It would be a crime to pigeonhole Hussein Chalayan. Best known for fashion design, the two-time British Designer of the Year has also had his works displayed at prestigious art museums, and his avant-garde catwalks are often dubbed performing art shows in their own league.
The boundary-breaking creative mastermind has made forays into various creative aspects, from art to architecture to film and theatre. Known as one of the industry’s most intellectual designers, Chalayan has debuted short films at the Venice Biennale, and his retrospective exhibitions have been staged at museums across the globe.
After earning a fashion design degree from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (close to the time when the other two celebrated British designers, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, graduated), Chalayan started his own label in 1993 and has since come a long way.
His graduation collection, titled “The Tangent Flows”, which featured oxidised silk dresses buried underneath a friend’s garden for months, was such a hit that influential buyer store Browns bought the entire collection.
Following the hit debut, Chalayan’s intellectual approach to fashion continues to inspire. His experimental showpieces include the famous “coffee table dress” – a mahogany coffee table that morphs into a geometrical skirt – and the futuristic “womb” Lady Gaga broke out from at the Grammys in 2011. This theme of transformation has been revisited by the designer. His autumn/winter 2000 collection featured garments that doubled as sofa covers. Instead of trotting down the runway, Chalayan’s models interacted with furniture on stage.
His 2007 spring/summer series took transformation to another level. The entire collection conceptualised around the theme sent models trotting off the runway in outfits featuring built-in mechanisms which transformed floor-length Victorian gowns into 1920s flappers.
It’s not just showmanship that won Chalayan accolades as one of the world’s best fashion maestros, but his ability to combine spectacular optical effects and commerce in fashion. “The [showpieces] do have a role but, more importantly, they turn into wearable clothes which actually took the most time to construct,” he says.
Last year was an especially productive one for Chalayan. Alongside his own eponymous label, he took on a lot of responsibility, including designing French fashion house Vionnet’s demi-couture collection, relaunching Chalayan menswear after an eight-year break, and collaborating with famous architect Zaha Hadid to design costumes for the opera Cosi Fan Tutte which opened in May in Los Angeles. The production has made possible other high-profile creative collaborations such as Frank Gehry with Rodarte and Jean Nouvel with Azzedine Alaia.
The disciplines may vary, yet the core of Chalayan’s design philosophy remains the same. “They are part of the same world,” he says. “Other projects help me discover new ideas that end up [inspiring] new collections.”
While Chalayan could be the most experimental designer you come across, he’s known to be true to his legacy and in this case, for the revival of Chalayan menswear and maison Vionnet. “I wanted to re-introduce Chalayan menswear as we had been getting a lot of requests,” the designer says. “The new collection is very much an extension of the house silhouettes from the past Chalayan menswear – part structured, part relaxed. [The collection] appeals to a classic but also an experimental individual.”
The result is a much-anticipated men’s capsule collection consisting of 22 styles, some of which Chalayan showed alongside his spring/summer 2015 women’s collection. Both collections are built upon Moorish inspirations. In the men’s collection, tailored silhouettes dipped in a kaleidoscope of light green prints inspired by Moorish weaves and jacquard patterns make versatile wardrobe staples.
Similar aesthetics and tastes are evident in Vionnet’s demi-couture series that Chalayan has taken under his wings for the past year. He has done two collections since.
The silhouettes and constructions of his latest collection for Vionnet bear Chalayan’s signature touch, yet are executed with Vionnet’s classism and elegance in mind – think knee-length tube dresses with extended hem lines tied into a knot on the side and two-tone gowns featuring colour-contrasting pleated organza appliqué. “It’s an honorary project in light of the House of Vionnet’s spirit and imagining what [its founder] Madeleine Vionnet would have liked if she were still alive today,” Chalayan says.
Chalayan is no stranger to collaborations. Prior to the Vionnet project, he has worked extensively with other creative units. He has worked as creative director of international labels including Asprey, TSE New York and Puma. His stellar list of creative intellectual collaborators include actors, artists, musicians, theatre performers such as Academy Award-winning Tilda Swinton, dancer-choreographer Michael Clark and artist Nick Knight. Chalayan says the criterion he looks for in collaborators is that they share the spirit of doing something new.
His recent collaboration with famous architect Hadid is on couture level, according to Chalayan. Designing costumes for performers is a couture project, he says. Although Hadid has been a long-time friend, Chalayan says the synergy of them working together was refreshing. “It’s like many blind dates that culminate in something very exciting at the end,” he says. “We both experiment and we are both interested in form and movement.”
Chalayan says he continues to be inspired by modern women and wants to design empowering fashion for them. “I believe in carefully considered designs executed precisely with a delicate sense of construction and finish,” he says.” The woman I like dresses for the occasion and can be masculine one day and extremely feminine the next. She is a warm, curious individual.”
Warm and curious, just what we could say about Chalayan. But then again, he has so many star qualities.
Graduates from London’s Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design
1999 and 2000
Wins British Designer of the Year award
Moves London show to Paris
Directs short film titled Absent Presence,shown at the Venice Biennale
Gets an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List
Becomes creative director of Puma
Stages two exhibitions to show retrospectives of his work
Launches his first fragrance Airborne
Signs licensing agreement with Venetian-based manufacturer Pier S.p.A for the production and distribution of his womenswear
Relaunches Chalayan menswear