Hussein Chalayan talks with such ease, that we completely understand the jealousy people feel for his brain. Damn, this man is eloquent. We phoned Chalayan right before the kick-off of Fashion Month, where he showed collections for both his namesake brand and the newly revived fashion house of Vionnet. The designer talks about compassion fatigue, pushing boundaries and sexuality. And the most important thing in the world? ‘Not to have your own brand.’

 

When you were a student, what surprised you most about the industry that you were about to be launched into?

In this industry, I generally feel that it would be one of the best jobs if there were no money concerns and no time restraints. I think that when you’re a student, it’s a luxury time to really discover what you’re interested in and to develop a way of working. I think too many students act as if they’re in the industry at the moment. On one hand I think that’s good, because it prepares them for the industry; on the other hand, maybe they won’t enjoy their time as much because they already act like they have a job.

I find — of course I’m generalising — when you’re a student, it’s your time to really explore your skills and not worry too much about fitting in at that point. On the other hand, I think you need to have one foot in the industry and do placements and work for people, to gain experience. So, that when you do graduate, you have some context and hopefully doors to knock on. I think it’s a combination, but I would say that the weight needs to lie in enjoying and discovering your skills.

“I think that the most important thing in the world is not to have your own brand. Honestly, how many brands can we have?”

Was that how you approached your time studying as well?

Yes, I did. I did a placement with Timothy Everest, the tailor, so I learnt a lot from him. That was the biggest placement that I did. After that, I did a lot of experimentation. I knew it was the last time I could really do that before I would get a job. I never really planned to do my own thing when I first graduated… I was looking for work. Then one thing led to another.

If you would have an unlimited budget, right now, what do you dream of creating?

Well, I think like most designers, I would like to have my own environment, I would like to have my own store, more product categories, advertising budgets – all of the things that I think a lot of designers want. But I’ve been doing it for twenty years; I definitely think that if you don’t have backing, it’s quite difficult to be a designer.

“To expect everyone to be running their own businesses, is nuts. I just find it utterly unrealistic.”

You just mentioned retail being the next step in your development. How much value do you still think there is in having a physical space for your own line?

Obviously online business is very important — online fashion and online commerce. I think it’s very important, but I think it’s also important to go to a place and try the clothes on, and feel your environment. Even if that then creates a nice interplay with the online. I think there is a large difference between touching and feeling the clothes, and actually buying them online. I feel we definitely have a good online business, but going and seeing the space of a designer is another thing. It’s like an art gallery, for me. It’s that you see the real works there. I see it as connected, I don’t see it as necessarily isolated from what’s going on, I think it can only add to it.

Were you given a design brief for your first collection at Vionnet?

No, it’s more numbers, and then I come up with stories; then I do my sketches and that’s how it happens.

Talking about numbers, I’ve heard that in the past, you were extremely into maths. How much of that true?

I am interested in maths in terms of logic. It’s more to do with the nature of the work we’re doing that involves that, naturally. I’m definitely interested in logic and how you perceive things as well; I always thought there was something mathematical about drawing even, and the way you judge proportions. I think, for me, it’s more abstract than literal maths.

Do you think the fashion world, as it is now, is logical?

I think that there are many different models within fashion. There is fashion that I find very interesting, and there are designers who do great work. I think that the act of designing (and the act of producing collections) is one thing; I think the culture of fashion and the whole machine is another. It really depends on how you look at it. I feel, if you’re looking at individual designers who are interested in creativity — interested in doing good collections — then hopefully it’s a pure activity. But, the minute that you have opinions of other people, and a judgement over your work (then there’s also the loyalty of the customers, or the non-loyalty of the press), it becomes a whole other game. So, it really depends on whether you are part of that machine, and part of an opinion system, or whether you are just someone that wants to do interesting work and you are happy to not be a part of that.

“I don’t necessarily find that the London designers here are taking enough risks.”

You have said previously that we don’t need as many designers as there are now. However, the number of fashion designers that graduate seems to increase each year, and the machine that fashion itself is, doesn’t stop either. As we cannot decrease the number of designers, what do you think that young graduates should be looking at?

That’s a tricky one. I think that the most important thing in the world is not to have your own brand. Honestly, how many brands can we have? Also, you have to be a certain kind of person to be able to put up with having your own brand. You have to sacrifice a hell of a lot. I think, at this stage, if you are a graduate, and you’re able to get a job and you have a position that you enjoy and you’re respected. I think that’s as good as having your own brand. You then don’t have the worries of paying salaries and running an extensive business — which fashion is — but you are in a position where you enjoy your job and you feel fulfilled because you’re being creative.

I don’t think everyone should be encouraged to have their own brand. We’re not all cut out for it; I think that the mistake that a lot of colleges make, is that they promote too much that every designer should create their own labels. It’s just not real. I feel a lot of people start doing it and they realise they can’t manage, and they close down. It’s much more about being part of an industry and having a fulfilling position within it. To expect everyone to be running their own businesses, is nuts. I just find it utterly unrealistic.

“I always thought it was really important to have an inspiring show, but also to really have a wearable collection. Even the wearable stuff was experimental.”

There is a sense of anything being possible here in London. What do you think is extremely hard to achieve in the city?

Well, it depends. I don’t necessarily find that the London designers here are taking enough risks. When I used to show in London, in the mid 90’s, we took so many risks. We were doing it for creativity, we weren’t really thinking about the consequences. Of course, I really wanted to sell at the same time, because I was really concentrating on tailoring as well. I always thought it was much more modern that everything was wearable, apart from a few show pieces that you’d seen more of, because of the way that the press wanted to see the designs, and not necessarily the way the designer wanted to be represented. I always thought it was really important to have an inspiring show, but also to really have a wearable collection. Even the wearable stuff was experimental. I was always trying to push ideas, let’s say.

