technological progress to displacement, migrancy and cultural identity. He uses clothing as a site of exploration, to express concepts and make them accessible to a wider audience. He creates event spaces in the form of films, installations and exhibitions, as well as experimenting with new and innovative materials and techniques. His garments are imbued with the thought processes behind them. His 2009 collection, Inertia, explored the implications of speed and technology on our lives with garments encapsulating the moment of a crash; Afterwords responded to the theme of displacement in which furniture transforms itself into garments; Airborne used LED technology, incorporating thousands of flickering lights; and Readings features dresses comprising over two hundred moving lasers, presenting an extraordinary spectacle of light. Chalayan’s pioneering work crosses many different disciplines, with inspiration coming from architecture, science, philosophy and anthropology. His uniquely interdisciplinary approach makes him one of the most inspiring designers working in contemporary fashion. He has a unique ability to combine beautiful and wearable clothes for today with an intriguing vision of the future.
Inertia Spring/Summer 2009, Luke Hayes
Airborne Autumn/Winter 2007, Luke Hayes
Panoramic Autumn/Winter 1998, Luke Hayes
Readings Spring/Summer 2008, Moritz Waldemeyer
Afterwards 2000, Chris Moore
Temporal Meditations Spring/Summer 2004, Luke Hayes
Inertia Spring/Summer 2009, Chris Moore
Your work crosses so many different boundaries: art, architecture, fashion, film. How would you define your design philosophy?
My work is about ideas. If I had to define my philosophy in just a few words, it would be about an exploration, a journey, storytelling; it is a combination of these things with suggestions and proposals at the same time. It is a quest into certain areas and proposing a way of looking at something. I am very much an ideas person which my team help me to realise. I am not a one-man show. When you are someone trying to create an idea, you don’t always have the means to make it practical first time round — the perpetual struggle of making a prototype and then making it real.
In January 2009, an exhibition of your work opened at the Design Museum. What did you want this exhibition to achieve?
This was the first time we have had such an extensive exhibition in London. We have had exposure at other museums and galleries but largely overseas. What the visitor saw in this show is how different worlds relate to each other, how everything is interconnected. My work is a reaction to things that happen in the world — history, anthropology, science, technology — it represents a merging of all these worlds which is what makes the work unique. I enjoy creating bridges between different worlds and disciplines. It was not just a fashion exhibition but a tray of ideas. They would be exposed to clothing, then a film, then an installation and so on. People are not sure where to place my work so the exhibition presented an opportunity to readdress this. It is interesting when a school of architecture uses Hussein Chalayan work as a basis for student projects — choosing garments based on geography, identity and culture and asking the students to create an environment based on these clothes. But academia is spreading beyond people who teach, more members of the public are appreciating the processes and research behind design.
Are there particular ideas or themes which you are keen to explore in the future?
I have long term interests which I want to explore. I feel that with everything to date, I am just at the edge of the work. I could take projects a lot further. It is difficult to create anything that is long-lasting; you would have to make it your life’s work. I see my work not in terms of collections but in terms of projects, and I want to continue to work on these as an inspiring base for the clothes.
How have you managed to survive in the fashion world and keep a business operating for almost 20 years?
I started the collections in March 1994. We are constantly renewing ourselves, which keeps me energised. I have taken up consultancies, exhibited work in museums and galleries and made short films. I see myself as a communicator. The commercial side can often be something which may seem to be neglected because of creativity, but I also want our clothes to sell — there has been a misconception of my work, in the sense that people think of all that we do as ‘conceptual’ and therefore un-wearable. I feel that this is due to the monumental pieces getting more exposure and the actual wearable clothes getting overlooked. We take a long time trying to achieve cut and precision. I think it’s often manifest if you try the clothes on.
When did your interest in fashion design first emerge?
As a child, I developed an independent fascination for the body — I was so excited about anything to do with it. I was also brought up mainly by women which probably helped to fuel this. I started to create narratives around the body. In my culture, a lot of emphasis is placed on going out and looking good — it is a hot environment, which also creates a sexual charge. I guess fashion for me was the closest thing that celebrated the body and that’s why I decided to study it.
Describe your early years growing up in Cyprus. How has your background influenced your work?
I was born in Cyprus and came to London aged one. I returned to Cyprus when I was five for primary school, then came back to London when I was twelve. I have spent most of my life in London but I consider myself a Turkish Cypriot coming from a country with a history of political turmoil, who has moved from one island to another. The more isolated you are from the rest of the world, the more curious you are, the more you want to discover. I have always been an innately curious person, fuelling this even further. The lack of resources in Cyprus meant that I was always building and making things, creating my own world. My family ties and values are also very important to me — warmth, encouragement, support — which is also echoed in my business relationships. I have a strong affinity to nature. I enjoy food, textures, plant life and animals. Most people who come from another region don’t always recognise the value of where they come from until they leave. You are then able to reflect objectively and want to celebrate those attributes. London creates the facility in which to reflect on your background from a distance.
How has your cultural background translated into your work?
My work reflects a relationship between rural and urban culture, movements of people and the idea of migration, anthropology, history, cultural prejudice, a relationship with the earth. My work is a conversation, a constant state of discourse.
You have a particular affinity to the city of Istanbul?
For me, Istanbul has always been the centre of the world where ghosts still live on. The past, present and future converge in one city, sitting between Europe and Asia and the birthplace of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It is a completely unpredictable city, spontaneous, energising. It is a maritime city; its connection to water is important to me and I used to visit with my family during the winter months. My uncle settled in Istanbul and my father studied there, so it was the nearest cosmopolitan place to home. My mother was creative and very dextrous with her hands. My father studied as a computer programmer during the 1960s and then opened a restaurant. My grandfather owned an amazing art deco building in Nicosia, which was an inspiration to all of us as children. It combined a dance parlour, restaurant and cutural centre.
How important were your studies at Central Saint Martins?
Really important — for me it was the ultimate fashion school largely because of the diversity of the people that were there and how the course was structured. It was a colourful environment and I liked the way in which different disciplines co-existed. I was there at the right time before everything became more segregated. 'The Tangent Flows' was my graduate collection. It was all about the Cartesian world view and Eastern philosophies.
Which collections are the most important to you?
From the earlier chapters, Between and Afterwords have had the most exposure but I have learnt different things from each. Medea, my first collection in Paris, and the technology in One Hundred and Eleven are important to me. The media have responded positively to my work in the worlds of design and fashion but the work also appeals to other interests.
Which designers do you most admire?
I love the work of Margiela, and historically Sybilla.
How would you describe your working process?
It is very much about a narrative — a form of storytelling involving different themes which evolve from, or react to, the idea before. They can be monumental themes which I arrive at gradually. The shows are designed to be a cultural experience for the spectator, with sections reading as chapters.
How many collections do you design each year? Describe a typical year in the Hussein Chalayan calendar.
There are four main collections each year, Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer, together with two pre-collections. There are between sixty to seventy styles produced for each collection. I have a team of twelve which includes sales staff. As Creative Director of Puma, I divide my time between designing for my own collection and working on ideas for Puma with a separate team. Puma is a lifestyle house, it is not a fashion house; interest in technology and ideas not readily associated with fashion will sit comfortably with Puma.
If you had advice for an aspiring fashion graduate just starting out, what would this be?
I would say to get as much experience as you can in different aspects of the world outside clothes. Enrich your understanding of how we live, different cultures, what our needs are. The more experience you have outside of fashion, the more enriched you will be. Fashion is becoming a bigger business and there are so many new developments in the industry with new textiles, fabrics and exciting career opportunities. There is fashion PR and the media where you can be part of a team and still have an important role to play. People should explore what they are good at, rather than what they are told to do.
Born in Nicosia, Cyprus
Attends boarding school in London
Graduates with a BA Hons in Fashion from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London. Graduate collection later features in the window of London retailer, Browns
Launches own label
Shows debut collection at London Fashion Week
Winner of the first Absolut Vodka, Absolut Creation Design Award
Exhibits in Jam: Style + Music + Media at Barbican Art Gallery, London
Exhibits in Cutting Edge at the V&A, London
Exhibition at Colette, Paris
Designs for New York cashmere company, Tse (1998-2001)
Designs costumes for Michael Clark’s production of Current/See
Exhibits in Fashion: Visions of the Body at the Kyoto Costume Institute, Japan and Airmail Clothing at the Musee de la Mode, Paris
Designs costumes for Eric Fraad’s production of Handel’s Messiah in New York
Named British Designer of the Year
Produces collections for the London high street retailers, Top Shop and M&S
Named British Designer of the Year for the second successive year
Exhibits in Century City at Tate Modern, London, Great Expectations at Grand Central Station, New York and Radical Fashion at the V&A, London
Artist in Residence at the Wexner Center, State University of Ohio
Appointed Creative Director of Asprey, London
Begins to show collections in Paris
Launches first menswear collection
Launches and edits C magazine, Belgium
Exhibits in Goddess: The Classical Mode at MOMA, New York
Directs short film Temporal Meditations, screening at Pitti Uomo, Florence
Directs short film Place to Passage, screening at Truman Brewery, London
Opens flagship store in Daikanyama, Tokyo
Exhibits in Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh at MOCA, Chicago
Directs short film Anaesthetics, screening at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
First solo exhibition at Groninger Museum, The Netherlands
Represents Turkey at the 51st Art Biennale with the short film, Absent Presence
Awarded MBE for services to the fashion industry
Wins the Fashion category: Brit Insurance Designs of the Year at the Design Museum, London
Wins Night of Stars award, Fashion Group International, New York
Exhibits in Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture at Somerset House, London
Appointed Creative Director, Puma, London
Major solo exhibition From Fashion and Back at the Design Museum
Opens his I Am Sad Leyla (Üzgünüm Leyla) multimedia installation at the Lisson Gallery, London
Chalayan and Nicola Formichetti collaborate with Lady Gaga for the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards
Design Museum exhibition (2009)
From Fashion and Back
Image credit: Luke Hayes
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