Hussein Chalayan

For Modern Weekly. Interview with influential and visionary designer Hussein Chalayan as his work is celebrated in a major exhibition at the Design Museum (cover story!).

 “People’s perception of futuristic scenarios, informed by media and films is quite clichéd. I would like to be able to change that if I can.”

Fashion has always existed in two worlds; one is the world of dreams, where everything is possible and everything is fabulous and glamorous. The other is the world of clothes, which are the things you put on every morning and take off at night. One designer whose work seems to embody these opposing worlds better than any other is Hussein Chalayan. This is in part down to the fact that operates not only in the structured, organised futures of retail fashion, but also expresses his ideas about society, technology, garments and the body in more challenging, experimental ways. This visionary approach is to be celebrated later this month in a major exhibition at London’s Design Museum. In between preparations for this, and the launch of his Autumn/Winter 2009 collection in Paris shortly after, I met with the designer in his East London studio to talk about the exhibition and his work.

Those familiar with Chalayan will be disappointed to learn that his studio and office are not housed in transparent hover-pods floating above the city, but in a rather more conventional converted Victorian print-works in the trendy East End. Despite the hectic schedule and relentless demands on his time, Chalayan himself appears very relaxed in his calm and tidy-looking office, with none of the chaos normally associated with fashion. In fact, there is so little evidence of clutter, that it could almost be anyone’s office. Maybe what I’ve heard said is true – that he keeps all the ideas in his head. 

Given the prolific output of the studio and extensive ‘extra-curriculuar’ work, I wondered if that meant Chalayan worked harder than others in the business. “Not necessarily,” he says, “I know I work very hard, but I don’t know how this compares to other designers. In my case I am working for rewards which are not necessarily monetary. That way of looking at things is too black and white to describe what I do.” This refers to his many projects outside the It seems that on top of the treadmill of running a business and creating his Women’s wear collections every season, Chalayan manages to frame each new chapter of his work inside a theatrical re-evaluation of some or all aspects of the fashion world. This has become key to his profile, and why the Design Museum are interested in making him the subject of a major exhibition. The Museum generally steers clear of fashion, preferring instead the more familiar areas of furniture, industrial and graphic design and architecture. In fact, apart from a much smaller show by (fellow Central St. Martins graduate) Matthew Williamson two years ago, there is very little evidence of the world of fashion in the museum’s programme or collection. This gap, however, is one that Chalayan is eminently able to bridge. So many designers and architects make statements about the universality of their discipline and flirt with projects that cross over, but rarely with the confidence or success that he has managed over such a long period. 

A good example is Chalayan’s ‘chandelier’ for the ongoing Swarovski “Crystal Palace” project. Instead of towing the line like everyone else who contributes to this, by making something nostalgic, decorative or ‘ironic,’ he managed to create something completely other-worldly with his “Repose” installation at the 2006 Milan Furniture Fair. Composed of disembodied, animated aircraft parts, it blinked and shone like it had just arrived from another planet.  Standing next to it felt as though you were on a film set. The crystals, which always seemed like a diversion anyway, were stripped of their decadent, indulgent image to become some form of alien engineering component. It stole the show from the other designers, the majority of whom came from the fields of lighting, furniture or architecture and should have know better. This work will feature in the exhibition, but recontextualised so that it might be appreciated alongside its wearable relations such as the Aeroplane Dress. 

Although it has been substantially re-worked to fit the Design Museum layout, the show turns out to be based on an exhibition held at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands back in 2005. And because the intervening years have been some of his most productive and well-documented, so it has been expanded to include these. The curation has been a joint affair, with the physical space designed by Block Architecture and graphics group Åbäke. Together with Chalayan’s input, they have created something fairly stark and monochrome to intensify the clinical ‘gallery’ feel of the show. Of course the principle draw is the chance to see his iconic ‘Monuments’ – the headline pieces and performances which are to the ready-to-wear collection what a Toyota concept car is to its production models. But these will be accompanied by examples from his ready-to-wear collections, too: “It comprises an old selection plus some new work, but will also show garments. But we won’t just show a skirt and a dress in isolation – it isn’t about clothes in that way. There are a series of themes played out in the show, with the unifying element driven largely by the space. This has led to a maze layout with zones for each project focused around the monument pieces.”

I had heard Chalayan use this term – ‘monuments’ – before, and it always struck me as an odd description; suggesting something mournful, or commemorative rather than novel and exciting. So when he repeats it, I ask him why he favours this in place of the more familiar ‘concept’ tag. “These are the reference points which inspire the rest of what I do. They are not monuments in the sense that they incorporate hard materials, but it is true that wearability is not the prevailing factor. In that way they can be a more complete interpretation of my ideas than the garments that make up the collection.”


