Exclusive Interview with Hussein Chalayan

Die-hard fashion fans need no introduction to Hussein Chalayan. Since he launched his own label in 1994, the Turkish Cypriot designer has been lauded for his iconic designs such as his LED skirt or transformative wooden table dress that fuses art, fashion, technology and the future. Over the years his work has addressed issues that go beyond the fashion realm from immigration to politics. As such many of his designs have ended up in museums, garnering him the title of one of fashion’s most cerebral designers alongside names like Martin Margiela and establishing him as a somewhat demi-God to his peers and industry insiders.

But as with everything, there is much more to Hussein’s work than meets the eye. It’s not just about those wow pieces, but his innate ability to tailor the perfect jacket or dress. Over the years he has really honed his technique and aesthetic, doing away with the show pieces and letting the subtle details shine.

I really sensed this in his recent autumn/winter show, which was full of beautiful yet wearable pieces. Yes the audience (including myself) were fascinated by the series of dresses that transformed when the model tugged at the neckline. But there was a much more interesting and modern story in the wide legged jeans with XL cuffs, voluminous thick sweaters and quilted leather jackets.

I spoke about this and more with Hussein when he visited Hong Kong last week. He also revealed that he will be combining his more affordable Grey line with the main line (Black line) Chalayan as of next season, offering customers clothes within three price points. Read on to find out more…

Your work over the years has explored so many themes from culture to languages – why did you choose fashion as a way of expressing these thoughts?

It was a very conscious decision I made as a student. I actually studied architecture and I could have become an artist easily. But for me, applying my way of thinking to fashion was interesting because I could create something new.

I am also very excited by the body. Anything that becomes corporeal for me becomes more exciting. The body gives my ideas life. So in my opinion, a lot of my collections are about a sense of life in the clothes – many times literally.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

It’s really at a point where ideas and form meet. It is more about form, but it is informed by ideas. Ideas are for me to pursue the collections. I also feel that [my work] is about empowerment. It’s about creating a great sense of adventure because I find life quite dull. It’s one of the reasons I became a fashion designer – I am trying to make life more interesting.

That aside, one thing I really spend most of my time on is constructing clothes. I’m a perfectionist. I can spend days and days on the most simple jacket, just to make it fit perfectly. The ideas are just there for me to be inspired, but you as a customer don’t have to know about them.

Over the years you have been pigeonholed as a conceptual designer but your collections have wearable pieces as well…

Yes, so it all started in the mid 1990s – there was no digital media around so newspapers would come to my show or Alexander McQueen’s show and take pictures of pieces that they knew would sell copies. As such we became known as avant-garde designers, but actually 99 per cent of my collection was beautiful and wearable pieces that I was spending a lot of time on.

So even when the digital era came about and everyone could see my entire collection, it was challenging because I was already stuck in that box. That being said, things are changing and the digital media is helping us gel it back together. In the past five or six years, our sell thrus are much better, because people are seeing the collections as a whole and are understanding that the showpieces I do is are more about cultural experiences.

Technology was a big part of your oeuvre in the beginning – is this something you are still interested in exploring?

Yes but in different ways. Technology is not just something I do for the sake of it, I do it to express an idea. For example for autumn, we have these incredible dresses made from fabric that looks like peeling paint. They are very innovative and were developed specifically for us. That being said, I also really want the clothes to be worn. I actually think I get more excited by a seamless dress rather than a dress that does something. At this point I am more excited about subtle things than bigger things.

What would you say have been the high and low points in your career?

We’ve won so many awards – they are not life-changing, but they are encouraging. And of course the museum shows have been amazing. Right now I am really excited to move forward and explore new product categories and retail spaces.

You’ve been in the business 20 years – do you still face many of the same challenges from the beginning?

I am 42, and I started when I was 24. The difference was, in those days, you didn’t know what was going come, so you just enjoyed every moment and you just did it. You were carefree. Now I am more cautious.

Right now London has become known for its emerging designers – do you feel part of this new burst of creativity?

Weirdly I still feel very young, but now all these “young” designers are having their moment. So what happens is that it actually creates a middle child syndrome. People think you are doing well but actually you are not in the same position as the conglomerates but at the same time you are not a young designer, so you are hovering in between. And actually that is quite hard.

On the other hand, I am quite happy with what we have achieved.  I have my loyal customers, and loyal press. It’s all about carving a place for yourself. But I am also a designer’s type of designer. It feels peculiar when I have someone like Phoebe Philo running up to me and telling me how much she loves my work, but it is a compliment as well. It’s a peculiar place to be in – it’s both a gain and hindrance.

You’ve managed to stay independent but would you ever consider joining a big fashion conglomerate?

Working with a big conglomerate can be a heaven or a prison. It all has to do how much they understand or respect the designer. It all boils down to your affinity with the people you work with. If they expect to get money out of you quickly, then the designer is in a prison.

What are your plans for the future?

I still have quite a lot to discover myself, I am still quite driven.  We are trying to revive men’s wear as many people keep asking. I dress mostly in brands like APC or Uniqlo so it would be cool.

What have been your favourite and most challenging collections?

My favorite collection is probably my Chador collection, because it is so simple or personal. The most difficult collection was the one where dresses change from one look to another. But generally I think I work very hard, and I like working hard.

How would you like to be remembered as a fashion designer?

As someone who is fused different worlds to create clothing and who uses storytelling as a means to create clothing. I also want to be known as someone who tried to put fashion into different contexts. But in the end of the day it’s about the product, so it is a combination of craftsmanship and storytelling.