In Conversation With Hussein Chalayan: Gravity Fatigue, Celebrity “Designers” and Using Technology in Fashion

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.

chalayan_13423chalayan_133891Chalayan-Exterior-Cropped_2Hussein Chalayan’s flagship is primarily a store, but will also host events, dinners and shows on a yearly calendar

Hussein Chalayan speaks at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 11, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED
Hussein Chalayan speaks at TED2015 – Truth and Dare, Session 11, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

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.

hussein running orderThe “Gravity Fatigue” running order, from the Sadler’s Wells show program

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

tumblr_mjawygVHp11rra1j7o3_500The technical underpinning of a dress from Hussein Chalayan’s SS07 collection

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.

 

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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.

e592b57220502c04dbc54360ea63bf85Sketch by Hussein Chalayan

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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.

backstage_9 copybackstage_11 copy backstage_12 copy backstage_13 copy backstage_16Chalayan S/S16 

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.

Gravity Fatigue is going on tour.  Keep up to date with news, launches and events here>> Chalayan website Twitter and Instagram.

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I Was Passed Over For a Job Because I’m a Virgo: Astrology, Pseudoscience and Fashion

“Why can people become fashion designers overnight but not architects?” asked Hussein Chalayan in our interview last week (to be published in full next week).  Because our industry has been cheapened and the discourse around it is not serious, was his explanation – one which I fully accept.  An article I read in the Evening Standard’s “ES Magazine” last night proved that point, and then some.  Fashion has sold itself short by celebrating ‘overnight’ celebrity designers and buying into (pun intended) pseudoscience.

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The ES article written by Stephanie Theobald entitled “Signs of the Times” reported on fashion’s apparently growing obsession with the zodiac and astrology.  Not astronomy, astrology.  I have nothing against people choosing to indulge in fantasy for fun, but when it is used as a tool to define groups of people and put them in shopping categories according to star sign-based ‘personality traits’ that’s when I get incensed.  Not only because they’re wrong about the traits and personal style (astrology is completely made up and is not based on any proven science) but because it further cheapens the fashion industry, especially with the bizarre suggestion that fashion designers’ work is being informed or driven by astrology and star signs.

zodiac 2 2ES Magazine article “Signs of the Times” 

Selfridges’ Christmas windows represent the twelve signs of the zodiac and their christmas shopping offer extends to selections based on star signs.

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12105717_10153237753315678_6968959552349349389_nSelfridges Christmas windows in the theme of the zodiac

Cue my disbelief and horror, especially on seeing the Virgo selection, which is particularly bland and couldn’t be further from my personal style.  No doubt it’s a successful marketing strategy (and the windows look spectacular) but the zodiac being considered anything other than fantasy grates.

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The “Virgo Edit”

Notions of alchemy and recent claims that textiles and leather garments can react to brain waves are similarly fantastical and do a disservice both to science as a discipline and fashion’s strides to work with and integrate real and believable technology into design.  Enough of the gimmicks.

A strange and frankly bizarre situation arose recently when during a job interview, the interviewer – a design director of a well-known mid-level fashion brand – asked me three questions about my star sign.  He actually opened the interview by suggesting that it must have been difficult for me working with a well-known virgo designer at a previous consultancy job and asked how I managed the working relationship on that basis.  I explained that this designer had not worked there during this period, but he proceeded to ask two more star sign-related questions.  He suggested I must be a very determined person (his body language suggested difficult) with strict attention to detail (his body language this time suggesting obsessive).  Suffice to say, the feedback from my agent was that the interviewer felt that he didn’t have a connection with me right from the off.  Wait, was this a relationship proposal or a job interview based on the professional assessment of my skills and aptitude?  As I was fully qualified (hence being invited for the interview in the first place) I have deduced my star sign was at least partly my downfall.   After I hung up the call from my agent on hearing this feedback I thought to myself, “only in fashion would this happen”.  Would an architect be judged based on their star sign?  Would architects be categorised according to their star sign and judgements made about their character on such a flimsy basis? Doubtful.

