Storyteller: Hussein Chalayan

There are many ways to tell a story – with words, in film, photographs. Hussein Chalayan’s chosen medium is fashion. Patrick Burgoyne meets the designer as he prepares to open his first London store while, in an exclusive shoot for CR, photographer Ryan Hopkinson, set designer Hana Al Sayed and art director Gemma Fletcher explore Chalayan’s influences and creative process

(Above: That night: The starting point (or what Chalayan calls his ‘ingredients’) for the A/W 15 collection was a series of abstract paintings by the designer himself. Chalayan then developed a jacquard pattern out of their textures. The piece encapsulates both areas of his practice, the cross pollination of fine art and fashion, the beginning and end of the garment)

In an exclusive project for CR, photographer Ryan Hopkinson and art director Gemma Fletcher have created a series of images responding to and interpreting the methods and ideas of Hussein Chalayan. For the project, Chalayan gave the pair unique insight into his creative process and archive. Here, Gemma tells us about the thinking behind the four images which they created for us

Hussein Chalayan is focused on the future. Ideas are at the core of his business, sustaining ingenious innovation for the past two decades. He creates bridges between different worlds and disciplines, blending fine art with fashion.

A master of materials, Chalayan brings unconventional and unpredictable elements into his collections, taking people on a sensory trip that reveals new perspectives and commentary on the world around us. Unique and irreverent ideas drive Chalayan forward: every season, a new beginning

Our project explores the idea of the seen and unseen, visualising the creative process that forms a Chalayan collection. Deconstructing his approach, using materials that have inspired some of his most iconic work.

 Between: A response to the Spring 98 collection featuring surreal glass cocoon headpieces which masked the features of models. In the collection Chalayan explored the complex relationship between personal identity and worship, and how this territory is defined
Between: A response to the Spring 98 collection featuring surreal glass cocoon headpieces which masked the features of models. In the collection Chalayan explored the complex relationship between personal identity and worship, and how this territory is defined

Large-scale immersive sets aim to capture a harmony between texture and form. Each image is formed of partitions, layers of materials building tension and reflecting the depth of Chalayan’s process.

From the very beginning, it was obvious that Hussein Chalayan was a designer intent on challenging our understanding of fashion and its potential to communicate complex ideas. His 1993 Central St Martins graduation show, The Tangent Flows, featured silk dresses that had been covered in iron filings, buried for six months and then, with decomposition setting in, dug up for display. Famously, the entire collection was snapped up by London store Browns and showcased in its windows.

Hand in hand with the clothes themselves have been Chalayan’s spectacular runway shows which have rightfully earned a reputation as unmissable events: “He can prevent a jaded fashion pack from giving up and going home – such is the promise of his name on the schedule,” as Vogue once put it. Spring/Summer 2007 wowed the audience with a motorised dress that transformed from 19th century to 1920s styles, while 2000’s After Words, inspired by those who have to leave their homes because of war, featured dresses that turned into furniture.

 Geotropics: Chalayan's S/S 99 collection explored his favoured themes of nationalism and territory. He worked with industrial designer Paul Topen to create a composite material of glass fibre and resin that was moulded into spectacular forms. Hopkinson and Fletcher's image reflects the collection's ideas around creating a 'perpetual home' protected from harm
Geotropics: Chalayan’s S/S 99 collection explored his favoured themes of nationalism and territory. He worked with industrial designer Paul Topen to create a composite material of glass fibre and resin that was moulded into spectacular forms. Hopkinson and Fletcher’s image reflects the collection’s ideas around creating a ‘perpetual home’ protected from harm

Chalayan was born in Nicosia in 1970. His early years were split between London and a Cyprus in the midst of violent separation into Turkish and Greek territories. As a result, his work has continually dealt with the themes of migration, identity and dislocation. Ideas from anthropology, science, history and technology inspire and inform his narratives, making Chalayan one of the most consistently innovative and exciting designers around.

