Avant-garde designer Hussein Chalayan is appealing to the masses. Jing Zhang catches up with him in Paris
Architectural grace and artistic levity are considered defining characteristics of Hussein Chalayan's clothing. And this summer he's been collaborating with British artist Gavin Turk on London's Collision fashion show. As a result he is labelled one of fashion's most conceptual, avant-garde designers. However, Chalayan isn't exactly pleased by this.
"Can I be honest?" says the Cypriot-British designer, when we meet in a small café outside the venue of his Paris Autumn/Winter 2012 runway show. "When people are known as 'this' style of designer or 'that' style of designer, that's people's perception. The reality is I always wanted to sell clothes from day one and I always have done."
The conceptual versus commercial dichotomy in fashion clearly irks Chalayan. He doesn't see why his aesthetic shouldn't translate to being commercially accessible. Yet, he also criticises commercial gimmicks like the Kate Moss collaboration with British high-street label Topshop in 2007, calling it "insulting".
Chalayan has a point - the unusual beauty of his clothing is often easily overlooked as too high-brow.
Recent years have seen the development of his main line (lately renamed Chalayan Black), but it was the 2011 launch of Chalayan Grey, a younger, more affordable diffusion line that set fashion press abuzz. The new line simplified his clean design aesthetic and is an effort by the designer to shake off some misconceptions and reach a bigger audience. Then there is a new accessories line launching in Hong Kong stores this December.
"It's inevitable that as a fashion designer you get put in a box by some fashion press particularly when my approach to design is maybe different than other designers," says Chalayan. "But the problem with being called 'avant garde' is that it sounds unapproachable and unwearable, when the majority of our clothes are wearable and I think beautiful and desirable."
That's not to say that Chalayan's talents are going unrecognised. Winning British Designer of the Year twice (in 1999 and 2000), his name carries gravitas in the industry. Even celebrities who wear his dresses on the red carpet are the more serious, cerebral type; the likes of Tilda Swinton, Swedish actress Noomi Rapace and British actress Zawe Ashton.
In 2006 he was awarded the MBE. At only 41, it is an achievement.
Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, his family moved to Britain in 1978. Chalayan studied fashion at the Warwickshire School of Arts and then proceeded to London's Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design.
He hit the radar when iconic London boutique Browns purchased his entire graduate collection, "The Tangent Flows", which consisted of silk and cotton clothing he had buried with iron filings and dug up from his garden. Industry insiders knew he was one to watch.
In 1995, Chalayan beat 100 competitors to clinch a top London fashion design award, aged only 25, helping him financially kick-start his label. Chalayan now proudly considers himself a Londoner: "This city helps both fuel and satiate my curiosity. It's a world of its own, a microcosm of so many different cultures it would be hard to leave," he says.
He describes his style as functional and classic, and often wears pieces from his Puma by Hussein Chalayan menswear collection (he has been creative director of the sportswear label since 2001). But those he has collaborated with, like singer Björk (in the mid 1990s) and more recently with Lady Gaga, are more eccentric and daring. Gaga emerged from Chalayan's embryonic "egg" at the 2011 Grammys.
Showpieces like this, as well as the memorable 2000 "table skirt" (a skirt that transforms into a round table); Autumn/Winter 2006 inflatable collars, the moving dress; and a breathtaking Spring/Summer 2000 "airplane dress" that moves by remote control, have reinforced Chalayan's "conceptual" moniker.
His fascination with science and technology are reflected in the eclectic materials and fabrics he uses. As a result, his clout extends beyond fashion, into an inventory of gallery and museum exhibitions.
Given such cosy relations with the art world, it's no surprise that Chalayan was drawing as a child, and encouraged to become an architect.
"Cyprus is a small place so they try to push you towards something they understand," Chalayan says, "But I thought that I could tell stories through the body, in the structure, the shape and cut - it evolved naturally."
"We are an alternative luxury label," he says of his brand, "I think the style of our 'house' is modern, a fusion of classic with cutting edge." Still, perhaps after 17 years in the game, it's only natural that he is growing tired of his "indie" status.
"I have a lot of experience and now I want to reach more people. And I think we deserve to."
"I think our influence [in the industry] is based more on real clothes than the showpieces. We are referenced a lot [in fashion] not by our table skirt but by our compositions."
In the past, Chalayan has had his fair share of financial woes, with inconsistent funding, restructuring and once, even forced liquidation. He has designed for the most unlikely partners such as Marks & Spencer and Topshop, and acted as creative director for jewellery label Asprey and TSE New York.
But his appointment at German sportswear giant Puma more than a decade ago, gave Chalayan some financial stability.
Puma purchased a majority stake in his label, but the partnership ran into difficulties.
They did not know enough about our industry," Chalayan says. "They are more of a sportswear lifestyle company."
Chalayan bought back the shares three years ago, when they decided to part ways on his eponymous line. He is again enjoying the independence as well as looking back at an already celebrated career.
His work has been featured at the Tate Modern and Royal Academy of Arts in London, New York's F.I.T, and at the Istanbul Biennale. Although not yet a widely recognised name in Asia (although South Korea is already very receptive), the designer continues to garner international acclaim.
And in the past two years, Chalayan has added to his repertoire exhibitions at Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Istanbul Modern, the Contemporary Art Museum of Tokyo and London's Victoria & Albert Museum. These all feature high on his list of proudest moments, he says, along with the first monograph of his career, published by Rizzoli last year.
Chatting half an hour after his Autumn/Winter 12/13 show, which has raked in rave reviews, it feels like the beginning of a new chapter. Both the Grey line and accessories launch are positive, clever turns for spreading the message of his brand afar.
"I have no regrets," says Chalayan, of the trajectory his career path has taken.
"Running your own business is a learning process. Of course I'd like us to be a bigger, but on our own terms. I will say I'm proud that we're one of the few independently owned labels in an era of the fashion conglomerate."
Chalayan’s mission is to turn the breadth of his work into a full wardrobe, because he likes a woman who can dress for an occasion.
“She can be wearing tailoring during the day and quite boyish and become quite sexy at night. I like this varied approach to dressing.”
Most of his innovations go into developing fabrics and prints, perfecting tailoring and draping. His Autumn/Winter 12/13 mainline collection (below) explored “a wardrobe” and departs from the uber minimalist SS/12 in that it established more geometry, with fabric cut outs, graphic colour blocks and 1960s-inspired Perspex parts forming modernist shapes.
“This has become part of my DNA,” he says of the architectural elements.
“For this collection, I looked at fashion eras like the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and all these eras – the visual things that happened, they all happened for a reason. You know the decadence of the ‘80s, and in the 1970s, it was a post-hippy era … and the ‘90s was a mishmash of everything. And the era we are living in now is a mishmash of everything, in a way.”
Chalayan’s allusions to postmodern aesthetics might seem a little lofty, but the reality is clean, pure lines, and beautifully rendered clothing that has a timeless, precise quality.
Hussein Chalayan and Chalayan Grey Autumn/Winter Collections are available at I.T, Liger and Initial.