I have read many an interview with the world’s most credible and era-defining fashion designers and often they’re unrevealing. Not so with Hussein Chalayan.
Against the backdrop of high-profile industry exits by Alber Elbaz (Lanvin) and Raf Simons (Dior) there is widespread recognition that all is not well in the top tier of the fashion industry. Who knew? There were shockwaves throughout the press. Cathy Horyn’s interview with Raf Simons weeks before his exit (but published afterwards on Business Of Fashion) in which he confesses there is no time to explore and develop his designs (meaning that creating product quickly was his mandate) was a hint he was strained. Alber Elbaz’ lamenting that we are not looking and listening with eyes and ears but rather consuming via technology, was also poignant. Hussein and I discuss these exits briefly and he admits he was so swamped working on his contemporary dance piece “Gravity Fatigue” that he had not had a chance to read the press response to the news. Hussein says he believes Raf will be much happier, that he’ll have a life. Hussein explains there is a point at which you have to ask yourself how much money do I need and what is it all for?
Hussein’s myriad of professional responsibilities include designing eight collections per year for Chalayan and seasonal collections for Vionnet, and in addition he is Head of Fashion at the University of Applied Arts, Austria. This year he presented his aforementioned contemporary dance piece (almost two years in the making), opened his flagship store and gave a TED talk. He is full of energy, by his own admission. I realise he speaks with definite authority on the notion of overworking and keeping a balance between earning and living. He said he sometimes thinks it’s a stupid thing to be busy – although it’s a choice – and the quality of his life has been terrible this year because of his workload.
The reason for my interview with Hussein is to discuss “Gravity Fatigue” and the use of technology in his work. What unravels is an unexpected discourse on the fashion industry, why there are too many designers, how the fashion and technology landscape has changed over the past 21 years, celebrity “designers” and why fashion has such a problem giving credit to collaborators.
Hussein Chalayan’s latest incredibly ambitious piece is “Gravity Fatigue”. A feat in movement, sound and costume, it was borne of dormant ideas Hussein has kept in files from the past decade and beyond. This makes complete sense given that the piece plays out as a series of scenes, each with it’s own style and narrative. Hussein explains that the ideas are a combination of notes, sketches and subjects sparked by his interests. Citation of specific sources is impossible because the organic, evolutionary nature of his work, coupled with his broad interests, leading to an intersection somewhere between sociology, architecture, art and the world’s sciences. Hussein sums up the collection of proposals for “Gravity Fatigue” as originating from a “World View” collated from his 21 years working in the creative industries.
What’s so ambitious about Gravity Fatigue, beyond the fusion of contemporary dance, costume and fashion design, is that Hussein directed the piece – a completely unorthodox approach in which most choreographers would refuse to partake. “Usually the choreographer is King” states Hussein. However choreographer Damien Jalet accepted this role reversal. The creation of the piece began with four workshops (the exploratory phase) followed by two months of intense rehearsals giving rise to many a creative and technical challenge and many tears.
The fact that Hussein’s initial ideas and premises are those expressed in the final piece is testament to the dedication of his collective team, including Jalet and the thirteen dancers, to realise what he had envisaged for up to a decade or more in his thoughts, notes and sketches. Hussein explains the challenge ran so deep and so intense that he and the team are experiencing a severe anticlimax now that it has ended. I ask if the process was filmed and suggest that it would have made an interesting documentary. The rehearsals were filmed, says Hussein, so a documentary is still possible.
The collaborative nature of “Gravity Fatigue” required integration of costume design in the Chalayan studio with prototypes built by outside specialists, followed by movement back and forth between teams until the desired aesthetic and function were achieved. It’s a dizzying thought, considering the number of people and specialisms involved.
There are scenes driven by technology, like “Secret Gliders” where the dancers recoil in response to the sharp movements of their draped dresses careering along the floor, orchestrated by invisible mechanics from below the stage. This scene makes me think of wireless puppeteering – It’s a struggle and a fight between the movement of the body and the costumes, which are being manipulated by an invisible third object or force. The piece as a whole is at its most captivating when this tension between the body, its movement and the costumes is ramped up.
I mention the whirling dervish scene, entitled “Body Split”, and Hussein explains that the dervish was not the initial trigger. They looked at the pattern of movement of a dervish but the final movement was a hybrid of other ideas. It is one of the most impressive and moving scenes and gives rise to multiple silhouettes and epic sustained spinning by the dancers.
My thoughts jump to the final scene transforming from “Hong Kong Heights” to “Anticipation of Participation” – a group fabric and clothing orgy with dancers dipping their toes into a pool before intertwining and being sucked into a turbulent centre. Grabbing at each other and failing attempts to escape, it was a tense and disturbing close to a show of many ideas and concepts executed as a number of parts on multiple journeys, rather than a narrative whole. Again, this is in bold contrast to the usual contemporary dance offering and demonstrates how Hussein Chalayan’s work innovates and pushes boundaries.
