Art of the unwearable: Can fashion designer Hussein Chalayan conquer the art world?
Saturday 04 September 2010
Even the most feted of fashion designers are reluctant to describe their work as "art". Still, in 2006, narrating an item dedicated to Hussein Chalayan on BBC2's The Culture Show, the art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon, described Chalayan's work as "as close to contemporary art as you can get".
In fact, while Chalayan has certainly always appeared to employ a conceptual and narrative approach to fashion design, he himself has always insisted that this is not fundamental to the understanding of his clothes. Instead, he says simply that it is part of his creative process, a method that serves to keep him interested in fashion design. For Chalayan, and indeed for many of his profession, fashion is an applied art in as much as it represents the employment of an artistic sensibility to create functional objects, however inspired or inspiring they may be.
As far as this particular subject is concerned, though, there is a difference. Not only has Chalayan always demonstrated an inter-disciplinary mindset, often using film, installation and sculpture as a backdrop against which to show his clothes but also, and this is perhaps less well-known, while designing his own twice-yearly fashion collections, now shown in Paris. Beyond that, he is creative director of the sportswear giant, Puma, and makes a living as an artist in the more readily accepted sense of the word. For years now, he has helped to support his fashion business through the creation and sale of limited-edition works, sought after by collectors the world over.
This month, for the first time in the UK, this side of his output is celebrated by two private London galleries: Spring Studios and the Lisson Gallery. When we meet at his London headquarters, Chalayan is simultaneously working on the production of his spring/summer 2011 women's wear collection, and putting together shows for both the aforementioned gallery spaces.
At Spring Studios, Chalayan's work as a sculptor, film-maker and animator will be on display in the form of three projects that dwell on some of his most oft-visited themes – speed, displacement, cultural identity and genetics. Over at the Lisson Gallery in west London, Chalayan has created an entirely new installation that explores music as a cultural form. Any explanation further than that he will not give, but it is worth noting that, in the past, music too has played an integral part of his fashion presentations, from the use of a live Gregorian choir as a show soundtrack to Chalayan himself forming part of a thrash metal band that played as models walked all around them.
"Hussein Chalayan is rightly celebrated, not just for his fashion but as one of London's leading innovators in visual culture," says Greg Hilty, curatorial director of the Lisson Gallery, who first met the designer in 1997. "I've always thought of him as an artist who has chosen fashion as a career when he could have gone in other directions."
Chalayan is all too often portrayed as serious to the point of impenetrable. In person, though, he is anything but. Warm, friendly, funny, thoughtful and, by his own admission, somewhat restless – "I'm very hyper today because I've had some coffee" – he is as personable as he is clearly highly intelligent.
"I'm not name-dropping or anything but I met Annie Lennox a couple of months ago," he tells me. "And she said people always think of her as intense and serious but it's more that she's actually just interested in things. I can really relate to that. I am essentially a curious person and I come from a culture which has seen two wars... We have a real history behind us."
The only child of Turkish-Cypriot parents, Chalayan was born in Nicosia in 1970 and, following the break-up of his parents' marriage – his mother remained in Cyprus where she lives to this day, his father moved to London – travelled between that island and the British capital from an early age. "In Cyprus I was often on my own," he says. "I used to love building things, creating environments was such a big thing for me. Cyprus is a Mediterranean island so it's very colourful in some respects. It's also a divided island and I was really fascinated by that."
Then there was London. "I think being exposed to great difference has made me quite open and flexible," Chalayan says. "I was bored in Cyprus and I truly believe that boredom is a big creative driving force. That's why I do this, because I wanted – and still want – a more colourful world. As a child, I would go from Cyprus, a more desolate place, to London where, suddenly, there was everything, and then back again. That allowed me to process any information, to contemplate things and develop any ideas in between."
Following a private education at a boys' public school in England ("a child's idea of the army, I suppose") and completion of a foundation course at the seaside town of Leamington Spa, Chalayan found his way to Central Saint Martin's College of Art.
"I could always have studied art," Chalayan says. "I mean, I was encouraged to study art in my foundation and I have that way of thinking. The best part of Saint Martin's was that it wasn't so segregated then as it is now. I studied fashion, but we mixed with other departments. Now it's so much more institutionalised and isolated. Saint Martin's then was an art school and fashion happened to be part of that. Now the art school and the fashion school are separate. I think we were lucky that we were the last of a generation to experience that. I really always felt that I went to an art school."
