Hussein Chalayan’s work has always been about blurring lines, whether they’re the invisible ones between different forms of artistic expression, or literal borders between countries and cultures. The London-based designer, who grew up in Cyprus and came to the UK at the age of eight due to the ethnic conflicts shaking his home country, has mastered drawing from precisely these dualities and differences, with a notion of flux accompanying his fabrics right from the beginning — his graduate fashion show at Central Saint Martins in 1993.
Chalayan’s offering, titled “The Tangent Flows”, consisted of garments he had buried in a friend’s back garden for months, letting a kind of uncontrollable force take control of transforming the pieces. Twenty-five years, two British Designer of the Year wins, and an MBE award later, the designer is still at the forefront of embedding a profound sense of shift and change into his work. For AW 18, he chose unintegrated immigration within the European landscape as the theme of his mens- and womenswear collections, a topic that couldn’t be more timely given the continent’s current political climate. While other designers might look to nebulous history books to kickstart their creativity, Chalayan focuses on issues of the now, continuously referencing his own journey as a young boy as much as larger cultural movements.
It’s this unparalleled self-reflection that quickly made Chalayan a favourite of the fashion press, praised as a distinctly intellectual and thoughtful designer, one who can express himself through short films or by creating the wardrobe for one of Mozart’s operas in Berlin, just as poignantly as he does with clothing. Through his creativity and collections, Chalayan has often prompted his audience to try to comprehend fashion through the world around it. Fittingly, he is now providing the next generation of aspiring designers with this knowledge through his appointment as the Head of Fashion at the Institute of Design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. It’s a role that, in the designer’s true tireless manner, only makes him more eager to continuously explore the state and future of fashion. INDIE spoke to Chalayan about the value of learning — at university, about the industry and, most importantly, about oneself.
Strikingly, some of the overarching themes of your collections still are movement, transformation and transition. Would you also describe yourself as someone who is quite restless?
Yes and no. I’m generally not restless but I do work a lot, so yes, I am always doing something and I do continuously need something new. I wouldn’t say I’m restless in particular, I would say I am stable but I do get bored quickly.
So how do you ensure your mind stays occupied?
I’m a curious person. I think curiosity is a big saviour for us, for all of us. Curiosity keeps you going, it makes you do new things, makes you explore new things. There’s a lot to discover in the world, even if you’re eighty or ninety, you still have a lot to learn. I always have a project on the go, there’s always something new — so I think curiosity is a very good one here.
Looking at our broader cultural landscape, like you so often do through fashion, what would you say evokes your curiosity right now?
It’s hard to say because new things are happening all the time. But essentially, I’m very interested in cultural prejudice, I’m very interested in technology — in fashion, I think one of the most exciting things happening right now is the engagement with technology — and also I’m interested in anthropology and how today’s world is affected by history. I’m constantly observing and I’m constantly working myself to death, so my projects become a means to understand these new issues, and to re-propose them at the same time in my own way. So it’s a combination of proposing and re-proposing what I see, and understanding it at the same time.
There’re a lot of problems in the world with intolerance and lack of acceptance of differences, and I would say that now I’m in a chapter where I’m interested in these kinds of prejudices and how I can turn this interest of mine into clothing. Why differences occur or how people, if they don’t know something, react to it in a fearful way. I think with all the world events, there are a lot of ingredients right now to really look at. What I also find interesting is that there are many designers coming from geographies that you would not expect, and they’re achieving something, and I think this is a very new thing in fashion: you’re hearing about these designers that are not from known fashion countries necessarily.
With the 21st century fast approaching, Chalayan equally looked to the idea of speed: for AW 99 he used the interiors of cars and planes as the base for his dresses, which could even move and open parts of their construction on their own just like their vehicular counterparts, making his audience ponder topics such as movement and well-being.
Your own geographical background has also always played an important role in your work. Was exploring your roots through your collections similarly a means to make sense of the world around you?
It’s my reality, so I can’t really say it’s so mechanical. I observe within the space I’m in and try to create new proposals on various ideas through my work. But it’s not something manufactured. I think that if you’re from a bicultural or tri-cultural background, it’s obviously a really important situation — but I don’t think everyone knows how to use it. What’s allowed me to use it is being in London, because London is so multicultural and so open to other ways of thinking and encourages it. But London is also pleasantly separate from the background I’m from, so I can look at it from a distance in a much more objective way. Being in London has allowed me to use my cultural background in an exciting way but I don’t think that just because you’re born into this tri-cultural or multicultural background you necessarily know how to use it. It’s based on the person but it’s the environment as well.
Did you always define London as your home? Or were there times when figuring out where you belonged was a bit more intricate?
I was raised in London, so London is really my home, so to speak. But I also realised that it doesn’t have to be literally a house or a country. It’s either a particular zone of exploration, if I’m in a particular place or I’m with people I like, that I feel complete with, or it could be a combination of the two — it varies, but a home is a place where you’re content. It’s where you’re happy, hubs of happiness. So I guess home for me, in that context, is where you feel content.
If it doesn’t have to be a literal place, could it also be the internet for you? I’m wondering because you’re an avid explorer of technology yet distinctly absent from social media. Apart from your label’s Instagram account, run by your team, you don’t use it in any personal way.
Social media on one hand is a great tool to communicate, but on another level I think that it creates so many kinds of data and information data that there is a sense of entitlement for people. They think they know something because they’ve seen it, but I don’t think that’s necessarily understanding, because seeing doesn’t mean that you understand. There’s confusion between the exposure to the data, user knowledge and actually really proper knowledge — those are different things. The internet is an amazing world, a library, but you still have to really read about things like in the past, because then you’ve sort of earned that knowledge. Otherwise it’s just kind of there, you know about it superficially because you just think, “Oh, I’m gonna google that term.” So a lot of these things that we think we know are based on very much digital knowledge, I’m not sure if it actually sits in your brain or not.
