Hussein Chalayan's designs are embraced not only by the world of fashion, but by the art establishment too. Last year Andrew Graham-Dixon presented a documentary on his work for BBC2's Culture Show. "His work is as close to contemporary art as you can get," the esteemed critic argued, and anyone who has been privileged to witness the designer's breathtakingly original, high-concept womenswear presentations over the past 15 years will know just why.
For spring/summer 2008, Chalayan was thinking about celebrity. "I feel that there is this sort of neurosis around celebrity and celebrity culture," he says. "I wanted to look at the roots of that. Eventually it goes back to sun worship, it was even pre-pagan. That led to looking at costumes of ritual from different cultures which fell into groups – Jewish culture, Arab culture, ancient Greece..."
To present the collection, Chalayan produced a short film with the photographer Nick Knight, for which he commissioned a soundtrack from Antony Hegarty of the Mercury Prize-winning band Antony and the Johnsons. Made in collaboration with Swarovski, the ubiquitous purveyors of fine crystal to the fashion industry, the film focused on the idea of worship. "I thought about how I could represent worship now," Chalayan continues.
That's where the lasers came in. Chalayan worked with highly skilled technicians to bury them within a crystalline dress. "People thought I projected lasers on to the dress," says Chalayan, clearly appalled by the idea that anyone would think him capable of something so simplistic. "I would never do something as stupid as that."
Rather, he explains, "The lasers point to the crystals first, so that they look as though they're glowing, and then come away from them, creating prisms around the body. I felt that that could almost be like the idea of a person emitting light and then the light coming back to them to create these patterns. That, to me, somehow symbolised the process of performing and being admired back. It was almost as if the bouncing off of the light was the response from the audience, as if there was this interactive moment of worship."
It is a suitably grand viewpoint, as perhaps befits a man who has, in recent seasons, come up with dresses that morphed mechanically from Victorian to flapper to Space Age – an unusually inspired study of nostalgia if ever there was one. Then there was a shift which showed films of underwater life and flowers blossoming as the model wearing it walked.
Although the pieces in question are, clearly, proto-types, Chalayan believes passionately that with time and financial support, he can develop them into clothing that is not only modern, but also hugely ambitious in both form and context. "I like the idea that clothes can contain memories and that one day you could be wearing a jacket and a film of your son, say, could be embedded in the lining and you could watch it," he says, taking the age-old relationship between garment and wearer and projecting it to dizzying new heights.
But, while his collections are imbued with anthro-pological and philosophical ideas, there is a functional side to Chalayan's work, too, as some of the photographs on these pages demonstrate; the designer is keen to stress that his clothes should, above all, be a pleasure to wear.
Throughout the late 1990s, Turkish Cypriot-born Chalayan, today 37, offered the world some of the most beautiful and carefully considered shows the international fashion establishment had ever seen. He has twice been voted British Designer of the Year and, from the moment his 1993 graduation collection was exhibited in its entirety in the windows of Browns, he attracted considerable attention not only in London but, crucially, internationally as well. Indeed, those were the halcyon days when Anna Wintour and her ilk travelled to the British capital just to see both this designer and, of course, his more obviously pyrotechnic contemporary, and fellow St Martins alumni, Alexander McQueen. By the turn of the century, having grown too established for London, Chalayan, who continues to be based in this country, chose to present his collections to Paris alongside the big names, from Comme des Garçons to Martin Margiela, Balenciaga to Dior.
In Paris, for the first five years at least, the focus moved away from the concept and on to the clothes themselves. Chalayan's designs, which are very much associated with the fashion avant-garde, are in fact indebted to the modernist tradition as represented in this country most famously by the late Jean Muir. Though that is not to say he is a minimalist. "Our pattern-cutting process is quite complicated," the designer says. "We never have an easy time with it. We do it until we get it right and sometimes I'm still not happy. I'm still not happy but I've done my best in that situation."
For the current season, Chalayan offers the world everything from a Fortuny-pleat chiffon all-in-one to a chic white shirtwaister with a black jacket attached, and from the finest black silk chiffon wrap fused with a form-fitting (but never overtly sexual) little white dress to a coin-dotted blouse, the graphic print of which is softened by a layer of white organza.
A brilliantly surreal flourish – and one which takes us right back to the concept behind the show – is a pair of oversized dark glasses, that most clichéd of celebrity staples, embedded into a wide-brimmed straw hat.
"Why does Kate Moss have to design a collection?" wonders Chalayan, as one of very few of his kind prepared to go on the record in questioning fashion's relatively new-found penchant for celebrity brands. He is not alone, of course, in believing that such incursions devalue his profession considerably. "It's kind of insulting to us because it's like saying – and I don't mean this personally – 'I can sell more clothes off my name, off my brand, than you can, even though you're a better designer.' If I was a celebrity, I would honestly try to inspire people in another way."
Hussein Chalayan himself is about as inspiring as it is possible to imagine a fashion designer to be. "Everything is so in your face these days and there's no grace left," he says. "The grace of curiosity is lost. I am an idealist, however. I think that if you're not an idealist, you have nothing. You have nothing if you don't dream."Reuse content