Archival photos courtesy of Hussein Chalayan
Unlike most other designers who fall on the so-called avant-garde side of the fashion rainbow, Hussein Chalayan isn’t some overdeliberate weirdo. He’s pleasant and chatty and doesn’t offer to show young female interviewers naked statuary of himself or constantly refer to his chakra when discussing where he finds inspiration. His collections and collaborations (the vessel which Lady Gaga was carried in on the red carpet at this year’s Grammy Awards, for example) are immensely well executed and met with practically universal praise. Subsequently, most of his stuff is imitated, or flagrantly ripped off, at every fashion-design school on earth.
But what makes Hussein really special is his insistence on focusing on the newest means by which raw materials are made into clothes. For a while now he’s been at the forefront of designers who exploit advances in technology to construct their lines—dresses frozen in perpetual motion, tunics that shoot lasers, clothing that shrinks and molts on its own and makes the wearer look like a space butterfly flitting backward and forward through time, and so on. And despite being one of the busiest designers working today and being chin-deep in Fashion Week preparations at the time of this interview, he’s in a better headspace than anyone I know. Here’s what he said about doing the fashion thing without ending up poor, crazy, or dead.
Vice: Are you the type of designer who takes a lot of time deliberating in quiet isolation, or is designing more of a trial-and-error process?
Hussein Chalayan: It’s a little bit of everything that you’ve said, actually. I’ll have an idea that may have been floating in my head for a while, but it may be that one season leads to another. You do eras of work that are connected. And then, of course, we develop ideas and within that framework there will be accidents we discover that we think are right for the house. It’s a framework that still allows experimentation.
So much of it is actually you quietly searching alone for context and connections?
I work with teams as well. Initially, I’ll have an idea and make a sketch. Then I work with my pattern cutters, they’ll drape, and I’ll look and redraw from that.
In terms of design, your work is regarded as having a lot of integrity, yet you’re still required to play by the rules of the calendar, the buyers, the editors, and the bank. How do you reconcile all that?
Well, the market demands and cycles are definitely difficult. On the other hand, sometimes I think restrictions allow you to think in alternative ways and in effect help you grow. You can’t constantly work like that because it breaks you down. It all has to do with how you play with restrictions and how you can turn them into positive things.
You work with some really unconventional materials, like wood and acetate foam. Is there anything you fantasize about creating but are simply unable to?
Well, there are many things, but I think you’ll see them when they happen. I think of everything up until now as an experiment. I’m trying to turn my prototypes into reality.
Is your studio a maze of outlandish and newfangled technology? I think that’s what some people might expect given your historical use of weird techniques.
I’m interested in technology when it comes to my work, but I decided at an early age that I don’t want to own many things. It’s not just the high-tech stuff. I don’t own many clothes or furniture. I like that. I find it gets too cluttered and I can’t think.
That seems pretty common with a lot of designers, actually. People think that everything about your life is super-stylized if you work in art or design.
It goes the other way too. It’s like being a cook—when you cook your own food you don’t want to eat the food you usually prepare, because you’re too involved.
But obviously that doesn’t discount your interest in technology. What is it in particular that pulls you toward incorporating technology, even if you don’t like it cluttering up your living room?
The reason I’m interested in technology is because it’s the only means through which you can do new things in the world. Everything has been done. Everything. It allows you to really go to places that haven’t been visited before. That’s why I pursue it in my work.