I feel that now a lot of the designers are more on a commercial route, where they can have the businesses. But, I just don’t think they push boundaries enough; or I find their work too similar to other designers’, from the past. I find that they’re not really pushing themselves enough. Of course, there are a few that I think are, but generally I think it’s not as much as the work from my generation. I would definitely like to see more of that happening. I think you can do both, you can have a business and push boundaries at the same time, but people think you have to do one or the other.

So, that’s my feeling about London. Generally what’s good about the city, is that it’s an international environment. I think of London as the New York of Europe. I feel London is the most international city in Europe, and probably in the world, actually. I think of London as a very special case, in all honestly, I think of it as a state in itself. I think it’s a great place for a designer to be, but it’s also a really expensive city to live in, so there are other problems surrounding London. Generally, I feel it’s a very exciting place, and I’m really happy to be a Londoner. I consider myself more a Londoner than anything else.

“I was always trying to push ideas.”

Global currents and political events have influenced some of your past collections. As there is so much conflict in all corners of the world at the moment, how much does it inform your work now?

I don’t think that it necessarily influences my work directly. I think it probably does instinctively. I think, for a start, it influences me as a person. I mean, it’s just appalling – everything that’s happening is appalling – but I feel like we are living in an age where there is definitely abuse of power as well. I think that we don’t really know what it feels like to be in Gaza, or in Iraq, or Syria right now. We empathise up to a point, but I really think we’re detached. We are simply voyeurs. I’m from Cyprus, from the Turkish side. Of course I am a little bit familiar with that region, but still, where I’m from is not really the Middle East. I think we are living in a world where I don’t think there’s enough empathy. It’s voyeuristic empathy, I don’t think it’s heartfelt empathy. I feel that we are living in a peculiar world, there is an empathy fatigue, or compassion fatigue.

“I think we are living in a world where I don’t think there’s enough empathy. It’s voyeuristic empathy, I don’t think it’s heartfelt empathy.”

One of the roles an artist has is to depict and reflect what’s happening in the world; how important do you think it is for a fashion designer to communicate this?

You’re in a cultural sphere, and I think of fashion as part of culture. I don’t think of it as this sort of isolated bubble (which a lot of people think it is). We are working on creating the human image; creating an image for the body, and reflecting the atmosphere we’re living in. It is the role of everything cultural to take on board what’s going on in the world, but not necessarily (literally) reflect it. I just think it’s not only the role of cultural spheres — it’s the role of everyone to make people aware of what’s going on and to really participate.

How has your interest in the body as a central cultural figure changed in the past two decades?

I think in the first ten years of my career, I was establishing my language, and then I think the second half of the twenty years was more about the exploration of sexuality. In my view, I think my clothes have become much more relaxed, and more aware of sexuality —becoming more of a sexualised body. Not that I wasn’t interested in it before, but I think I was very busy, really, trying to explore what my signature was going to be. I think that’s the difference. I feel my woman has evolved, she’s a lot more of an open character; I’d say she’s someone who’s interested in the world, and someone who’s warm and curious. There’s two profiles that I like, there’s not one person, but I am definitely drawn to certain kinds of women when I’m designing.

“My view of technology is not that obvious view of video dresses we’ve made, or moving dresses we’ve made.”

With which ideals do you design?

That’s a big question! Which ideals, in general? I guess my basic principles are to do with good design. The fit is really important. It has to compliment the body. It can’t be plonked on, it has to work with the body. I’d say: design, fit, body consciousness and quality; all these elements are my main principles.

I know it’s pretty important for you to get the ‘movement’ part of the clothes you design right. What is the biggest obstacle of making it work?

Fabric obviously is, and cut. I think firstly you have to understand the body quite well, you have to understand movement. We even make the person sit a lot when she’s wearing the clothes, to see how she moves when she is sitting. Walk, sit, bend down, all of that. I think it’s really to do with the understanding of the body, honestly; and that comes with experience. It’s also about understanding fabric, and how fabric moves in conjunction with the body. It’s quite a hard thing to talk about, because it’s very specific to what you’re designing. Generally speaking, I think, if you understand the body well, it’s a very good start. So when you’re a student, doing a lot of life drawing really helps later.

“Being able to make a garment from one piece of cloth that has been very carefully thought out is, for me, as technological as a dress that has the use of motors.”

There’s also a fashion technology part integrated in your work, be it LED dresses, or fabric technology. How much time do you spend researching your fabrics and the way they work?

I definitely use a lot of technology in my work. I don’t think of technology in the traditional way, that always has to have something to do with electricity or motors, or wires, or this or that. My view of technology is not that obvious view of video dresses we’ve made, or moving dresses we’ve made. They were there to achieve an effect. I always think of the idea or style first, and then whatever serves that idea well. It’s never for the sake of “oh, I’m going to use technology,” it’s more that I have to use that technology to get that idea to work. Being able to make a garment from one piece of cloth that has been very carefully thought out is, for me, as technological as a dress that has the use of motors. It really depends on how you look at technology. I think of it as a way of thinking and a way of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

How easy is it for you to distance yourself from the work you’re creating, and look at it with a critical eye?

I am quite critical of my own work. I would say that I know when I’m happy and when I’m not. But it really depends, because sometimes looking at it after a bit of time makes a difference. That’s kind of a perceptual concern. I do ask my stylist (Jodie Barnes) to look at it and other members of my team, because it’s interesting and important to get a fresh eye on things as well.

What is your biggest fear?

I guess to not be able to do what I’m doing, because I enjoy it. If I couldn’t sustain this business and had to stop, I think that’s a big fear.

Words by Jorinde Croese

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