Action and Risk: The Intellectual Vision of Hussein Chalayan
The mid-1990s were an exciting time for British fashion as a new crop of fashion students premiered graduate collections that energized the industry. The two most notorious were Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan (graduating in 1992 and 1993 respectively), who along with Owen Gaster and Tristan Webber were described in the press as creators of “hard, risky stuff that scares everybody to death at first sight and then goes on to trigger major trends in Milan, Paris and New York a year down the line.” While this group of designers was known for pushing the boundaries of what was expected on the runway and were hailed as both the destroyers and saviors of the fashion industry, Chalayan was not interested in anarchy and fear or even fashion—instead he drew from “modern anthropology, politics, architecture, history, nature, the body, behaviour and technology.” For him, there has always been an awareness that he is not a conventional fashion designer: “I can't categorise what I do. I’m just cross-feeding different disciplines and creating a new category in the process." This clear, intellectual vision has allowed Chalayan to maneuver through the tumultuous ups and downs of the industry, while creating designs that transcend fashion.
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A Turkish Cypriot, Chalayan was sent to English boarding school when he was twelve during the aftermath of the Turkish invasion of the island. He had originally planned to study architecture after his A-levels as he was intrigued by the way human bodies interact with the space around them, but he switched to fashion when a friend told him he would be “building office blocks all day.” Hussein did a foundation year at Warwickshire School of Arts, before studying fashion design at the esteemed and then-quite radical Central St. Martins in London. Though he had been bullied for his ethnicity as a child, in London he found a world of like-minded creatives who celebrated that very difference: “We Londoners have a liberal worldview where everything is possible. You can challenge social and sexual mainstreams and you can be from any background.” For Chalayan, living and working in London has been vital to his design aesthetic. He has said that London “means that everything is possible, there are no boundaries that constrain your creative output, you can explore and navigate between different design disciplines and cultures easily. You regularly extend your ideas across disciplines.”
Chalayan’s attraction to fashion design originated not in an interest in clothes but in the human body. As he recently explained: “I went into fashion because I am very excited about the body. In all aspects of culture, the body is the central theme, everything we do will finally affect the body, everything we build and design in a way reflects the body. For me things are never as exciting if they don’t connect with experience or physicality or thought.” While he learned precise tailoring at St. Martins, many of his designs have been intellectual ideas scaffolded onto the body—more akin to architecture (a common point made in reviews of his collection) or sculpture (one of his tutors at St. Martins recommended he switch majors). Shifting between garments that expertly cling to and mold the body and those that are constructed around it has proven Chalayan’s depth of knowledge and originality—and these divergent approaches have allowed him to shift from commercial, wearable clothes to museum-exhibited specimens.
Leading on from his interest in the body was an interest in death—for his graduate collection in 1993 he developed a story about a troupe of dancers who were murdered and then buried in the 17th century, which he used as the impetus to cover his designs in iron filings and bury them in a fellow student’s backyard. After three weeks the pieces were exhumed and now oxidized, their surfaces encrusted with rust. The decomposed and distressed textural shapes of “The Tangent Flows” delighted a fashion cognoscente more used to the starkly minimal lines of Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein. The whole collection was bought by the prestigious London boutique Browns, and appeared in one of their coveted display windows (only the second time a graduate collection had had this honor—the first time being John Galliano ten years prior). As a result of that Browns window he found a backer, who helped Chalayan mount his first real show (“Cartesia”) for autumn/winter 1994.
Of his graduate collection Chalayan has said: “At the time, I liked the idea that you could look at a garment and tell that it had gone through something or might be the result of an action.” Since then the idea of action and transformation has been central to much of his design work. During his spring/summer 2000 show he sent out a child with a remote control, which he aimed at a model in a plastic cone dress—slowly the back of her dress opened, revealing a poof of tulle. Action and transformation played a large role in Chalayan’s autumn/winter 2000 collection. The finale featured models walking in choreographed lines around a stark white stage set with wooden living room furniture. One model stepped into the center hole of the table and pulled it up around her like a telescopic skirt. Other models removed slipcovers from the chairs and shook them out into evening dresses. Transformation appeared in the form of destruction during the finale of his spring/summer 2001 show, when models used mallets to break each others’ paste ensembles. This could be seen as a rather playful jab at the impermanence of fashion, which he more recently revisited in his spring/summer 2016 show—two models stood under a shower as their crisp shirtdresses dissolved around them.
An outgrowth of his interest in action has been his exploration of technology in clothing. From his graduate collection on he has experimented with Tyvek, an unrippable paper often used for envelopes, that is made from flash-spun high-density polyethylene fibers—printed first with elements of his murder story, and later to look like actual shipping materials (most famously seen on Björk’s album cover for Post in 1995). For spring/summer 2007 he staged a now legendary show in Paris that included a series of animatronic dresses that morphed from one style to another, each from a different era of history. Experimenting further, he opened the following collection with a light-up dress made from 15,600 LEDs layered behind Swarovski crystal components as a statement about the environment.
Social and political commentary balances his passion for technology and action. His spring/summer 1998 collection was an unflinching look at the freedom of Muslim women around the world. Hussein sent out armless, cocoon-like dresses and ended the show with a group of models in chadors of ever-increasing length—the first naked except for her face, the last covered to the floor. This political statement increased his notoriety and even helped him secure a design consultancy with Tse New York, which he held until 2001. Chalayan’s latest collection, for spring/summer 2019, took as its starting point the rape of the Sabine women in 752 B.C., which was reinterpreted into jackets that appeared to be ripped back off the shoulders; while the previous collection sought to deconstruct “social tensions created by unintegrated immigration into Europe.” The thoughtfulness he brings to these subjects adds layers of depth of feeling to collections that are already startling in their innovative pattern cutting and shapes.
To all of these intellectual ideas Chalayan brings a soulfulness—he has not solely thought them in his head but also felt them in his heart. They are intuitive renderings of the philosophical and the rational. Chalayan’s highly conceptual, modernist designs—while not immediately considered commercial—have enabled him a longevity that has surpassed his peers: McQueen’s company continues though he committed suicide in 2010; Gaster has not shown since 2000 and appears to have completely disappeared; Weber’s last runway show was in 2001 and he currently teaches fashion design at the Royal College of Art. Chalayan has chosen to keep the company small in order to retain his creativity and focus, yet says: “I’ve sacrificed a lot of my personal life to focus on my business. You never want to sound like a martyr, but it was a decision I made early on…longevity gives me satisfaction. I want my brand to survive me.” Even with such intellectual rigor and technical precision, it is Hussein Chalayan’s constant drive to create that has made him one of the most respected designers in British fashion for twenty-five years: “If you don’t take risks in the world, nothing happens, you just stay static.”