The monuments include of course the Aeroplane Dress (‘Echoform’ collection) from 1999; the ‘Afterwords’ collection from 2000, featuring the coffee table that becomes a skirt, the chair covers that also become dresses while the chairs themselves become suitcases and the 2008 ‘Readings’ dress incorporating over 200 animated lasers diffracted through Swarovski crystals. While these seem so familiar – images that have been reproduced a thousand times – not so many people have seen them up close, and being part of very widespread collections – not easy to assemble in one place:  “ …we have had to borrow a great deal of the stuff – several pieces from their [Groninger] collection as well as MUDAM [Luxembourg] and Centraal  Museum in Utrecht.” There will also be a chance to see some of the non-garment and film projects that the designer has worked on including “Place to Passage” from 2004; the futuristic journey of an androgynous being from London to Istanbul aboard a transparent bullet-like amphibious vehicle and “Absent Presence,” his 2005 film for the Venice Biennale featuring Tilda Swinton, that explores the themes of bio-ethics and identity in a paranoid society. These projects provide a much larger canvas on which to develop his ideas, and are maybe tell a more complete story than the garments, although it is the objects themselves that people will really be making the journey to see. 

So much has been written about the cultural and philosophical influences of these collections that when looking at ‘proper’ accounts, I came to question my own interpretations. I had always thought that ‘Monument’ work was driven by an obsession with technology, materials and how one’s body might be served differently by developments in areas outside the normal constraints of the fashion world. It came as a surprise to learn through ‘proper’ accounts that the starting point for much of the work is far more political and confrontational than this. The ‘Afterwords’ or ‘Ventriloquy’ collections, for instance, are memories of warfare, displacement or destruction. To me, they were always more playful than this. 

It turns out that while the descriptions might be based on the designers own commentary, they are not necessarily the essence of the work, and he is not worried by the ambiguity; “When people ask me to describe the meanings, or inspiration for the work, I tell them… But this is simply the thought process. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the whole story.” It is with a little less guilt, therefore, that you and I can enjoy the transgressive spectacle of the aeroplane dress or the fun of the transformable furniture without reference to the sometimes harrowing back-stories. 

Another thing that comes as a surprise is how committed Chalayan is to seeing his ideas through to reality. The clue to this is the fact that so much of the work is embodied in highly-finished, functional  prototypes, rather than simply fancy props. He is getting as close as he can with today’s technology, but is also absolutely focused on how they might become real in the future: “With regard to the Monument work – the most frustrating thing is that the pieces remain as prototypes – we can’t produce them en-masse. For the cost constraint, most people would not consider them a worthwhile investment. But this work forms the foundation of what might be possible in the future. What I really want to do is to make these pieces for real – to be available to a mass market.” This is in reference to the electronically-enhanced garments, for example the collections entitled “Before Minus Now” (2000) and “Kinship Journeys” (2003). The former incorporates shape memory alloy technology to automatically open/close or transform a garment; the latter features skirts with inbuilt airbags or floatation devices. The most extreme version of this must be the video dress from the Airborne collection of 2007. This has more than 15,000 programmable LED elements – something that enables the garment’s whole image to change in an instant. Given that so much of his work is about transformation, and functional enhancement, I wondered how Chalayan felt his work related to the emerging fields of post-human or trans-human study and development – in which the aim is to enhance the human body through technological means. “I’m not too sure about the term ‘trans-human.’ One thing I am sure of is that I’m very human, though. I believe technology should be about improving the way that we, as humans, live. People’s perception of futuristic scenarios, informed by media and films is quite clichéd. I would like to be able to change that if I can.” 

Of course, he can’t do this on his own. One of the most impressive things about Chalayan’s operation is his ability to manage so many different processes and contributors. He has worked with furniture designers, racing car manufacturers, architects, graphic designers, film-makers, electrical engineers, although ultimately he is protective of the notion that it is his vision that takes to the runway at the end of a project. These are not ‘collaborations’ in the sense that ideas are co-developed in a parallel or even tangential manner – they are simply an extension of a conventional team of fashion expertise in unconventional areas. Chalayan’s job is to bring the expertise together and make the outcome relate to the body in ways that pure engineering always manages to fail to do. “What technology does – to change the size and capability of the components such as chips, or to make the elements more flexible is not sufficient on its own… What I need to do is more like you find in Car Technology or manufacture i.e. bring people together from so many different fields and manage their input to create something new… A lot of my time is spent with this technology in trying to make something that will blend with the body. I am always looking for ‘loopholes,’ or spaces on the body so that everything looks seamless, integrated – not like it is ‘plonked’ on top.”

The fact that all of the technologically-enhanced concepts only exist as prototypes make it particularly impressive that they always seem to do what they are supposed to. In many of the photos, or film footage of Chalayan’s shows, the models seem to be suppressing giggles or smiles as the thing they are wearing starts to change shape, unfurl, or rise up. With so much more than a regular fashion show to go wrong, it was a surprise to find out that “Nothing disastrous” had happened in the past. “The hardest thing is resetting everything – the way the memory wire works means that it can only unravel, it can’t work in reverse. I’ve been nervous at times, but the worst thing so far has been things going out in the wrong order – which no one really notices. All the disasters have been with basic things, really – I had a few broken heels when I was starting out.” 