That notion of “digital knowledge” is quite interesting because we’re supposed to be in an “age of knowledge” yet, at the same time, profound engagement with particular topics often seems rare — it literally doesn’t go deeper than the surface, the screen. Do you think that’s something that’s also quite ubiquitous in the fashion industry at the moment — a kind of fakeness, of pretentiousness?
There definitely are a lot of designers that are doing it for very short periods of time and then start realising that it’s very hard, and then they’re stopping. But fashion is about commitment, it’s a very serious craft. For me, celebrity designers, for example, have cheapened the fashion discourse, because I think, in a way, they’re going into it without knowing about fashion, they’re hiring other designers. And then that’s just seen as authentic and gets compared to other people. I wish that every designer or every house could have their own kind of territory and be respected for that, then I would think that there’s room for every- one, even celebrity fashion. But what’s happening is that people who are not trained are put into the same league as people that are trained, and there’s no measure, so it’s kind of that lack of measure and lack of proper understanding that frustrates me.
Because this indicates that people aren’t taking fashion seriously? They’re not treating the craft with the respect it deserves?
I guess it has to do with the fact that there’s proper discourse in other areas — like in the art world and the architecture world, you couldn’t just become a designer overnight, or an architect overnight, or an artist overnight, you have to devote a lot of time, whereas in fashion, it’s just far too easy, which means it kind of cheapens people that have put in all the work and that have had the education. It’s kind of that cheapening element that I’m not happy about.
Some of your contemporaries — Martin Margiela or Helmut Lang, for example — have stopped practising precisely because of this change in the industry. You’re one of the few trailblazing designers of the 90s still helming their own fashion house.
What keeps you going in spite of the issues we talked about?
Well, I still feel I have a lot more to learn and to achieve — and I went into this as a long-time journey, I didn’t go into this for a short-term exercise. So I still feel that I have a lot more to achieve and to discover, that’s the reason.
Was this desire to learn what equally drove you towards fashion and studying at Central Saint Martins in the first place?
Initially I was going to study architecture because that’s what my family was encouraging me to do [laughs], but I really wanted to work with the body much more closely, so I was very excited about any idea that I had around the body. I think it was just this thing that you can make something, and then the body kind of animates it, brings it to life. And I guess the connection to architecture is the same, you create life within the building by living in it, and the way you punctuate it. So for me, it was about how I could create new punctuation with the clothes around the body, and how then the body can engage with those punctuations. So, yes, it’s the sheer excitement for that, to be honest.
When looking back on your studies, were they quite different to how you perceive fashion education now as the Head of Fashion at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna?
Yes, this was before education was about taking in students who are able to pay high fees, so the numbers were very small, there were only thirteen people in my class. And we were all individuals, we all had our own territories and we all respected each other. And I think one of the most important things for me was that I really went to an art school where fashion happened to be a department, it really wasn’t a fashion school. Fashion was another department, so it meant that you were able to engage with other students in the university, and I think that your work became richer because you were able to share ideas with other people, other departments.
I suppose it was less about fashion as a business, and more about fashion as an idea.
Yes, definitely! In our time there were no such courses — that happened a little shortly after, so you would study fashion and marketing and be aware of certain business issues, but it came later on in the course. It was very much about creativity, and, in hindsight, I think that’s how it should’ve been, because it was the last time you could really have creative freedom and not worry about the business side. And I think that creative people’s roles are to create these new perspectives of looking, and maybe even new perspectives of looking at the obvious. It might be that you look at a piece of work from someone, a garment or a painting or a picture, and it might be that it makes you think differently about something that you already know. So I think our role as creatives is to do exactly that, it’s to make people think out of the box or frame things in a different way. It’s about opening channels — to hopefully inspire people to think more openly.
Is there a “right way” to approach fashion? What is the most crucial lesson you want your students to take away from your course in this respect?
No, there’s no one right way to do it. I have students that really love fashion, that if you didn’t know them you might think they’re a “fashion victim”. Then there are others that are very technical, or ones that are much more artistic — there’re so many different kinds of ways of working. But I think the most important thing is to help them develop skills, and then for me to guide them. You can’t just love fashion, you’ve got to develop a way of working, or something that you feel happy doing, so that you’re more likely to get a job afterwards.
Secondly, I think that you’ve got to have individuality. I think it’s very important that our students are individuals, that they really have their own voice, each one, and they don’t compare themselves to others. And then, thirdly, I think that they have to put in all the hours. You have to work hard, you can’t really achieve things just by having an idea, you’ve got to make it happen as well. And then, also, I think that you’ve got to be a multi-talented person, you’ve got to be someone that’s interested in the world and not just fashion. Fashion is a part of culture, so you’ve got to read, you’ve got to know about art, you’ve got to know about art history, fashion history — there are so many things that you’ve got to feed yourself with.
So, in order to be, in my opinion, a sort of better designer, or a better stylist, or a better whatever role you have in fashion, I think you’ve got to be aware of the world as a whole and not just fashion on its own. I think these days it’s very old-fashioned to think that all students have to become stars, because it doesn’t suit everyone to be a star designer. Some students are really better at other areas so it’s very important, as much as possible, that we encourage our students to grow in a way that suits them, and not try to turn them into something they’re not.
Collection Images CHRIS MOORE
Taken from INDIE NO 60, THE HOME ISSUE – get your copy here.