Fashion, in Hussein Chalayan’s world, is not just about clothes. In his world, it also becomes an expression of sociopolitical ideas and cultural themes, channelled through one man’s steadfast vision. Constantly pushing the boundaries of what defines fashion, every Chalayan collection looks to be saying, Fashion is not just for wearing, it is also about strong ideas and opinions.
'Chalayan occupies a unique position within British fashion. Thepoint of departure from conventional fashion is his use of clothing as a site of exploration, as an expression of concepts, rather than as garments with only functionality in mind,’ explains Donna Loveday. Loveday is the curator of Chalayan’s first comprehensive UK exhibition at the Design Museum, launching in January. One year in the making, this is an exhibition of scale. Expect to see pivotal creations from Chalayan’s collections in this much-awaited exhibition from one of fashion’s most original minds.
The A/W 2000 collection, entitled Afterwords, was unforgettable. Set in a living room, what a mesmerising sight to see the models take the covers from the chairs, slip the seemingly anonymous cloth over their heads and finally take their places side by side. Ordinary sofa covers no longer, each piece assumed its intended place in the collection as a dress. Then came what has become one of the great catwalk moments in fashion: a wooden coffee table that transformed into a skirt.
Chalayan is an intellectual, certainly not a designer who thoughtlessly churns out one collection after another. His is an intricate process, drawing from wider subjects such as architecture, philosophy, art, books and film. These ideas and concepts are manna for his creative process, which then crystallise into that one definitive collection, encapsulating his basic intention.
For his A/W 2003 collection, Kinship Journey, Chalayan turned to children’s fairy tales. The story of Rapunzel, held prisoner in a tower, for whom the only way out is to use her long, golden locks as a rope, motivated Chalayan. He dreamed up dresses rigged to helium balloons for Rapunzel to fly to her freedom, her hair no longer the only escape route. Flight is a theme Chalayan constantly returns to; it fascinates Chalayan. No one could possibly forget his aeroplane dress (A/W 1999, Echoform). Sending models down the runway sheathed in black with a sculpted, egg-shaped head for his A/W 1998 collection, Panoramic, was akin to something out of a science fiction film. The aerodynamic aspects of his creations and presentations have become a Chalayan trademark.
All his shows have a clear narrative, and in the last few years he has been making his own films to accompany the collections. For his menswear collection in 2003, the video Temporal Meditations explores the cultural identity of the Cypriot. A man in an airport in Cyprus is subjected to a DNA test as part of a Customs interrogation. While waiting for his results, he falls asleep and starts dreaming. The dream sequence culminates in his being given a Chalcolithic figure, which Chalayan intends as the symbol of what it means to be Cypriot. Within this one film all the things that engross Chalayan come together: flight, culture and identity.
Born in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia in 1970, Chalayan’s family moved to England in 1978. It was at Central St Martin’s that Chalayan chose to study design. For his graduate collection in 1993, entitled The Tangent Flows, Chalayan buried the clothes in his backyard, left them to decompose and dug them out again. Browns London was so excited about this young designer, it bought the entire collection.
In 1995, Chalayan won financial backing to develop a collection for London Fashion Week, held in the October. Together with Alexander McQueen, who also showed about the same time as Chalayan, he represented an edgy London and an exciting new breed of British designers. Chalayan went on to be British Designer of the Year twice (1999 and 2000) and was awarded an MBE in 2006. But despite the adoration of the fashion press, Chalayan’s career was a journey of one man’s vision, something the men in suits failed to grasp. Lack offunding and sponsorship troubled his company on a regular basis.
But 2008 marked a reversal of fortune for Chalayan. Not only was he appointed creative director for Puma, owned by the luxury and retail giant PPR, but Puma also acquired a majority stake in the Hussein Chalayan brand. Then there was his collaboration with Swarovski on a series of LED dresses. Showcased in Tokyo, it met with great success.
2009 is looking to be as exciting a year for Chalayan as the last, beginning with the exhibition at the Design Museum. Spanning 15 years of Chalayan’s creations, Loveday says, ‘The exhibition will present a series of immersive and dynamic environments which will explore how his work crosses between different disciplines. It will also draw out the big issues which interest Chalayan, and which subsequently influence his collections and are constantly referenced within them, such as multiculturalism, displacement and migration.’ She continues: ‘His work is a reaction to events that happen in the world – in history, anthropology, science, technology – it represents a merging of all these worlds, which is what makes it unique. Chalayan’s conceptual presentations demonstrate his ability to combine beautiful and wearable clothes for today with an intriguing vision of the future.’And, just maybe, we will catch a glimpse of the type of Blade Runner world we will come to inhabit in years to come.
Hussein Chalayan exhibition runs from 22 January–17 May 2009 at the Design Museum, London SE1 2YD. Open until 10pm Friday 23 January and Friday 24 April.