“I am a storytelling designer,” Chalayan says. His last collection – for Autumn/Winter 15 – was inspired by Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, no less. “I was interested in it because it starts in Istanbul,” he says. “As a Turkish Cypriot I love Istanbul, but I’m also very interested in how the east is mystified and darkened by Western culture: these notions of the east being exotic and mysterious. I thought about how I could reinterpret those characters in today’s world – what they were wearing, what they were doing, what they stood for.”
Chalayan says he enjoys the self-imposed limitations of trying to convey something meaningful through clothing. “It’s just very interesting to have to confine yourself to clothes and how much you can tell with them. It helps you think about how powerful something has to be in order for it to stand alone.”

But even for him, clothing as a medium has its limitations. He frequently breaks out of the fashion world to explore his ideas in exhibitions and in film. As well as the narrative opportunities those mediums provide, Chalayan says their attraction is in changing the relationship with the viewer. “A show is over in ten minutes and you’ve either caught it or not.” With a film or exhibition, “the audience can decide how long they want to stare at something, with a fashion show, we decide. I’m interested in the life-span of work and how you present it: other mediums allow you to expand your idea and create an environment where you feel ‘this is really how I want it to be’.”

 That night: Fluid fringing is a key element of Chalayan's A/W 15 collection, encapsulating mystery and strangeness in a non-linear homage to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express
That night: Fluid fringing is a key element of Chalayan’s A/W 15 collection, encapsulating mystery and strangeness in a non-linear homage to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express

In our digital world, the fashion show itself is being transformed. Live streaming opens up what were once exclusive experiences to the masses. “Every time you do a show it is so expensive … it’s over in ten minutes then it’s on to the next show.”

With new technology, Chalayan says, “you could do shows these days with only a couple of models, you could even use a fake audience”, but he worries that such innovations make the real thing less precious. “Everything in the world is getting more and more mass and accessible. It’s a good thing because anyone can access anything at any time but in my opinion it also creates an appreciation fatigue because there is an abundance of information.”

For a fashion industry still following the traditional calendar of Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter collections, the speed at which we consume ideas today and the insatiable demand for the new that it creates is a particular challenge. “We’re living in this obsessive society where a lot of people’s identities are being shaped by anxiety over missing out on whatever cool thing is happening elsewhere. Social media is very much part of that – the ‘like’ culture, sharing the private which becomes like social porn. It’s complex but it is devaluing. It’s making for very dissatisfied individuals,” Chalayan believes.

As a brand Chalayan says he has to be part of social media and he recognises its value, but he wonders what he would have done had he been starting out now rather than in the pre-digital 90s. “We were in the hands of [magazine] editors who chose certain images of ours in order to sell their papers,” he says. “The images they chose were always the ‘showman’ stuff. Meanwhile, the clothes were referenced by the high street or were being absorbed by the industry in a different way so you had this duality.”

Because of the nature of his work and the spectacular way in which his ideas are realised, Chalayan has felt this most acutely. Many will think of him foremost for creations such as the dress made out of paper that folded up to fit inside an airmail envelope which formed part of his 1999 Airmail Clothing show. But he says he spends most of his time “looking at collars and seams” on his ready to wear collections. The ‘showman’ pieces bring publicity and help position him as an innovator of one sort, but the ready to wear is the heart and soul of the business and where he demonstrates his tailoring skills to those in the know.

 Gravity Fatigue, Chalayan's first theatrical work, will open at Sadler's Wells in London on October 28. The dance production takes inspiration from themes of identity and displacement
Gravity Fatigue, Chalayan’s first theatrical work, will open at Sadler’s Wells in London on October 28. The dance production takes inspiration from themes of identity and displacement

“I have two audiences,” he says. “I have a fashion following that looks at the clothes and the cutting techniques, then the more experimental stuff is for another audience made up of fashion people plus artists or architects. I have a dual career in a way, but I definitely think that my clothing is more important. The showpieces represent just a small amount of the work I’ve done, but how designers are influential is not necessarily how people think it might be.”

