There was one sinking low point during my interview with Hussein Chalayan over the phone, on the eve of his first flagship store’s official opening in Mayfair during London Fashion Week, when I thought he’d hang up on me. I was asking about whether store in some way correlated with the way Chalayan has evolved his shows in the last few years, so that the clothes are in focus rather than the concept. The latter c word is problematic for Chalayan.
Today, he would rather talk about the clothes because for him, concept can be limiting. Turns out though I’m not the only hack of a writer, who has too often levied the c word at him and pigeon-holed him into a niche aesthetic box. The misconception can run deep as it’s all too easy to remember Chalayan solely by an image of a tiered wooden skirt from his A/W 00 show or a video of an LED dress from his A/W 07 Airborne collection. All the while, Chalyan’s ability to create innovative and beautiful tailoring doesn’t make those out-there headlines and far-out editorial pages.
The shop on Bourdon Street is an opportunity to right this misconception and misrepresentation. It’s a fluid but intimate space where you can go one-to-one with the clothes with just the right amount of curiosity – for instance an upturned boat in the middle accompanied by its proposed speed on the cash desk or the dressing room covered in Chalyan’s back catalogue work like a teenage shrine. And just as Chalayan says he’s been fitting wearable (and yet still innovative in their own right) clothes to body for over twenty years now, now he finally has a physical address where that relationship between his clothes and the customer can really flourish.
When the interview resumed normality and Chalayan, did in fact carry on speaking to me, his thoughts on the industry today and the speed of which everything is operating were pertinent. But as he says so himself – Chalayan isn’t one to stand still and look upon the past with nostalgia. Today after twenty one years in the business, his wholly independent company operates with an assured amount of stability and he ventures forth with new endeavours such as taking on more of a permanent role within the creation of the house of Vionnet’s collections as well as an exciting self-directed dance show at Sadler’s Wells at the end of this month. As this deeply satisfying – for me, perhaps not so much for him – interview reveals, Chalayan’s design mind is still ever inquisitive and hungry for more.
As somebody who has been established for twenty years now, how does it feel to finally have a bricks and mortar store?
Hussein Chalyan: Of course we could have addressed the issue of having a store well before but I wanted to gain more experience with our collections. The work we’ve been doing has been challenging and I wanted to feel more ready. Also you have to build a certain momentum with your stockists before you can do it on your own. The reason why we wanted to do it now was we wanted to create a space where we can create small events like gatherings. I didn’t want it to be just a shop. We wanted it to be a place where people get to know us. For us, it’s a space to communicate.
Did you have a very fixed idea on how you wanted the store to look like?
Hussein Chalyan: The whole idea was that we created these relationships within the store so that it’s like a store within a store. When you cross the threshold, the black exterior turns into a white space inside. There’s a rail system with a false perspective. It was almost like playing with zones within the shop. There’s a boat that turns into a dinner table in the middle of the shop. The potential speed of the boat is marked on the clock on the side of the cash desk, which is constantly moving. I wanted to create this contrast between something static and movement. These are things that people might not perceive when coming in but they’re important for me.
Above all, I wanted it to be quite pared down so the clothes could speak for themselves. The floor is in the pattern of a backgammon board, which I’ve referred to before, and it has that slight Mediterranean touch.
We’re an alternative luxury brand and I wanted to do something that was less obvious – no gold, no marble – for me I wanted to think of it in a different way.
With your clothes hanging on your own physical rail, does it feel like a culmination of the collections you’ve been doing in recent years, which have veered away from – for want of a better word the “theatrical” way you showed your clothes in your earlier years?
Hussein Chalyan: You know what? That thing you’re saying right now isn’t exactly right. What it is, if you’ve seen all my shows right from the beginning, I’ve always had beautifully cut clothes in the collection. There were always normal clothes that you can wear but I always had show pieces as well. The press wrote a lot about the show pieces but meanwhile we did sell normal clothes too! On the one hand, we were getting lots of editorial. And on the other hand, the high street was absorbing all of our ideas. There was this weird duality.