What is the difference between Astrology and Astronomy? Broadly speaking, Astrology is a pseudoscience based on the search for human meaning in the sky.  Astronomy is the scientific study of the sun, moon and stars, which means experiments are conducted based on hypotheses and then theories and if proven they are published.  These proven theories are tested and the experiments recreated by other scientists in the field, meaning that the scientific community verify the proof and then do more experiments based upon that proof to expand our understanding of the universe.  The key difference here is rigorous academic study and proof.  Up until the 17th century astrology was studied and contributed to the development of astronomy, but scientific discoveries made after the 17th century proved that astrology’s notions of the sky having a magical effect on earth and human beings were false and therefore astronomy’s academic study ceased.

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MoonGownAna Gonzalez’s Astronomy-inspired gown

If your Christmas present is from Selfridges and seems like an odd choice made arbitrarily, it’s probably because it was chosen according to your star sign, not you.  Thank goodness for refunds.

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Noma’s Food Language, GPS-Tracked Garbage and the World Exclusive of Pussy Riot’s Dismaland Music Video. It must be WIRED 2015, Part 2!

Continuing in the theme of Artificial Intelligence (covered in part 1), Carlo Ratti presented some exciting work from the MIT Senseable Cities Lab.  Standouts were a trackable waste project where members of the public brought in 3000 pieces of garbage which were then fitted with GPS sensors and tracked, with alarming results.  Some objects made it across America and were still on the move after two months.  The project increased awareness of recycling and changed participants’ garbage disposal behaviours.

Carlo then demonstrated that the implication of self-driving cars in the future will extend beyond safety (eliminating human error – the cause of over 90% of road traffic accidents) to reducing congestion.  Traffic lights would be eliminated and a slot-system used by interconnected cars sensing each other’s position to avoid collision.  The potential use of one self-driving car to drive all the members of a family (and their friends/neighbours) to their respective destinations, blurring the lines between private and public transport, is an interesting prospect too.  With such a system, cities could meet all residents’ current transport requirements with only 20% of the number of cars that are currently on the road, based on journey research done in New York.  Imagine the reduction in traffic, congestion and improvement to air quality?!  Lastly, Carlo showed us a video of UAV-enabled app, SkyCall, created to respond to requests from MIT visitors to guide them to whichever room number they tap into their app.  The UAV talks the visitor though the sights on campus along the way. On a campus with hundreds of rooms scattered over a vast area it’s a cool idea.  I wonder if it could be used for events; Directing people to the correct seat at a fashion show, or the theatre, perhaps.  Check it out here:

The afternoon session was opened by Rene Redzepi and brought culinary adventure to proceedings with a detailed foray into the scientific experiments of the famous Danish restaurant he co-founded, Noma.

Noma create flavours.  They seek not to use ingredients for dishes but to make building blocks of flavour that can then be combined to create either a sauce, or a dish.  It’s akin to writing a new food language, with the building blocks being new words (new flavours) and the combination of them (the sentence) being the dish, as explained by Noma R&D chef Lars Williams, accompanied by Arielle Johnson, flavour scientist.  Fermentation is what underpins this language, and through a series of taste tests they demonstrate that fermentation is a cooking utensil at Noma, rather than simply a technique.  It is their chief mode of experimentation and gives rise to new and complex flavours that develop over time.  Lars explains that these new flavours cannot be manufactured.  The ingredients are controlled precisely in DIY vessels they made out of shipping containers that have a range of minus 50 to plus 60 degrees and exacting humidity control.  It’s a fascinating insight, and given that it’s a non-profit initiative serving only 45 covers for each of their lunch and dinner service, it’s admirable.

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IMG_6064Cute illustrations by flavour scientist Arielle Johnson

We were given a goodie bag of vials from the Noma kitchen to taste during Lars and Arielle’s talk, one of which contained fermented grasshopper garum, which had a fishy miso-like flavour.  Here’s how Lars makes it:

Here’s Noma’s story in the words of Rene Redzepi:

The food-inspired architects responsible for the following imagery, Christopher Pierce and Christopher Matthews take food and turn it into materials, shapes and schematics for buildings and landscapes.  Their imagination runs riot and gives rise to a world of food-based experiments that result in fantastical architectural plans.

IMG_6084The moving urban farm plan, Copenhagen

IMG_6091 Architectural plan for a city decomposing left to right

The images below are from a project to create architectural plans from leeks.  The leeks were dehydrated in an oven and into which porcelain was poured to reveal the dried layers inside, to stunning effect.