One way in which that influence now plays out is in the increasing number of brand collaborations that fashion designers are invited to take part in. “Fashion is seen as a currency for power,” Chalayan says. “A lot of people that associate themselves with fashion feel empowered by it. That’s why, at a fashion show, you will have all kinds of people – artists, architects, football players. Everyone wants some of this power. A lot of brands do collaborations because they think that fashion will create exposure for them and reach new audiences. It can sometimes work – it can be meaningful. Sometimes a new idea is born and it couldn’t have happened without that connection. In my case I’ve done them if they felt right or could say something. Other times, when I was younger, I did them because I felt I had to.”

Along with brand collaborations, celebrity culture has exerted enormous influence on the fashion world. While many brands have looked to fashion designers to add some lustre, celebrities are increasingly filling the roles of ‘guest creative director’.

Chalayan says this is all “to do with reach [and the belief] that having a singer creative directing something is going to reach their audience. It’s irrelevant whether that person is going to come up with a good idea or not, they are just a channel to reach an audience.” He feels the involvement of celebrities in fashion design can undermine the profession. “It’s like saying anyone could do it, whereas in, say architecture, where there’s a discourse, you would be laughed at if you suddenly said you could be an architect just because you’re the wife of a rich man. But in fashion you can do it. It’s cheapening because it’s saying that knowledge and education have no merit.”

 How Chalayan's first London store will look, designed with Zoe Smith at ZCD Architects,
How Chalayan’s first London store will look, designed with Zoe Smith at ZCD Architects,

When Chalayan was starting out, there were opportunities to collaborate with celebrities and musicians but in a less formal or commercialised way than now. In the 90s, he says, “Image and sound were much more connected – people like Björk, Kate Bush, Grace Jones, Annie Lennox.” Chalayan was introduced to Björk by Judy Blame, who was styling both her and Chalayan’s shows at the time. “What she wore really mattered because [image and sound] was all one,” he says. “These days, it’s like everybody is about everything – there are a lot of exciting artists today too but it’s a different era.”

Chalayan says that Björk helped him in his early days, even financially. Unlike many of his peers, Chalayan has stayed independent. His business is based in east London with around ten core people and another five to ten who freelance regularly. “I think of it as a child that needs care and you’d do anything for it,” he says.

When we speak, preparations are being finalised for Chalayan’s first London shop, designed with Zoe Smith at ZCD Architects, a regular collaborator. Now that online is so important, what’s the role of the bricks and mortar store for him? “The main reason for having a shop is for people to experience the world of the designer,” Chalayan says. “It’s to do with putting your collection within the environment that you would like it to be seen in. You’re sharing a bit of your world.”

While the shop will serve Chalayan’s core business, he is also busy with an additional project that will allow him to tell his stories in yet another new medium. Opening at Sadler’s Wells in October is Gravity Fatigue, a dance performance involving Chalayan not as costume designer but as author of the piece itself.

Gravity Fatigue will return to Chalayan’s favoured themes of identity and displacement. When we meet he has completed three research and design weeks on the project where he takes in his ‘ingredients’ – references and garments – plus sheets of ideas for the dancers and choreographer Damian Jalet to respond to. The collaborative process will eventually lead to a series of separate tableaux. “This production will allow me to showcase ideas which I have been collecting for many years and to build narratives around and with the body in a much broader context than ever seen before in my work,” he says.

“People always have to pigeonhole you,” Chalayan told the Telegraph when the project was announced. “They can’t imagine that a person can have more than one career. I am an artist and a designer, if you want to categorise me, but ultimately I’m interested in ideas.”

Hussein Chalayan’s first London store will open at 2 Bourdon Street, W1K later this year. Gravity Fatigue receives its world premiere at Sadler’s Wells theatre in the capital on October 28. See for more

Shoot Photographer – Ryan Hopkinson; Shoot Art Director – Gemma Fletcher; Set Designer – Hana Al Sayed; Casting director – Sarah Bunter; Make up – Holly Silius using Mac Pro; Hair – Shukeel Murtaza; Models – Grace at M+P & Natasha at PRM; Retouching – The Forge; Make up assistants – Suzanna Prodromou & Marissa Marsh; Photo Assistants Mark Griffiths & Ben Reeves

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