An interview with Hussein Chalayan

‘Body design artist’ Hussein Chalayan works across disciplines, without losing touch with his fashion roots. John Stones catches up with him at his Hackney studio ahead of a major Design Museum retrospective

‘She is so wrong, it so offends me. Can I just turn her around? Wrong hair and everything, I’m really horrified.’ Hussein Chalayan fusses over a mannequin in a corner of his studio in London’s Hackney wearing an outlandish, gravity-defying dress. It is all reassuringly fashion and quite some way from the label of the ‘cerebral’ or ‘intellectual’ designer that has repeatedly been assigned to him, he says, by ‘lazy journalists’.

Yet it is his unorthodox conceptual and sculptural approach to clothes that got him attention from the start. His graduate collection from Central St Martins College of Art and Design in 1993, a series of silk dresses buried for six weeks and then exhumed, was bought by retailer Browns. The dresses were exhibited in its windows and Chalayan was effectively launched into the fashion world.

Now, 14 years and two British Designer of the Year awards later, it is London’s Design Museum that is hosting a show, drawn to the unusually interdisciplinary nature of Chalayan’s work. It’s something he is taking as seriously as a show of his collection on the catwalks of Paris. ‘I’m involved in every detail of it,’ he admits. Its primary idea is a series of ‘mannequins that are always interacting with the space’.

The exhibition builds on a previous show in The Netherlands, and is again a collaboration with Block Architecture. Block, incidentally, designed Chalayan’s Tokyo store which recreates the Turkish Cyprus in which Chalayan was born before coming to the UK as a child.

The exhibition is not just about Chalayan’s clothes, but also his films and art. Repose, created for Swarovski, features part of an airliner’s wing, the flap of which rises to reveal crystal illuminated by LEDs, and is, he says, about immateriality. One film, Place to Passage, features a hovering ‘pod’ inspired by a visit to Honda’s now defunct Formula One team, while actress Tilda Swinton features in another.

Chalayan finds it a bit of a struggle to describe himself. ‘I am a designer and an artist – a design artist, let’s say. Hmm, I am really an ideas person. A body design artist. Oh, it all sounds terrible,’ he says with exasperation. But he sees himself very much as a designer rather than a fashion designer. ‘Fashion isn’t only to do with clothes; it’s more to do with style. Design can co-exist with fashion,’ he explains.

He admits his approach to even the simplest garment is informed by product design. ‘Fashion is more transient, but we try to make things more permanent and lasting,’ he adds. In one of his best-known pieces, Afterwords, created in the aftermath of the Kosovo refugee crisis, fashion becomes ‘portable, wearable architecture’. A coffee table transforms into a skirt and chair covers are removed to become dresses. His recent use of LED and laser technology for catwalk dresses is likewise indebted to the world of product design.

But these projects, which he describes alternatively as ‘monuments’ and ‘showpieces’, have been almost too successful and Chalayan worries about them eclipsing the rest of his creations, ‘most of which you can wear’.

With fortuitous timing, Chalayan was approached by German sportswear brand Puma last September. Chalayan agreed to become its creative director, giving him access to the infrastructure of parent company PPR, which also owns brands such as Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. Financially, things are now on a much more stable footing, but there were also other reasons. ‘I’m very interested in technology – sportswear and lifestyle brands are more interested in this than fashion brands, and this was compelling for me.’ Unsurprisingly, Puma’s paws are all over the Design Museum show.

High fashion, Chalayan accepts, is a luxury, a category he agrees has been much abused and which will need to change. ‘A lot of brands create the perception of luxury without doing luxurious work,’ he says. ‘The future is about being more selective. It’s about spending your money on the right thing, not everything. This crash will help us edit what we do. It will allow us to get more selective, authentic and careful.’

Hussein Chalayan/ From Fashion and Back runs at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, until 17 May

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