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For more information about the two Christophers projects click here

The perfect punctuation for these meaty (sorry, I couldn’t resist) talks was live music curated by Denzyl Feigelson, founder of AWAL, including breakthrough Brit artist Izzy Bizu, who is currently touring with Rudimental.  She came over to say hi after her stunning performance of White Tiger to let me know my knitted outfit and multi-coloured platform trainers had caught her eye whilst she was singing.  I promptly dispensed my card so keep an eye out for Izzy Bizu in Brooke Roberts Knitwear.

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A medical imaging treat came in the form of Neuroscientist Sophie Scott’s MRI scan of Reeps One beatboxing.  It’s a fascinating insight into the function of the brain during execution of complex sounds and the areas of the brain most active while generating them.  It satisfied my craving for medical images as an ex-radiographer of two months.

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The theme of Intelligence runs throughout all the talks at Wired 2015, whether derived from the application of AI or applied following analysis of Big Data, the future looks set to provide better healthcare, safer roads, cleaner cities and a more connected global community.  The day wraps up with a softly-spoken but defiant instalment by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot notoriety.  Although she didn’t speak on digital activism as billed, she lent a voice of independent thought and personal struggle.  She spoke of her belief in a life without borders and declared herself a citizen of the world.  Opening with a joke that went something like “When travelling, at border control the officer asks ‘Occupation’? I say no, just a holiday”.

Wearing a dress inscribed “Non Stop Feminist” and “My body is a battleground”, apparently echoing the words in artist Barbara Kruger‘s 1989 piece ‘Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)’ – a visual commentary on women’s rights over reproduction and the continued feminist struggle – she has an aura of rebellion and delivered a mandate based on living and acting outside the parameters of what she described as slow inert governments.  She cited technology as a tool for rebellion and free speech, which seems refreshingly simple after a day of high-concept tech and rampant futurism (not a complaint,  it’s just a welcome grounding moment to think of the here and now and reflect on where we are).

Reflecting on the talks and ideas shared today by the world’s game changers and askers of questions most of us have never come close to contemplating (until now), it strikes me how readily members of the art, architecture, science and technology communities collaborate across disciplines.  A chemist working with a chef at Noma, artist Eyal Gever collaborating with NASA on art in outer space, architects working with chefs to develop concepts for buildings and landscapes based on food, and the greatest thing is, the sum of the parts is richer, more surprising and arguably more legitimate for having sought beyond the boundaries of its own discipline.  It makes me wonder; why isn’t the fashion industry more eager to collaborate with those from other disciplines – scientists, architects, engineers?  The idea of legitimacy is a complex one, but it does seem that having outside input and therefore sharing credit for the design and presenting a collective rather than singular ‘vision’ is something fashion designers and perhaps the industry at large is very uncomfortable with.  In fashion, the Creative Director / Design Director is seen to possess the singular vision and takes all credit, making collaboration from an equal (and opposite) professional seemingly unwelcome.  I feel fashion’s the poorer for it.  You only have to look at the discomfort and awkwardness of the current FashTech/wearables offering to see that the fashion and technology industries are not really collaborating yet.  The most innovative strides being made in the fashion industry are in sportswear brands like Nike with their groundbreaking “Flyknit” trainers, which are a fusion of shoe design, creative coding, digital industrial knitting and engineering.  Another example is retailer Marks and Spencer, with their technical textiles and antibacterial, non-iron, machine-washable, teflon coatings that withstand years of abuse.  For all the hype about ‘creativity and innovation’ in the fashion industry, the visible and lauded designers aren’t leaping into the future, innovating or really questioning what is possible and trying something new.  They are not ready, or willing, to take the collaborative steps to do so, it appears.  The open source aspect of science and technology is a practice fashion could benefit from.  How do we learn and grow if we don’t share and question what we do?  How do we solve complex problems when only looking within the realms of what we already know rather than seeking the perspective and skills of other professions?

As I finish writing this article I get confirmation that Hussein Chalayan has agreed to an interview with me to discuss his contemporary dance collaboration at Sadlers Well, Gravity Fatigue and his work as a fashion designer.  So I’ll prepare to eat all of the last paragraph’s words, thankfully!

Nadezhda closes Wired 2015 with a world exclusive of the new Pussy Riot music video for “Refugee In” shot at Banksy’s Dismaland.

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And with a hop and a skip, she’s off!

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