A recent development that may assist in the complexities of these relationships, and perhaps ease some of the more advanced concepts into the market is Chalayan’s recent appointment as Creative Director for Puma Sport Fashion (they also sponsored the show). “The Puma partnership is really exciting. It could change the restrictions of production, but could also affect the final price – to make this kind of work more affordable. There are so many possibilities – you know the way a trainer is made is nothing to do with how clothes are made? Or even shoes for that matter. There are so many processes involved. There may also be opportunities because of the links with PPR[the French fashion giant Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, who own a majority shareholding in Puma, as well as brands such as Gucci, Balenciaga and Bottega Venata]. It may be some time before we see any product from this partnership, although one thing is certain – Chalayan is not planning to move to Germany, or France for that matter. Despite the struggle of running a business in London and the fact that he now shows exclusively during Paris Fashion Week, Chalayan (who is Turkish-Cypriot by birth) remains passionate about staying in London:  “I was raised here, and consider myself a Londoner. As hard as I find it – it does give a lot of benefits. English is my best language, although I am more comfortable describing myself as a Londoner than “English,” which comes with other connotations which I don’t recognise in myself.” 

So what are the highlights? Well – of course, I haven’t actually seen the show, but looking back over his incredible output of the last 15 years, I have a couple of favourites. Discounting the Aeroplane wing  (Repose) for a moment, as it can’t really be worn, the first would have to be Chalayan’s early variations on the theme of turning the garment into paper, or turning paper into a garment: The ‘Airmail Clothing’ from 1994, and the second is the Scribbled-on dress from the ‘Ventriloquy’ collection in 2001. I know that in fashion one should always be striving for the NEXT thing and that most designers’ collections generally date very quickly. In the case of these concepts, however, they seem to have retained their vitality. They still strike me as playful interpretations that encompass all the recurrent themes of communication, displacement, travel, chance, transformation, and technology but in a more subtle package than their monument counterparts. Like all Chalayan’s production garments, they also seem wearable, flattering, elegant and beautifully constructed. The fact that one is 15 years old and the other 8 years old is perhaps an indication of how far ahead of the game Chalayan tends to focus his work. 

In blunt terms, fashion designers deal in futures. It is as much a part of their job as the hedge fund managers down the road in the City. Fortunately, the Fashion crowd seem to have been more adept at this recently than their counterparts, but don’t try telling them that there is less at stake. The fact is that they are working at least 18 months ahead of the rest of us, sometimes more. Right now there are groups of people sitting round tables discussing what you and I will be wearing come Spring. Spring 2010, that is. The fashion designers you have heard of the ones who have been able not only to read and adapt to particular trends, but also influence them. In such a competitive area, it is very difficult for any one individual to stand out. Hussein Chalayan has managed to do this consistently over a 15-year period and if you want to know what’s going to happen in fashion in the next 15 years, you could do much worse than study his back catalogue.

The exhibition runs from 22nd January to 17th May at London’s Design Museum. 


Repose.jpg Repose Lighting installation for Swarovski Crystal Palace, Milan Furniture Fair, 2006. Photo: Chris Moore.
READINGSSS08.jpg Spring/Summer 2008. Photo: Moritz Waldemeyer
PLACETOPASSAGE.jpg Place to Passage, Film, 2004, Dir. Hussein Chalayan. 
ONEHUNDREDANDELEVENSS07.jpg One Hundred and Eleven, Spring/Summer 2007. Photo: Chris Moore
ManifestDestinySS03.jpg Manifest Destiny, Spring/Summer 2003. Photo: Chris Moore
KINSHIPJOUNEYSAW03.jpg Kinship Journeys, Autumn/Winter 2003. Photo: Chris Moore
INERTIASS09.jpg Inertia, Spring/Summer 2009. Photo: Chris Moore
ChalayanbyChrisMoore.jpg Hussein Chalayan, Portrait by Chris Moore
ChalayanBenPic11.JPG Photo: Ben Hughes
ChalayanBenPic6.JPG Photo: Ben Hughes
ChalayanBenPic5.JPG Photo: Ben Hughes
ChalayanBenPic1.JPG Photo: Ben Hughes
BeforeMinusNowSS00RemoteControl.jpg Remote Control Dress from ‘Before Minus Now,’ Spring/Summer 2000 Photo: Chris Moore
BeforeMinusNowSS00.jpg ‘Before Minus Now,’ Spring/Summer 2000 Photo: Chris Moore
BEFOREMINUSNOW2SS00.jpg ‘Before Minus Now,’ Spring/Summer 2000 Photo: Chris Moore
AirmailSuitAW94.jpg Airmail Suit from ‘Cartesia,’ Autumn/Winter 1994, Photo: Chris Moore
AirmailDressAW94.jpg Airmail Dress from ‘Cartesia,’ Autumn/Winter 1994, Photo: Chris Moore
AFTERWORDSAW00_.jpg Wearable furniture from ‘Afterwords’ Autumn/Winter 2000. Photo: Chris Moore