Pioneering fashion designer Hussein Chalayan sits down with Icon’s editor Priya Khanchandani to discuss bodies, cultural influences and what fashion can learn from design
Hussein Chalayan is a fashion designer whose experimental body of work includes clothing inspired by objects, such as paper dresses that can be folded into envelopes and a wooden skirt formed from a coffee table. Influenced by architecture and product design, his work sits at the margins of the conventional fashion industry’s seasonal trends. Chalayan’s numerous accolades include a Panerai London Design Medal, which he received this September, and an OBE, awarded in 2006. In this conversation with Icon editor Priya Khanchandani, Chalayan reflects candidly on the idea of otherness, design schooling in an era of commoditised education, and how his double identity as a Londoner and a Cypriot has helped to shape his career.
Priya Khanchandani: Could you tell me why you chose to be a fashion designer?
Hussein Chalayan: When you’re younger, you sort of gravitate towards things that you think fit your skills, but you’re also influenced by older people who guide you. In my case, this was the nearest thing to working closely with the body. Initially everybody in my family thought I would be studying architecture. Fashion would mean I could work more closely to the body. My interest is in stories I can tell through the body.
PK: What was it about the body that you were particularly curious about?
HC: I think it’s to do with having a maritime upbringing in Cyprus. We were always in the sea, three months of the year. I think that I was interested in what the body can do in terms of its strengths, because I was around a lot of members of my family who water-skied, and there were always quite a lot of sporty people around, quite a few women. At the same time, I thought that the body was this amazing cultural symbol that you can say a lot through.
PK: Like me, you’re from more than one place. I was wondering if that has influenced your work at all.
HC: First of all, I was raised in London, but I was born in Cyprus and I went to primary school there. Cyprus is already a divided place. You hear the national news in three languages in both the Greek and the Turkish parts. It was a British colony, so we also have this English influence. I think all of those things to do with not being able to see across the border, the curiosity that creates – also the fear that creates – of course have an influence on my work. In London you’re also in this other multi-ethnic environment, but people can live together without conflict. I am interested in the kind of scenes that can come out from these settings, definitely.
PK: In a Brexit world, do you think a career like yours would still be possible?
HC: It’s a challenge. I think compared to many places, London is still much more open and accepting. I can’t compare it to Paris, for instance, where all the culturally white people live in the centre and all the foreigners live outside. London is a lot more integrated, but let’s hope that it won’t be affected. I do think the right wing’s, let’s say, suspicious mood will have an effect.
PK: Could you reflect on what the relationship is between your work and design?
HC: For me, the first thing I think about is the idea, and then I start to think about how I can represent that through design. I think there’s this unfolding approach, where I want something to be inspired, but fashion has to function, because it has to be used by the body. You’ve got to be able to move in it. Lots of my time is spent in fittings and drapings and drawing and this kind of thing. I would say that, for me, all my work, I guess, is a challenge: I’m on this journey of creating problems and constantly trying to solve them. I’m someone that creates the problem, and then I try to find a solution for it, so my life is about constantly finding solutions to problems that I actually create.
PK: Your work brings together a lot of different worlds, from objects like chairs to sculpture. I was wondering how you would describe your influences.
HC: I don’t actually have one particular influence. Going to Central St Martins, it was an art school where fashion happened to be a department. It was very much about looking at different worlds and trying to find a connection between things that would initially seem unrelated. I like to find missing gaps or blind spots, I call them, between entities that initially don’t seem connected. I think of the world as this big interconnected mechanism – an organism, an ecosphere – and I’m trying to connect things that maybe at first do not seem to connect.
PK: How would you say your work reflects on the idea of otherness?
HC: There are times when I have felt kind of displaced here, but I use that as a theme. I am a Londoner, but I have other cultural influences. I’m able to look at things from the outside. I’m able to detach myself from situations and become an observer of behaviour or of situations. I think that my cultural background has enabled me to see situations from a distance, and I think that can affect my judgment. I see this also in people from other backgrounds: people who are brought up here, but are Jewish or have an Indian background or they have another background, they’re able to see things from a broader perspective. I think it’s a bit of luck, actually.
PK: If you were to give some advice to designers out there reading this, what would you say?
HC: I would say that studying is the biggest luxury, because it’s a time for yourself. It’s a time for you to really look at what interests you and develop skills. Secondly, I would say that for young designers, another important thing is not to buy your way out while you’re studying. A lot of people in my opinion pay for too much, and they don’t learn how to then solve those problems.
PK: Oh really?
HC: I’m finding that a lot of students these days are too much like clients rather than students. As they are developing skills, if they are finding ways of solving problems themselves, without just buying their way out, they’re better prepared for work afterwards.
PK: How would you describe your work ethic?
HC: I’m at work every day. I’m not sipping cocktails while my staff are working. I’m here in Camden. I enjoy working. I think that fashion is such an erratic industry, you’ve got to do it because you enjoy doing it. And if you can survive from doing it, I guess that’s already a success. There’s massive anxiety around what success is and people get anxiety through comparing themselves to others. This is a big worry of our times, because of social media and this whole culture of being liked and having to prove it all the time. I think it’s very tiring. I’ve been doing this for 25 years in March. If you ask me, do we get the reward for all the effort? Nowhere near what it should be.
PK: When we read about fashion in fashion magazines, we’re often exposed to the glitz and glamour of it. To what degree do you buy into the fashion world and to what degree is it really like that?
HC: Well, my friend [former British Vogue fashion director] Lucinda Chambers says that fashion is smoke and mirrors, and I quote my friend. Fashion is also a very transient game. It expires quickly. You’ve got to constantly reinvent yourself and constantly reinvent your work. It’s very fast and kind of exciting, if you think about it creatively. But that is also the way designers are treated by the media and, actually, by buyers. When you’re in, out, in, out.
The discourse in fashion is a joke compared to other disciplines like the art world and architecture world, where you have your position within a discourse, you have that respect, and everything else follows on from there. In fashion, it’s so throwaway and disposable that I really despise it. I really think it’s really hard to create loyalty in fashion. For me, what matters most is timelessness, longevity, building on the craft.