PARIS, France — He’s dressed Björk and Lady Gaga, had his fantastical clothes featured in art exhibitions and contemporary ballets, and now the innovative designer Hussein Chalayan will join one of Paris’ most historic fashion houses.
Chalayan will work alongside owner and creative director Goga Ashkenazi on the ready-to-wear collection, joining the existing senior design team of Albino D’Amato and Diego Dolcini.
“I’ve been an admirer of Hussein’s work for a long time. I see him as an artist, not just as a designer. In a way, he has a very architectural approach, which is also one of the qualities of Vionnet’s signatures. The approach he takes to each design is like a piece of art,” says Ashkenazi, who made her fortune in energy and construction in her native Kazakhstan.
Ashkenazi first hired Chalayan in 2014 to design Vionnet’s demi-couture line, ‘off the rack’ pieces with the intricate craftsmanship of haute couture, not to mention the price tags to match. The brand stopped showing the line in couture week because it was ‘financially straining. It did not make financial sense,” says Ashkenazi. However, demi-couture did continue and was shown privately to clients.
“Demi-couture was very much about dresses and evening wear. Today, I am participating in a broader context. With ready-to-wear, the difference is that there are many more categories. It’s not only eveningwear, but also tailoring and other categories,” says Chalayan.
Vionnet has changed hands numerous times over the past 10 years. Ashkenazi bought the house in 2012, its centenary year, from Matteo Marzotto of the Italian fashion dynasty, who masterminded the Valentino sale to the Permira Group. Vionnet had been sold to Marzotto by Arnaud de Lummen in 2008, having relaunched the brand some 15 years after his father purchased it in 1988. Prior to this, the brand had laid dormant since its founder Madeleine Vionnet closed up shop in the late thirties.
This year, Chalayan celebrates 21 years in business, but the two-time British Fashion Council Designer of the Year has built a reputation for concept over commerce, and has garnered press attention the world over for his fantastical creations, which occupy a space between fashion and art. He has broken new ground with a skirt which doubles up as a table, a robot dress packed with Swarovski crystals and Tyvek garments that can be folded down to envelope size. Previously, Chalayan has held creative director posts at a number of brands including TSE, Asprey and Puma. However, he is not arriving at Vionnet as a conventional, all-powerful head of design.
“Goga is the creative director and owner of the brand. The rest of us, we contribute to the vision,” says Chalayan. “I try to introduce ideas that complement what they’re doing, but also support the Vionnet language. My role is to add a bit of difference and harmonise with what they’re doing.”
“For me, that one big name is Madeleine Vionnet,” adds Ashkenazi. “I see myself as holding the flag on behalf of Madeleine. It’s a lifelong ambition to put Vionnet back on the pedestal where the brand belongs.”
“I am in charge of the main line,” Ashkenazi goes on, “but I like to think of us as a family,” she explains. “All of us sit down in one room to draw. Then we look at each other’s drawings and exchange our thoughts. It’s not a business; it’s a passion for all of us involved.”
Chalayan joins at an important point in the brand’s growth trajectory, just a couple of weeks before the opening of the Paris store on Rue Francois 1er, around the corner from the Paris flagships (maisons) of Chanel and Louis Vuitton. A New York store will follow, which Ashkenazi hopes will open before Christmas. The brand is in talks with potential licensees for new product categories, including eyewear and fragrances. The Vionnet Autumn/Winter 2015 collection is currently available at 100 points of sale worldwide.
“We are just beginning our retail expansion. Vionnet has expanded in Asia by being recently stocked in several dozen of new stores. I’m looking into a location in London as well,” says Ashkenazi.
Meanwhile, Chalayan has just opened a new boutique on Bourdon Street, Mayfair, for his namesake brand, which he bought back from Puma in 2010, having previously sold a majority share-holding in his label to the sportswear company in 2008. Addressing how he plans to balance his two roles, Chalayan says: “When I commit to a project, I really treat it as my own. Of course, I have my own brand and that takes up a lot of my time, but I’m the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
For a radical such as Chalayan preserving the heritage of a historic house such as Vionnet might prove a challenge. “There’s a really fine line between respecting the heritage of Vionnet and all the things that it is known for, but at the same time, making it relevant to the modern woman,” he says. “It’s about not being cliché and vintage, nor having an identity that isn’t Vionnet.”
Ashkenazi promises a number of surprises when the next collection launches at Paris Fashion week: “It’s very liquid, very fluid. We have all adapted our tastes and creativity. You will see that the main Vionnet line does not look like Hussein or Goga or anybody else. We’re respected the heritage more than ever.”
“I believe a lot of people can contribute to Vionnet without ‘breaking the law’ of the brand,” Ashkenazi adds. “Their talent is adding value, as opposed to viewing it as them ‘taking over,’” hinting at the possibility of hiring more staff as part of a designer collective at Vionnet.