In addition to being the fever dreams of fashion students the world over, these are some of the things Hussein Chalayan has created in the course of his prolific and irregular 23-year career: a mahogany table that turns into a skirt, a debut collection that was exhumed from a backyard grave, a paper-thin dress made to slide into the attached airmail envelope, and a robotic white dress that winds itself into a hat, leaving the wearer nude.
One of those rare fashion designers who, like the late Alexander McQueen, doesn’t show an inkling of risk-aversion, Chalayan has always teetered on the edge of the quote-unquote industry. Most recently, from his pokey studio in East London, the 45-year-old has made headlines for three achievements in quick succession. He choreographed a ballet for London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, with the dance determined by the aesthetics and limitations of the costumes he designed. He opened a Mayfair boutique that could pass as an art gallery. And at the spring/summer 2016 shows in Paris last fall, he showed a Cuban-inspired collection featuring floaty floral frocks along with two model “guards” dressed in militant white knee-length coats—which melted off them when they were showered in water midway through the show.
Any one of these would have made it a landmark year for most designers, but Chalayan has made a career of dabbling in unusual mediums and fields—with a signature filament of shock-and-awe running through his collections. His stylistic excursions have led him to direct a video of actress Tilda Swinton in a dystopian prison for the Venice Biennale, and to collaborate with artist Jenny Holzer to project text onto clothes. (His work, not surprisingly, will be included in this year’s Costume Institute exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Fashion people still talk about his final-year project as a student at Central Saint Martins, for which he buried silk dresses in a friend’s garden, leaving them for months before digging them up to reveal how they’d oxidized and partially decomposed. His résumé is peppered with stints at brands as varied as Puma and Asprey; he currently has a post at the small demi-couture French label Vionnet.
In person, Chalayan is as frantic and cerebral as you’d expect. The obvious question to ask him is how his disparate projects feed into the way he designs clothes. Take the ballet he choreographed for Sadler’s Wells last October. “I’ve used movement in clothes before, but this time, with the choreography, there was a new context,” he says. “The idea was that the clothes would become punctuation for the space, and that the movement would be affected by the way the space was built. The clothes’ lives extended into another life.” (Chalayan, as you may gather, is an ardent fan of the abstract.) While the average designer might have followed this up with a collection inspired by the ballet, Chalayan would never deign to be so literal.
“I’ve always had a broad range of ideas, but it’s always the same way of thinking,” he says. “It’s up to you to see the connection between [the ballet] and my clothes.” The ballet, created with the help of Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet, offered glimpses into the designer’s own backstory—particularly a piece called “Arrival of Departure,” in which male and female dancers spun out of heavy overcoats to reveal sequined dresses.
Inspired by Chalayan’s own peripatetic life spent between his native Cyprus and the U.K., “it’s a meditation on moving between two to three cultures,” he says. “It’s about the idea that we’re moving around so much that arrivals and departures cancel each other out. It’s liberating, but it also makes your sense of belonging feel vague or loose.”
You can see that same not-quite-anywhere idea in the Chalayan store on London’s sleepy Bourdon Street. “I wanted it to feel like a space within a space,” says Chalayan, who, with ZCD Architects’s Zoe Smith, accomplished this by erecting a black steel frame within the store; a narrow vestibule separates the frame and the front door. “The threshold zone at the shop’s entrance is an in-between space that marks the transition between street and shop,” Smith says. “The frame creates a distorted perspective within an existing perspective.” Because the tops of the steel frame slant downwards toward the floor at the back of the store, the whole place feels tilted—and the backgammon-patterned floor doesn’t do much to set things straight. “I always play with perception in my work, and I liked the idea of doing the same with the store,” Chalayan says.
Without its esoteric intentions, the store intrigues and even feels fun—especially compared to the golden-windowed, magnate-backed boutiques a few minutes away on tony Mount Street. The Chalayan shop’s main event is a 15-foot-long black wood boat that cuts through the middle of the space; the boat can be strewn with sweaters by day, and then unfolded to create a table for 12 in evenings. Behind it, set into the glossy shop counter, there’s a red digital timer that’s always counting upwards. “The red clock is a constant reminder of the fluidity of time, which I like against the inertia of the boat,” Chalayan says. “I wanted to create a sense of space and movement without being literal.”
As for the clothes inside, they’re not as out-there as you might imagine: pink cocoon coats and variations of the gauzy dresses from Chalayan’s Cuban collection, along with the occasional architectural peplum top. Peter Ting, a ceramicist and creative director who worked with Chalayan at Asprey in the early aughts, says he’s as impressed by the designer’s headline-grabbing clothes as he is by a single dress made of cashmere and tweed with a boatneck that never went into production. “I spoke to a friend who wore it,” Ting says of the piece. “The lining fit to her body, and the dress hung perfectly off the lining. I’m sure that is the mark of couture tailoring in Chalayan’s work.”
And yet a perfectly tailored dress has never been enough for Chalayan, whose name is freely associated with the likes of “oddball” and “outsider,” but also “unique talent,” in the words of Judd Crane, Selfridges’s director of womenswear and accessories. “It’s impossible to categorize him next to other British—or for that matter international— designers,” he says. “He has enabled British designers to be brave, and has inspired a multidisciplinary and questioning approach to fashion as a creative discipline.” The designer is indeed relentless in challenging the technological and conventional limits of clothing, sparing no expense. “It’s important to take risks because that’s how things move on,” he says. “I’m no hero, but I do think it’s important to try and push boundaries.” The downside of the designer’s no-holds-barred approach: his label has sagged, paused, and pivoted over the course of his career.
Today, whether because of the solidity of the flagship store or the hangover from 23 years spent making waves, Chalayan’s ambitions are more average than you’d expect.
“What I want to do next is to open more stores in different cities, and to start design- ing accessories,” he says. “I want to carry my ideas through to things you can access easier than clothes.” Even so, he’s guaranteed to surprise with at least a piece or two a season. He likes to say that 99 percent of his collections are wearable, and the remaining fraction experimental. “They create new pasts for future collections, and they lead to other things, every time.”