Inner Space: Hussein Chalayan

Inside the surreal world of fashion’s greatest fantasy storyteller 20 years after his debut

Fashion Feature
Jonnie craig_dazed_212-S1-0007
Hussein Chalayan Photography by Jonnie Craig

Taken from the August issue of Dazed & Confused

In 1993 Hussein Chalayan debuted The Tangent Flows, his graduate collection from Central Saint Martins. It consisted of oxidised garments that he had buried in his friend’s garden and left to decay for several months.The ritualistic process behind its creation became “the beginning of a way of working and a way of telling stories” for Chalayan; since then, each of his works have been given their own unique narrative, from a coffee table that can be transformed into a wooden skirt to the futuristic womb in which Lady Gaga arrived at the 2011 Grammys. At the core of his work, Chalayan creates objects that are intimately associated with the body. There is always a subtle sexual undercurrent, and at times his work deals with fetishistic ideas of power, domination and restraint. He is also an incredibly perceptive person. A few moments after meeting him in his London studio he looks at me in a strange way and tells me, “I’m an expert in faces.” I smile, and at that moment become as equally intrigued by the man as  the storyteller. 

“The anticipation and the waiting was really exciting,” Chalayan explains of the process behind his graduate collection. “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.” The extreme burial process resulted in a series of heavily rusted, highly textural and decomposed garments. Despite standing in stark contrast to the clean and minimal work of other designers at the time like Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein, Chalayan’s entire graduate collection was bought by luxury boutique Browns. He was also given a coveted window display at their store. “John Galliano had been given it ten years before,” he remarks. Like Galliano, Chalayan quickly went on to establish himself as somewhat of an enfant terrible within the fashion world, but he was never concerned with creating shock pieces or taking on the role of a rebel. His unconventional designs were instead fuelled by his desire to create new realities through technology and by manipulating materials often left outside of the realm of the fashion world, such as wood, metal and mirror. 

“The way I see it, everything in fashion has been done over and over again,” he says. “I decided very early on that the only way you can do something new is by using technology. I was interested in style, but from day one I was interested in saying something new, even when I was a student. So actually it’s simply to do with that.” This mentality has stayed with him throughout his  career, resulting in some very conceptual and highly technical garments. “It was always important for me to be quite experimental,” he continues.  

Perhaps Chalayan’s biggest feat came with his SS07 show in Paris, in which he presented a series of groundbreaking morphing animatronic dresses that seamlessly changed from one design to another, onstage in front of a live audience. Each garment referenced a particular era of fashion. A highly sculptural Victorian-inspired design would transform itself into a 1920s flapper dress through hidden mechanisms inside the garments. Even viewing this show now, more than five years after its debut, it feels overwhelmingly radical. For the audience members at the time it was surely a surreal and otherworldly encounter. ‚ÄúIt was definitely the most challenging collection,” Chalayan says. “I was in tears from the stress, and I never get like that.” The final look of the show saw a dress virtually disappear, leaving the model completely nude and exposed on the runway. 

 

People always think I’m a showman, but I honestly love making real clothes. I love a beautiful sleeve-head and a seamless coat. I get off on it.

“I actually find life quite dull. That’s probably why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s almost to make it more interesting for myself,” he says. “Boredom is a big thing for me. As a child I remember being worried that I’d be bored in Cyprus, which is an isolated island, so I had to really create my own world to keep myself going. I think probably a lot of my worldview stems from the fact that boredom is a big thing.” But Chalayan’s world is far from dull. His runway shows blur the boundaries between fashion and performance art, and he was one of the first designers to explore the medium of video, both through holographic catwalk shows and by creating moving images on his designs by integrating tens of thousands of LED lights into his fabrics. 

“I do see myself as a storyteller,” he continues. “I guess I’m someone who creates worlds, and then everything in that world is related. The sound, the choreography and the clothes.” This idea of storytelling goes back to one of his early collections – the first after his graduate show – which he revealed in March 1994. 

This series, titled Cartesia, consisted of buried and paper garments that had been printed with poetic texts. Chalayan wanted to explore the idea of “the body becoming like documents” with the collection. It’s a romantic approach, heavily routed in the social function of clothing.

But it is the sexual undertones of Chalayan’s work that have always fascinated me. His garments are far from erotic, but there are subtle fetishistic qualities in the way they are worn by the body. “Sex is not a formula,” he explains. “I’m interested in power and powerlessness. I’ve been interested in S&M and so many things you wouldn’t expect because naturally I’m a curious person.” This duality between freedom and restraint is most evident in a spectacular wooden garment that closed his AW00 show. For this Paris presentation, Chalayan created a living room filled with wooden furniture. A series of models removed the fabric covers from chairs and wore them as dresses, turning the chairs themselves into suitcases. Then a final model appeared on the runway. She walked over to the last remaining piece of furniture on the stage, a round coffee table, removed its centre and stepped inside. She then pulled it up, transforming it into a tiered wooden skirt. Immediately her movement became restricted and dominated by the object. 

“People always think I’m a showman,” Chalayan explains. “But I honestly love making real clothes. I love a beautiful sleeve-head and I love a seamless coat. I get off on it. I really do feel like there have been two forks in my path.” This duality has been the key to his success. His career might have begun with buried clothing dug up from his friend’s garden, but Chalayan has built up a solid brand and one that seems to keep growing. He might not consider himself a showman, but he is one of fashion’s greatest storytellers. 

More Fashion