Hussein Chalayan is the thinking person's designer. His modernism has evolved from his fascination, not with clothes, but with ideas
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The Independent Culture
WHEN Hussein Chalayan graduated from Central St Martin's College of Art in 1993 with a collection of paper clothes, he was immediately invited to display his designs in the shop window of Browns in South Molton Street. Now, the 25-year-old has become the youngest designer ever to be nominated for the title of Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, which will be announced this Tuesday at the Natural History Museum. Other nominations include such established names as Bella Freud, John Galliano, Ghost, and Patrick Cox, but Chalayan is reckoned to have as good a chance as any.

Whether he wins or not, though, Turkish Cyprus-born Chalayan is unlikely to be particularly bothered. It is typical of the man that he is almost certainly more interested in his nominations for another two of the awards: that of Best of the New Generation, and the Street Style Award. For Chalayan is best known as a modernist, an innovator, and - a rare thing in the fashion world - as a thinker; and that is how he wants things to stay. Hus-sein Chalayan's fashion ideas, philosophies and theories are about as far removed from the traditional contemplation of skirt-lengths as it is possible to be. The collection shown yesterday at the Sporting News Suppliers warehouse near King's Cross is called "Nothing/Inter-scope". Its title, Chalayan explains, symbolises his res-ponse to all aspects of modern life, from computer technology to death and disaster. Such statements capture perfectly the spirit of his work, both in its ambition and in its pessimism. Outwardly, at least, the clothes look conventional - they are well-made and cut, for the most part, exactly as you would expect. To Chalayan, however, they are just as much philosophical statements as articles of clothing: every pattern, every unexpected detail, is intended to provoke thought. Chalayan stresses that he is not trying to impose his beliefs on people - "Who am I to do that?" None the less, his designs do indeed inspire debate, especially within the fashion industry.

We are sitting in a Covent Garden cafe together. At the end of our interview, he tells me that all through our meeting he has been aware that the ceiling might fall on top of us at any minute. Hence the "Nothing" in the title of the collection: Chalayan views death - and the nothingness that might follow it - as part of everyday life.

Could such confidence - such pretensions - in so young a designer prove premature? Despite the accolades, Chalayan is still only in his third season, and the number of his stockists is limited: three in this country, one in Paris, another in Milan and 11 in Japan. It is his originality rather than his success which sets him apart from his contemporaries. Not for him the endless visits to the V&A, researching the history of costume. While most designers begin a new collection with a "mood board" - a pinboard crammed full of cuttings from magazines and books, and other visual ideas - Chalayan's designs evolve more eccentrically.

"I don't really get inspired by trends," he says. "Every single centimetre of skirt length has been covered. Everything has been done." Instead, he uses a fantasy-based design process: in order to create a collection of clothing, he first invents a storyline; then designs cloth-es for the characters. For his first collection, Chalayan buried clothes with iron filings in his back garden. The inspiration? An invented character who was killed and buried. The results - weird, rusty, decomposed clothes - made a profound impression on the fashion world.

For all their obscure symbolism, though, Chalayan's designs remain, by and large, practical. When he tailors entire suits out of industrial-strength paper, the result is washable as well as wearable.

The setting for yesterday's "Nothing/Interscope" show typified Chalayan's curious mixture of preoccupations, mixing modern and natural elements in equal measure: fragmented, computer-generated prints of flowers; cartoon-like images of tides, representing tidal waves, floods and disaster; black and yellow stripes to give the feeling of emergency; and arrows and go-faster signs printed on the clothes to symbolise es-cape. Technology is a continuing preoccupation. "I think technology is getting frighteningly advanced," he says. "I'm interested in the philosophy of computers."

Chalayan is also interested in the approaching millennium, although he does not think that things will be much different in five years' time. Perhaps that's because he is already ahead of his time. By the year 2000, if a roof hasn't collapsed on his head, and a tidal wave hasn't washed him out to sea, Hussein Chalayan will still be designing clothes that make people think. !