Often concerned with selling product more than creative design, the leaders of many fashion houses focus on what's safe and marketable. Not so with Hussein Chalayan. Combining art, technology, design and architecture, this maverick is more Dali than Dior; more Alvar Aalto than Azedin Alaya.
His creativity runs wide and deep. Not only do his clothes incorporate innovative materials techniques, but his shows, sometimes comprised of video footage only, are so unique, they often provoke whoops and applause from even the most jaded front row fashionistas. From his 1993 graduate show at Central St. Martins in London, which featured dresses made of silk that had been buried, decayed and exhumed, to his outstanding One Hundred and Eleven show of S/S 2007, which stunned the fashion world with dresses that peeled themselves off, expanded on, and even completely disappeared from models' bodies, Chalayan never fails to awe.
But he doesn't just aim to shock, or even to merely innovate. His designs have a sharp intellectual edge and offer an astute commentary on modern life. For example, refugees escaping the war in Kosovo inspired his F/W 2000 show entitled After Words, in which the clothing transformed into the kinds of possessions those displaced by violence would either try to salvage or completely lose. The folly of men at war was also the messageof his S/S 2002 collection, Ventriloquy, where the colour red, evoking both blood and poppies, dominated.
In addition to political commentaries, Chalayan has also made some bold religious statements. One of his earlier collections, Burka (1996), challenged the notion that Muslim women had to cover themselves in the name of modesty. Here, he presented models wearing burkas of varying lengths, the shortest of which left the model naked but for a face covering. The effect was powerful: no matter how exposed (or covered up) the models were, none of them seemed to have a personal identity as long as their faces were masked. Perhaps it even prompted some in the audience to examine self-concepts such as individuality, negation of self, gender and religion.
Despite regularly confronting social conventions, Chalayan also has a playful side. As a child, the designer aspired to be a pilot, and aviation still fascinates him today. He's experimented with materials used for aeronautical design, artfully incorporating them into delicate dresses, hats and jackets for his Before Minus Now show. His Airborne collection featured LED technology and Swarovsky crystals to create clothing reminiscent of a runway, and his Readings collection went further with the use of light, generating a spectacular show with over 200 lasers embellishing covetably sexy dresses.
Although he just entered his 40's, this designer has already been the subject of several museum shows, most recently including a major retrospective at Paris's Museum of Decorative Arts. His nearly twenty years in fashion have provided more than enough exciting material, and it seems that more will soon be on the way. In an interview with Design Museum (London) in 2009, Chalayan said, "I have long term interests which I want to explore. I feel that with everything to date, I am just at the edge of the work, I could take projects a lot further. It is difficult to create anything that is long-lasting, you would have to make it your life's work. I see my work not in terms of collections but in terms of projects, and I want to continue to work on these as an inspiring base for the clothes."
If his past body of work merely constitutes the "edge" of his long-term vision, fashion enthusiasts the world over can eagerly anticipate the genius that is to come from this maverick.
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