But the one-time wunderkind turned éminence grise is eager to look forward, not back.
By Elizabeth Paton.
LONDON — Sometimes, Hussein Chalayan — designer, film director, professor, architect, choreographer and showman — thinks it is a miracle he is still standing.
Next month it will have been 25 years since the 48-year-old first burst onto the fashion scene with his inaugural runway show at London Fashion Week, part of a much-lauded enfant terrible generation that included the likes of Alexander McQueen. That debut came just months after Tangent Flows, Mr. Chalayan’s graduation collection from Central St. Martins consisting of oxidized garments buried in a friend’s garden and left to decay for several months, was bought in its entirety by the fashion boutique Browns.
Since then he has won awards and held high-profile creative directorships, railed against the system, gotten investment, returned to independence and flirted with bankruptcy. There has been reverence for his use of technology, from the creation of dazzling dissolving dresses to skirts that turned into coffee tables and to the futuristic womb in which Lady Gaga arrived at the 2011 Grammys. Ever the industry outsider, he has received plenty of criticism, too. Now, on the verge of the next quarter-century, the one-time wunderkind is turning into an éminence grise. Can he really make peace with it all?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Do you care what people think of you?
Every creative person should ask themselves that question. Does it matter to be liked all the time? I do think you have to have a certain amount of confidence in your vision: Ultimately designers have to do what they are interested in and not purely work for other people. I don’t base my happiness on inclusion. People like to pigeonhole other people but Chalayan is not a traditional brand or selling basic clothes. We are about alternative luxury, not mass-market appeal.
Still, I do hope people will like what I share. I want them to buy from me, to feel more confident in my clothes and that the garments might add something to their lives. For designers to say they don’t care at all means they are in a bubble. Ultimately we are interdependent creatures. That said, I learned long ago that it doesn’t help to constantly compare yourself to others. In this business, it will make you crazy.
How do you feel about the forces reshaping the fashion industry?
There have been a few. One has been the move into a digital era and arrival of social media. Another has been the emergence of celebrity designers; the idea that if you have any power in the media then you can become a designer or creative director, simply by employing a silent team beneath you.
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But the biggest change — for me, anyway — has been the rise of big conglomerates buying up fashion houses. It has massively shifted the balance of power among designers and that has been really challenging at times. Suddenly a massive injection of cash is invested into your equal and rival, who could go and open scores of shops or enter new product categories. That happened to me with Lee [friends called Mr. McQueen by his first name].
And yes, it boosts the growth of businesses with retail and products but the demand to produce and sell so much is so artificial and accelerated that it doesn’t really correlate with the creative momentum of most designers. There have been success stories, of course. But many people got investment before they were ready, and there have been plenty of cases where people either professionally or personally imploded. The boom in nepotism in fashion has had a hand in killing a lot of the industry’s creativity.
So you are not in favor of the system?
The industry favors all the same people and it is really boring, from stylists to photographers to designers — the same designer musical chairs in the same big groups even when individuals don’t even fit the roles they are given. There is a lot of cowardliness, too. People are scared to speak out so they just go along with the status quo. And that can be frustrating. If you only ever work with the same people, and are loyal to the same people, and never open your eyes to others, how arethe others supposed to blossom? It is safe to say I haven’t really ever made myself part of the “club.”
Have you regretted that?
I’ve done stints and learned a lot from those periods. I was creative director of Puma in 2008 when it was owned by the Gucci Group [now, Kering] and the group bought a majority stake in my company for a time. It was probably the nearest I got to something really long-lasting. If we were part of a big group, we could have grown a lot bigger. But it has always been about finding the right partnership for me, not a deal that could eventually make you explode. We took on new investment from Centricus in 2017 and that has been fantastic. I think ultimately in my case I have been very lucky because I am a crossdisciplinarian. My work has kept me with a foot in other worlds, be it through art in major galleries including Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the Louvre or the Design Museum in London or the theatrical work I have done at Sadler’s Wells. I am very thankful for that and all it has given me.
How hard is it to be continually creative on what you have described as “the industry treadmill?”
I find it really crippling. Why do we need the product quickly and so much of it? Why can’t we do less and of better quality? What I do try and find every season is a consistency to my design even when the themes are different. And to consider my clients — which became much easier when we opened our shop [in London], actually. It was so rewarding to finally discover the people who actually wear your work and what they are all about.
How much time have you spent worrying about money?
We are competing against mega-brands that contain vast armies. And you can have ambitions and vision but without resources you can only go so far. After awhile, it has to plateau. The strongest emotion that comes to mind when celebrating 25 years in the fashion business is pride that my team and I have managed to survive all this time, considering the hardships. Our budget today is so small, 20 times less than many other rivals, but we are still telling our stories.
What do you think of the next generation coming into the industry?
I don’t think they take enough risks. The way they use social media is very exciting but the downside is a crippling fear of making mistakes. If you don’t take risks, nothing happens. You just stay static.
There is a lot of young talent out there. Lots of them are working very hard, behind the creative directors at some of those big houses. I think it is about time we get to know them. We need to empower those people. Empowerment has preoccupied me a lot lately. London isn’t good at that. It is very focused on giving birth to designers but historically it hasn’t been very good at nurturing them all the way down the line. They need more support in things like manufacturing and distribution if they are going to survive.
What are your plans for your anniversary and the next 25 years?
A really nice dinner. And a few references to past works in the upcoming show. But I am not doing anything too mind-blowing. Anniversaries can be contrived because time carries on and I don’t want to dwell on the past. I want us to reach new people, retail environments and product categories. To build a foundation where we can look after and share our archives. I want to do more collaborations, especially with the art world. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.