Certainly, there was rather more to Chalayan's viewpoint than the production of more obviously commercial clothes. It is the stuff of fashion folklore that his 1993 degree show comprised garments buried with iron filings in a friend's back garden to widespread critical acclaim. Looking back, it was quite a time. The Brit Art movement was in its infancy, Brit Pop was on the rise and two young fashion designers – Chalayan and Alexander McQueen, who graduated from the same college the year before – were creating some of the most remarkable, grand-scale, elaborately conceived and choreographed fashion experiences the world had ever seen.
"When Lee [McQueen] and myself were designing in the mid-Nineties there was the space for it," Chalayan remembers. "Galliano and everyone had left to show in Paris. There was a recession, we were poor so we had to find other ways of being creative. It was a great moment to create a new energy, a moment where there was room for new-ness. All the ingredients came together and that was why we were able to do what we were doing and there was such excitement around it. Now, there are too many designers. How many people can you have in the market place? You can't stuff shop floors with so many people. I'm not saying don't do it, but I do think people should really question what they are doing and whether that is something that already exists. When we started, it was a moment, I think."
In many ways, the aesthetics of the two designers in question couldn't have been more different. McQueen's was physical and blatantly sexualised; Chalayan's was cerebral and at times even pure. What they did share, however, was the need to express themselves on a larger stage than that decreed by the conventional catwalk presentation, the desire to create their own universe and move their audience beyond the realms of clothes. For Chalayan, that has meant, among other things, the creation of a fibre-glass dress that mimicked the mechanics of an aeroplane wing and others crafted in sugar-glass – duly smashed to pieces centre stage. Then there was the famous table skirt of the Afterwords collection – or "that bloody table skirt", as Chalayan now describes it; although he loves it, it is now well-known to the point almost of evoking a reductive view of his career so far. More recently, the designer has embedded advanced technology into the underpinnings of clothing causing them to morph between decades – from the Victorian crinoline to the 1920s flapper dress and a futuristic shift dress, say – all before the audience's very eyes. And such an experimental and pioneering viewpoint continues to this day. As far as both Chalayan's work and its presentation are concerned, he is one of very few contemporary designers to have established his own vocabulary. The genuine modernity of both refers not to the work of others but to itself. Given an obsession elsewhere with nostalgia, often to the point of pastiche, it's small wonder that he is among the most respected creators of our time.
In the late 1990s, Chalayan spent some time as creative director of TSE Cashmere in New York ("that taught me about luxury"). There followed a period establishing a luxury goods collection for Asprey. Two years ago came a spell where his company was supported by Puma with a view to establishing it as a major international brand. Then the economy crashed and while he continues to be employed by that company, designing its more fashion-led clothing, his own label is, once again, a relatively small and independently-owned concern. In a world dominated by corporate giants, that is far from easy, and it is a measure of his determination and love of his chosen profession that he does so with such integrity.
"We have had to reduce our operation, which is difficult, and I have to do other projects in order to sustain the company, but it's my choice. I chose to do this. What has driven me all the time is this work that you see."
At the start of his career, Chalayan's mother, who still travels to Paris to see every show and holidays with her son at least once a year, used to chase after her son backstage at a show with a new sweater. "She wanted me to look smart in case I had to do an interview. You remember what I was like, I was always in jeans and in an old jumper full of holes." Then there were the vine leaves, just in case Chalayan fancied a snack. "She takes them everywhere," he laughs, "even when we went to Japan together."
Born Muslim, but secular – "we observe festivals but, you know, we go to someone's house and it's all about food and the girl who's serving it is in a miniskirt with her boobs half out" – he now considers himself more of a Londoner than anything else. "This is the first time I'm doing something in a commercial gallery in London," he says of his art openings this month. "I've had shows here but not in that context and, you know, to do a solo show at Spring and then have the whole second building of the Lisson... It's exciting. How can I put it, it has the potential to attract a new audience to my work and offer people who already know it a new way of looking at it."
Hussein Chalayan is at the Lisson Gallery, London NW1, from Wednesday; B-Side, Hussein Chalayan, is at Spring Projects, London NW5, from 17 September
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