Hussein Chalayan: The man of the moment

A major new exhibition explores the extraordinary work of Hussein Chalayan. Susannah Frankel celebrates a bright and unorthodox star

This looks set to be quite a month for the fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, who has long remained under the radar, relatively speaking, at least – he is both proudly individual and uncompromising.

Tomorrow at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris, the largest retrospective of his work to date opens to the public. Pieces hitherto unseen away from the catwalk include the remote control dress from Before Minus Now (spring/summer 2000) and looks from Between (spring/summer 1998), which took as its starting point different aspects of worship, encompassing everything from convent girl to covered Muslim.

To coincide with this a new monograph will be published, which is unusually personal and compiled by the designer himself. Chalayan has painstakingly edited down his drawings from many thousands kept in binders in his studio. They provide an intriguing way into his process. No less revealing are family photographs. He has always stressed the importance of his background, and his ancestry in particular. And so there's an engagement photograph of his mother and father; his aunt, cousins and grandmother all also have their moment in the sun. Chalayan's own portraits follow his life path: as a child growing up in his bedroom in Cyprus; as a young man bearing an uncanny resemblance to a 1950s pin-up; while studying fashion at Central Saint Martins in London, from where he graduated in 1993, and rocking an equally retro look; and later, in his signature sweater and jeans but with rather less hair, as an established designer, back in his homeland again.

Here, too, are Chalayan's art works. He is very much a pluralist – when he was at Saint Martin's it was a more integrated place and the crossover between art and fashion especially was hugely productive. The critic Andrew Graham Dixon once said that Chalayan's work was "as close to contemporary art as you can get".

As well as running his own fashion business, the designer creates installations, sculpture and film, which he sells to collectors around the world.

Then, of course, there are the clothes, from carefully chosen fashion editorials – gathered from publications including The New Yorker (Richard Avedon), American Vogue (Mario Testino), V Magazine (Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin), Dazed & Confused (Sofia Coppola) and more – to catwalk imagery. It is well known that Chalayan's runway presentations have about as much in common with anything straightforward or conventional as chalk does with cheese. Consider One Hundred And Eleven (spring/summer 2007), with mechanical dresses that travelled through decades of fashion history in front of the audience's very eyes, or Panoramic (autumn/winter 1998) that took as its starting point nothing more obvious than Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus and, through mirrors and clothing that fused ethnic detailing with uniform, the limits of language and thought.

Given that Chalayan's shows – and indeed his ideas more generally – are ambitious to say the very least, it is perhaps not surprising that the fact that he also makes beautiful clothes has at times been overlooked – and even upstaged. For Readings (spring/summer 2008), bodices were embedded with radiating Swarowski crystals (the company has long supported Chalayan and is a title sponsor of the Paris exhibition). In Ventriloquy (spring/summer 2001), clothing made out of sugar glass was duly smashed to pieces centre stage. Most famous of all is the table skirt from Afterwords (autumn/winter 2000). It's small wonder, given their spectacular nature, that such show pieces have received more attention than even the designer himself might wish for. "The number of times I've seen that table skirt," he once said of the latter. "I mean, I love that piece, but it's only the tiniest part of what we've done. People think that creativity and commerce don't go together in my brand, but that's a misconception because we have always – always – made clothes that you can wear."

More pictures – of striped wide-legged palazzo pants, say, in Dolce Far Niente (spring/summer 2010) later worn by Lady Gaga on uncharacteristically soignée form, and a floral print dress from Sakoku (spring/summer 2010) are testimony, if ever any were needed, that Chalayan is a rare talent where this, too, is concerned.

Of course, Chalayan is no stranger to the gallery setting – he had shows at both the Lisson Gallery and Spring Studios in London only last year. The Paris exhibition, meanwhile, started life in 2009 at the Design Museum in the British capital and has since travelled to Tokyo and Istanbul, adapting to its setting in each instance. Sitting in a café not far from his Shoreditch studio 10 days before the opening, he says it is unprecedented, primarily due to its focus on clothes. This, after all, is specifically a fashion museum and work will be displayed in a more traditional way and predominantly in vitrines for the first time. "It's good for me to become part of that fashion institution discourse," says Chalayan, before going on to point out also: "The show's open in Paris all summer – a lot of people are going to see it."

And that is nothing if not timely. Earlier this year, the designer changed the name of his label simply to Chalayan, dropping his first name, he argues, because it facilitates recognition in a heavily branded world and because:"I like the way it looks".

As well as the main line there will be Chalayan Grey, a collection of more accessibly priced designs aimed at a younger audience, and Chalayan Red, which will only be available in Japan.

As befits a designer with his eye on more clearly commercial concerns, meanwhile, Chalayan's first fragrance, Airborne – he came up with the concept and the packaging, Comme des Garcons with the juice – is also set to launch. Packaged in a bottle that is engraved with a vintage Hussein Chalayan print of the Nicosia shore and skyline (the same appears in colour on the inside of the box), even this exemplifies the unusually autobiographical and narrative touch that characterises so much of his output.

"Because of my family life when I was a child, I moved around and readapted to new scenarios, and smell marked a big part of these shifts in environment," states the designer, whose parents separated when he was still young and who moved between London with his father and Cyprus with his mother from there on in.

"After selecting different elements such as neroli, lemon and lentiscus from Cyprus, I proposed an imaginary scenario as to how these ingredients could incur change during and after an air journey from Mediterranean Cyprus to a London urban setting."

As for the name? Chalayan's continued interest in flight has its roots here, too. "I spent so much time on planes as a child."

Hussein Chalayan: Fashion Narratives is at Les Arts Decoratifs, Paris, July 7 to November 21,; Hussein Chalayan, by Hussein Chalayan, with contributions by Judith Clark, Susannah Frankel, Pamela Golbin, Emily King, Rebecca Lowthorpe and Sarah Mower is published by Rizzoli; Hussein Chalayan, Airborne, launches at London's Dover Street Market later this month.

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

    SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

    Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

    £85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

    Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

    £55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering