Hussein Chalayan

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Photography by Hussein Chalayan
Photography by Hussein Chalayan

The latest personality to answer AnOther's An Intellectual Fashion, Hussein Chalayan MBE is one of the very few figures who have pursued, with equal success, a career in fashion and in the arts...

Hussein Chalayan MBE is one of the very few figures who have pursued, with equal success, a career in fashion and in the arts. As an artist, he represented Turkey at the Venice Biennale in 2005. As a designer, he is acclaimed as one of the most daring, elaborate and intellectual visionaries fashion has ever produced. His work has been exhibited extensively, most recently at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and in a book published by Rizzoli.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Fashion is a man-made construct and it is a code. Elegance is personal, you have it yourself, and you take it from yourself. It doesn’t necessarily have something to do with what you wear – it has more to do with how you wear it, and how you use your body. It is a behaviour as well.

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
In fashion, you can’t talk about history without talking about tradition as well, of clothing, of wearing clothes, of perceptions of the body. Most designers deconstruct it, continue it, or reactivate it somehow. History is always there, even if what we’re doing has no historical recognisability. In the past, artists and writers were very connected in a similar image of the body; but it got more and more separate in recent years. Back then, we had movements, which also included designers. If you look at the Bauhaus, there were people who applied its principles to clothing and fabric. It will come back round again, with more and more connection between fashion, furnitures, sculpture… But people don’t belong to movements anymore. We live in a competitive world, in which everybody wants to be an empire. Sometimes, I feel that I want to be part of a group of people that I can relate to.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
For myself, yes. But not in the general sense of the word. I don’t think there is critical thinking or discourse in fashion, like what you have in the arts, architecture, or design. There is a minority of fashion academics who look at it as a discourse, but they’re not part of the mainstream and they don’t, in my opinion, really have a very close relationship with the designers. A few of them do… In fashion, anything goes, anyone could be a designer, and I think that cheapens the industry.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress. Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
The body is the ultimate cultural symbol, whether you are empowering or dismantling it. How could it not have political implications? Even if you don’t want it to, it does. Because you are re-presenting body, or you’re re-packaging the body, or re-contextualising the body, it obviously has political implications, but I don’t really think that designers know when they’re doing it.

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style?
To be a designer is one thing, and to have a style is different. It is to do with the character you have in mind when you’re designing: who do you want to wear that thing ? What kind of image of the body, or image of the woman do you want? It’s very much inviewed by who this person is. Is she somebody that is interested in culture and likes fashion as an art for? Or is she somebody who just wants to look sexy and feel empowered in a way? It is one of those things that seem abstract, but you really envisage a character while you do it. And that’s your style.

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
Nothing. Fashion is very much instinctive. It’s a cultural instinctive pursuit. Designers are not, in my opinion, linguistic people, most of the time. They’re not trained like artists, who are able to articulate their thoughts, even though they’re visual people. A lot of designers become visual people because they’re not good at expressing themselves linguistically. If you are designer and you’re able to think critically, you will be seen as 'intense', as 'heavy', as 'weirdly undesirable', because most people in fashion don’t know that code, and the minute that they hear words like 'discourse', or 'perception', they find it annoying. In a way, their reaction echoes their own insecurity about that kind of conversation.

Critics have associated your work with "conceptual fashion". Does that seem fair to you ? How would you define the interaction between fashion and a concept ?
I think the term 'conceptual fashion' is awful and reductionistic. I am a storyteller, and I create processes, which involve a story, or a way of thinking, or an idea, so that it can help me to design. I think that to avoid the whole processes, just sit down and design a collection would almost be like nirvana. But fashion is also a product: the person who wears it doesn’t need to know what the process is. She can just enjoy the garment. And I think this is why art curators can have a problem with design: they think that because it’s design, it’s functional, it can’t have any artistic value. But actually some design can have more critical thinking than some art. For me, it’s only about ideas. If the idea is good, it can be expressed as a garment or it can be expressed as a film. No matter for me.

Your collections have titles, as if they were artworks. Why do they have titles, and how do you choose them ?
I always create an idea, which is then expressed into a theme. The title marks the territory of that project and relates everything that is part of it to that idea. I think of myself as an artist who happens to do fashion. And it’s not even meant in an arrogant way or a self-important way. But when I meet other artists, I think I have more in common with them than I have with other designers who are in fashion. It’s because my curiosity has lead me in that direction.

In this column each interviewee picks the picture that illustrates their interview, answers six questions that are the same for all contributors and then two more that are designed specifically for them. In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the graffiti artist, impresario and editor André.