Born: Huseyin Caglayan in Nicosia, Cyprus, 1970. Education: Highgate School, London; St. Martin's School of Art, London, 1989-93. Career: Launched own company, Cartesia Ltd., in 1994; designer, Autograph at Marks & Spencer; designer, TSE Cashmere, New York, 1994-2001; designer, Topshop, London; company liquidated, 2000; relaunched own label under his name in 2001. Collections: Senior year collection, St. Martin's School of Design, displayed at Browns, London. Awards: Absolut Vodka's London Fashion Week award, 1995; Designer of the Year, British Fashion Awards, 1999, 2000; British Designer of the Year, 1999, 2000.
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Among those fashion designers considered intellectual or avant garde, Hussein Chalayan has the distinction of having been dubbed both a genius and the mad professor of British fashion. A thoughtful designer of collections with purity of vision, integrity, and wearability, he is often counted in company with designers like Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela.
Chalayan's collections consistently challenge familiar notions of fashion while still succeeding in being elegant and beautiful. His work is inspired by the interfaces of technology, science, culture, and the human body. His more conceptual designs are often sculptural, with pieces like the aeroplane dress, molded of glass fiber with a remote-control panel, a tiered wooden skirt doubling as a table, and dresses of sugar-spun glass making their appearances in various shows. While in school, one of his professors suggested he switch to sculpture. If he had, the fashion world would have lost a unique voice whose work blurs the line between art and style with evocative and sometimes brilliant results.
Shortly after graduating, Chalayan started his own line, also doing collections for TSE of New York, Autograph at Marks & Spencer in London, and a line for Topshop of London. Although his clothes are available at high-end venues like Browns, Harvey Nichols, Harrods, and Liberty, he has worked in cross-media, designing an installation for London's Millennium Dome, doing collaborations with a variety of other artists and designers, and having his more sculptural designs exhibited in art galleries. He is reticent of the fashion scene and is not given to courting celebrity power.
A designer of ideas, Chalayan is also a designer of clothes to be worn. Though some critics judge his work as too eccentric and heady for actual people to wear, an examination of any given Chalayan collection belies this sentiment. Although several high-concept pieces will usually anchor one of his collections, they are accompanied by finely cut, deceptively simple, eminently wearable garments. This kind of commerciality with pure vision at its heart is not a common commodity in any field of design, including fashion; consequently, Chalayan's praises have been much sung by the press, his work well respected by other designers. As one fashion journalist put it, "Watching a Chalayan show is like listening to Mozart. It is moving and magical, always with a hidden meaning, which to detractors sound pretentious." A theme common to all of Chalayan's collections is the body itself, in relation to various aspects of the world we live in from space, religion, and cultural mores to technology and war.
His fall 2000 collection, which included the table skirt, was inspired by the designer's thinking on the wartime impermanence that finds homes raided and families forced to flee or be killed. At the end of the show, the living room set on the catwalk stage was turned into dresses and suitcases, and off the models went, with their homes on their backs. Also included in this collection were finely tailored coats with unexpected draping, highlighted in white piping, creating a sense of volume, depth, and luxury, as well as elegant dresses in lush colors, and full, layered skirts and tops, exposing a hidden layer of ruffles at cutouts in the hem—all extremely wearable garments. In another collection, underlining the constraints imposed on women by the Muslim religion, Chalayan created chadors of varying lengths and sent the models out wearing nothing beneath them, drawing attention, inescapably, to the fact that beneath the delimitations of the garment there are living, breathing women. Indeed, Chalayan's models almost always wear low-or flat-heeled shoes, and there is a decided emphasis on grace and dignity over the overt sexuality of high-heeled couture in his designs.
A unique and elegant futurism achieved through complex cutting and a clean architecturalism are the hallmarks of Chalayan's collections. One spring collection offered splashes of sweet color in crisp, off-the shoulder dresses and deceptively simple frocks with multiple gathers. Another delivered these features in starker shades with smock dresses of fine pleats, pieces made up of pleats within pleats, mesh overlays, and sharply tailored jackets. Other innovations and contributions that Chalayan's idea-driven design have produced include unrippable paper clothes, suits with illuminated flight-path patterns, long knitted dresses with built-in walking sticks, pleated "concertina" dresses, cone and cube headdresses, designs based on experiments, flight paths, abstractions of meteorological charts, and a host of exquisite, minimal, subtly draped works.
At the end of 2000, due to some mishaps with manufacturers and despite rising profits, Chalayan took his company into voluntary liquidation. The collection he designed in the interim between liquidation and the relaunch of his new label were described as "hugely desirable" and "timeless." The collection came from Chalayan's meditations on journeys and maps. Shirttails emerge briefly from under a skirt's hips, a white cotton shirt turns into a dress, meteor-streaked inserts distinguish tailored coats—all part of the designer's idea that "there's a progression that carries over from one piece to another." Taking the conceptualization further, into the consideration of personal journeys of identity, Chalayan addresses the subject of cultural assimilation with clothes like wool jackets inset with fragment of denim and leather.
Speaking about this "map reading" collection, the designer sums up the dichotomy that marks his collections, that fashion is both intellectual and relevant, "I'm fascinated by the idea of cultural assimilation, the way people transform their identities and how other people see that as a threat. Actually, in some ways, that's irrelevant. You don't need to know any of that stuff to wear these clothes. All you need to know is how to enjoy them."