LONDON, United Kingdom — Hussein Chalayan is a unique talent. As London's only really radical fashion designer, he holds an honoured but precarious position in a fashion scene where original thought and commitment can often come second to sales. The fact that Chalayan has, at times, had financial troubles is as much an indictment of the fashion industry as it is a badge of his integrity. In fact, in my 40-year search for a designer with real intellect, he alone stands out. I would wager that if anyone in a century’s time shows the slightest interest in today's fashion, it will be Chalayan's thoughtful approach that intrigues them.
Chalayan does not compromise, nor has ever done so throughout a career that began with a bang. His graduate collection at Central Saint Martins, entitled “The Tangent Flows,” contained clothing he had buried in the ground then exhumed, just before the show, in a ritual of resurrection. It provoked shock, even outrage, along with a great deal of sceptical merriment. But, importantly, it also attracted the attention of influential London boutique Browns, who displayed the collection in its windows, and Hussein, steadfast in the face of criticism, weathered the storm, because even then he knew his worth.
“My brand has given a lot to fashion and I believe fashion has not always reciprocated. I chose fashion over other forms of creativity because I thought I could bring something different to it, a new way of thinking,” says the designer. “As it is, I have tried to broaden fashion beyond simply clothes. I think it is important to recognise that, intellectually, fashion is a small world.”
Indeed, Chalayan’s work — which will soon be shown as part of “The Politics of Fashion / The Fashion of Politics,” a group show at Design Exchange in Toronto — often merges clothing and the human body with technology, science, architecture, music and cinema. It has been referred to as wearable art, rather than fashion; his shows can be more like performance than traditional catwalk presentations.
“He is the penultimate artist,” says Shauna Levy, president of Design Exchange. “He happened to choose fashion as his platform, but the reality is that he probably would be equally as successful if he had chosen any another platform simply because he is so multi-dimensional. His collections are truly an intersection of creativity — be it fashion, architecture, lighting design, multimedia or otherwise.”
All of which hasn’t made things easy commercially. “I must admit that it has been a long and, at times, slow journey,” says Chalayan. “After 20 years, I can say that my work has been a complex combination of difficulty and joy. In this business the restrictions of money and time can make the job of an independent designer very difficult.”
When he was young, Chalayan’s life was divided between Cyprus and England, though Istanbul, the centuries-old crossroads of the world, was always his magic city and still feeds his imagination now. Indeed, it is his eclectic background, married to his endless curiosity, that keeps Chalayan's creativity rich enough to simultaneously inform the direction of historic fashion house Vionnet, for which he designs demi-couture, alongside his work on his own label. Personally, I hope that Chalayan stays at Vionnet as long as Galliano did at Dior because I feel that he has the tact and understanding to make the house his own, whilst respecting the aesthetic of the founder, much as Galliano did.
Chalayan is one of a small band of true fashion thinkers that includes Rei Kawakubo, Gareth Pugh and Rick Owens: people who are not just making clothes to sell but, despite huge commercial pressures, using clothes as an artistic instrument. Like them, Chalayan has creative will made of iron, but he can also be besieged by doubts and questions. He is never complacent and rarely relaxed. Friends say he has a wry, down-to-earth sense of humour. But when he is working, it’s all-consuming.
“For me, the fashion show is a manifesto and that in itself is my way of following my heart and my brain,” says Chalayan. “Although the starting point of all new collections is the last collection, moving on from there is a bit like the weather — there is no pattern and no predictability. There's a sense almost as if there is another law, another reality, out there in the air and I bring it down to earth where it develops into a wondrous bubble; one that was there all the time, waiting for me to activate.”
“I am a compositional designer,” he declares. “I play compositions on the body with my clothes through the fabric. I am interested in the relationship between form and body. A good design relates to the body; a poor design just sits on the body. This is in my mind all the time.”
Editor's Note: This article was edited on 15 September 2014. An earlier version of this article misstated that Chalayan was creative director of Puma and that the company still owned a stake in his label. This is incorrect. The partnership ended a few years ago. Chalayan bought back the shares of his company from Puma in 2009, and was no longer the creative director of Puma as of 2012.
“The Politics of Fashion / The Fashion of Politics,” featuring the work of Hussein Chalayan as well as that of several other avant garde designers, opens on September 18th at Design Exchange in Toronto.