What the shop does is that you show all your work. You let people decide how they want to absorb it as you’re showing it in your own environment. I never really had a shift. I’ve always spent most of my time fitting normal clothes. But then I wanted to show to be a cultural experience so I made these show pieces but it created this misconception of me as a conceptual designer.
The shift that you’re referring to, has occurred because we wanted people to look at the clothes! We spend hours doing our cutting techniques. But in fact we always did them. Now we just want to show them to people.
Does it grate you that you’re described as a conceptual designer?
Hussein Chalayan: It’s like someone calling you a journalist and not a writer. I think you’re a writer. The term conceptual really reduces me. I think ‘Hang on, I’ve been doing this for twenty years.’ It’s not what I call myself. It’s what other people call me. Yes I have a conceptual approach possibly but that’s never a ruling element for me. I use that as a tool so that I can create the collection. I don’t really know what to call it.
I guess it’s that you’ve set the bar so high in the way your ideas are forward-thinking. There’s no point of comparison around you. Do you think that’s a good thing?
Hussein Chalayan: It’s a good thing in that you can inspire a lot of people and it’s a bad thing because you are alienated from various other situations. It’s a gain and a hindrance.
With the clothes you’ve been creating, how important is it to highlight every single detail – the way a seam runs, the thought process that has gone into a texture. These are elements that potentially might be lost on an audience.
Hussein Chalayan: There are so many designers around, I don’t think people know what to look at! Everybody wants to be a designer. I’m hoping the shop will create the space for us where people can look at things up close. These days, people don’t have time to appreciate anything and they can only see bolder brush strokes shown in a fashion show. The shop is the antithesis of that speed. In a calm environment, where can look at things and try stuff on, and so it becomes that platform of appreciation.
How do you see the changes in the fashion industry from when you first started to what is happening today?
Hussein Chalayan: I think the main difference between when I started and now are digital media and the power of celebrity. With me, I’ve always renewed myself. I’ve never stood stagnant. To my detriment sometimes, I always wanted every collection to be different because customers want momentum. Now in the last few years, I’ve created some continuity and also introduced new things, and now it’s working.
Also the fact that anyone can be a designer. People can’t differentiate between a business owner and an actual designer. The business owner could also be a celebrity and that’s accepted. It no longer becomes about merit. It becomes about what financial strength you have. Either yourself or whoever is backing you. When we were designing in the nineties, we were all equals. When brands were being bought out by conglomerates, the playing field wasn’t even. We’re having to survive in a very different kind of competitive environment. It’s a miracle that we can still survive.
And survive as an independent business as well…
Hussein Chalayan: I’m not interested in sounding like a hero but it is that much more difficult as an independent. It’s very different to being backed by a conglomerate.
Let’s turn to a different subject. Let’s talk about your upcoming dance show Gravity Fatigue (at Sadler’s Wells from the 28th to 31st October) that you have directed and created. How did it come about?
Hussein Chalayan: Alistair Spalding (artistic director of Sadler’s Wells) wrote to me and actually offered it to me having seen my book. And I thought ‘Why not!’ I’ve directed mini films before connected to my own design world and I’ve obviously done costumes for dance. This is very different though and it’s very ambitious! It’s based around my interests and themes, with intertwined tableaux where the clothes create the choreography. It’s a different kind of world and really exciting. I’m actually at a rehearsal now…. we’ll see how it goes!
Does it make you want to once again incorporate that performance element into your own fashion shows?
Hussein Chalayan: I’ve done it so many times before in the 90s and 00s. Sometimes that performance aspect can be distracting. Then people think it’s about that. You have that performance element to accentuate an idea in the collection but sometimes that’s all people remember.
Finally, how would you define yourself – would you call yourself a multi-disciplinarian?
Hussein Chalayan: I’m essentially a designer but I work in a cross-disciplinary way so that I can enhance the clothes. I always think that crossing ideas that aren’t related with one another can help you create more interesting work. Sometimes I might share the ingredients of this process with the audience, to make it more of a cultural experience so that I can convey the idea more. And for me this is a richer way of working.
Chalayan flagship store now open on 2 Bourdon Street, London