Hussein Chalayan: Sartorial Sultan
Hussein ChalayanIntellectual rigor is the reserve of few designers. Turkish-born, English-educated Hussein Chalayan is one of them. Like his futuristic laser dresses, the twice-crowned British Designer of the Year and recently appointed creative director of Puma is light years ahead of the fashion curve. Little wonder he rejects the word "retrospective" to describe From Fashion and Back, his new exhibit at the London Design Museum (January 22 – May 17, 2009); it's merely the first comprehensive presentation of his work in the UK. Spanning fifteen years, the show explores Chalayan's trademark themes—cultural identity, portable architecture, mechanics, aviation and migration, to name only a few—as well as the various short films and art projects he's directed, all of which point to a singular vision, an artful combination of wearability and technology. The morning after the launch, I caught up with my longtime friend in his former stomping ground of Covent Garden to discuss all the things that make Hussein Hussein. By Haidee Findlay-Levin
Not so long ago, we walked together in the streets of New York and discussed your name. You asked if I thought "Hussein" could be perceived negatively by customers there.

Yes. I thought about dropping part of my name, to shorten it.

Now we are in a completely different moment, with a newly elected president who shares your name. How do you feel about it now?

Yeah, the Islamic name connection, whatever that means. I don’t believe that someone’s name should be a hindrance. There was a particular store in America that thought my name came across in a negative way. That was how the idea even entered my mind, and only then did I start to think about the need to change it. And in my case, it also has to do with length. Sometimes I think that I should just be called Chalayan, which is just a Turkish name. Maybe this way it sits better as a brand and there is less to read.

Hussein Chalayan
From Fashion and Back, London Design Museum

Politically, we have seen quite a turnaround…

It’s ironic that one minute there was Saddam Hussein being executed and the next minute Barack Hussein Obama is being inaugurated as President. This is what’s great about America. It shows that anything is possible. America has such liberal institutions, which, if used in the right way, could make it the most modern country in the world. Now with Obama, I think there is real potential to start fresh. I still don't know if all this really affects a designer like myself. Hopefully those who buy my clothes don’t look at my name. They look at what I do. Although, I am sure that if Calvin Klein had been named Rabbi Eisenstein, he would have a difficult time selling his clothes!

Which brings me to one of the major themes reflected in this exhibition and regularly in your work: identity, migration and displacement. I have always known you to have this curiosity for who we are, where we are and where we came from.

Hussein ChalayanI come from such a mixed geography. It’s really a soup. My genetic pool consists of so many different cultures. Because nation states are always trying to create a homogenous culture, I have always been interested in finding out what we really consist of. Everyone knows us as merely Turkish Cypriot or Greek Cypriot, but actually it is an island that was conquered by so many people. That’s what creates this quest.

And then there's your move to England.

Exactly, I have come from one multi-ethnic place, Cyprus, to another multi-cultural life in England. And here, there is a sense that immigration has happened much more recently. In Cyprus, immigration has happened over such a long period of time. We're really children of the Ottoman Empire, which was a very hybrid empire. The sultans were marrying Russian, Italian and Polish women. In the harems, women were exclusively non-Turkish, so already there was a hybrid culture happening then. Perhaps that will happen in England, too, in a few hundred years.

That comes through in your work. For me, and for a lot of people, the experience of watching your shows is very emotional.

Yes, because I am very emotional.

And yet they are quite technical and technological. How do you manage to reconcile the emotional with the technological? Which comes first?

I am both an emotional and rational person. I am really split between the two. I start a collection emotionally, and then my reasoning makes it happen. I have this storytelling, poetic part of my brain, and then the functional side takes over to physically realize all those ideas, along with my team. This comes from my mother’s family, the idea of looking at things and reading into them. It’s a bit like coffee-cup reading. Looking at something and giving it another interpretation is something I inherited. But I learned how to do things through my British education. (cont'd)

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