On the night, reflecting on the crowd and the lively chatter outside the theatre, it’s clear that “Gravity Fatigue” was a challenging piece. By breaking free of the usual continual narrative of contemporary dance Hussein created a piece led by diverse and broad ideas, bringing a crowd of people who are appreciators of his fashion design to Sadler’s Wells – perhaps a first for many. It’s important to reflect on how this can catalyse further cross-disciplinary work and stoke the fire for fashion designers to look beyond fashion, both in terms of inspiration and practice. Hussein was amongst the crowd outside the theatre afterwards. It didn’t occur to me to tell him during the interview, but it was on seeing him talking with audience members that I understood he is open to sharing the story of his work and realised I had to request this interview. It occurs to me at this point that Hussein’s work is so influential and important because it invites dialogue. It provokes questions and offers unexpected answers. We can consider the meaning and answer for ourselves.
We talk about the historical use of technology in Hussein’s work and he explains that it has been right for the given project at the time – not simply for technology’s sake. I ask him about the differences between the industry now and when he began using technology in his garments. In his opinion, the biggest difference is that when he began working on such collaborative projects, they made prototypes that were essentially proposals that required funding and additional R&D to become wearable clothing. He feels that now it is easier to realise the final functional product after prototyping. This explanation reminds me of Golan’s Frydman’s comment, in the Fyodor Golan blogpost, that there is a tradeoff between truly innovative Fashion/Tech product creation and the provision of investment and time by technology collaborators. It seems this is still a sticking point to some degree.
Hussein says he sometimes feels like a motivator in the field of technology and fashion design. He believes that he, McQueen and other contemporaries have inspired a whole generation of designers to actually become designers. When people see what he has done they realise what is possible and this is a catalyst for replication and further experimentation, which he says is a good thing. It has led him to analyse what he has created, what worked, what didn’t work and what’s redundant.
CHALAYAN AW00 PHOTOS CHRIS MOORE
We talk about collaboration and recognition in the fashion industry and how teams or collaborators are often not recognised or credited for their input. Hussein believes that the image or status of the project can take over due to the popularist energy around fashion. This means that fashion is experienced as an event in itself and that comes first. I ask if this is to fashion’s detriment. He says yes and no. Collaborators and contributors can publish their involvement on social media, meaning that their participation is recognised more now than it would have been in the past.
On the subject of digital media, Hussein points out that it has allowed us to find out about anything instantly. It’s more democratic, however it makes designers more vulnerable as their work is visible more quickly. I ask Hussein if he thinks the democratisation of fashion through digital media is a good thing. He says it’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that anyone can access a breadth of information. It’s bad in the sense that information becomes disposable, having a cheapening effect. It also doesn’t allow exploration, says Hussein, “you can just Google anything and you’ll find it, so you don’t research and appreciate it”. We discuss the process of library-based research taught traditionally in fashion degrees where exploration is done through books in a broad sense before later developing, curating, fusing and refining ideas to bring a unique perspective – the hallmark of individuality sought by designers aiming to express a personal point of view and grow throughout the design process.
Images from Hussein Chalayan’s first print campaigns
I listened to Hussein’s recent interview with Dezeen. He said there are too many designers, not that he is against the emergence of new designers, he simply states that to launch a brand you should have a point of view. He feels there are too many designers creating similar fashion. He also says that designers are entering fashion because of a perception of it being a cool thing to do and that they sometimes the lack dedication and work ethic to meet the demands of the industry. As a teacher, I believe he has seen this first hand – I know I have.
In continuation, he asks “Why do we need so much product?” I suggest it’s to meet growing consumer appetites. He points out that the appetite has been stoked by brands to create more and more product to boost sales and therefore fill coffers. In summary, it’s because of financial greed. I agree that this cheapens the process of design and muddies the industry.
I ask Hussein “Why fashion?” – It’s his love of movement, of clothes and how they can alter and re-appropriate the body. “I think the body is the ultimate cultural symbol in the world” he says. It is Hussein’s belief that you can work like an artist when making clothes. He sees it as a study and although he participates in the fashion discourse, he views fashion as a broader activity. He does not see fashion as a frivolous thing sometimes brought about by celebrity “nonsense”, by which he means celebrities claiming to be designers overnight and cheapening the industry. Why doesn’t that happen with other disciplines like architecture, he asks? You can’t become an architect overnight, so why a fashion designer? Fashion is a hub with many sides, but most people know the tabloid or popularist side and for that reason it’s thought of as frivolous. He cites fashion academics Caroline Evans and Judith Clark as spokespeople for the credibility of fashion and feels that if more people like Caroline and Judith were involved in the fashion discourse, the collective opinion of fashion may change and it’s view would be held alongside disciplines like architecture. He believes fashion is as valid as any other discipline in which the discourse is more serious, it’s just that those who cheapen the fashion industry have a loud voice.
Interviewing Hussein Chalayan is like fashion nourishment. It’s stimulating, illuminating and enlightening. Off the record we chatted about my recent marriage, work, fusing medical imaging and knitwear, our families and long overdue holidays. Of course I thought of a dozen more questions I’d like to ask Hussein after I left the Chalayan studio, but will patiently add them to a filed list, neatly in keeping with Hussein’s penchant for filing ideas, notes and sketches for a later date. But let it not be a decade or more before I have the chance to ask them.