While Chalayan was in Hong Kong after having the honour of closing the Audi Fashion Festival Singapore, Electric sekki had the chance to sit down for a quick chat with the designer before press interviews at his I.T Hysan set-up in Causeway Bay. Known primarily for innovative work such as his transforming wooden table skirt, his bubble dress and his light-up LED skirts, Chalayan is perhaps surprisingly also an incredibly astute businessman with a keen eye on the industry and a deep understanding of entrepreneurship. Of course, sitting down to chat with such a man was conducive to delightful conversation where he offered tidbits about how designing for him is in some ways analogous to cooking a curry, as well as his insights on how the change in the media landscape has influenced the public's perception of his work. I mean, if that doesn't get you chomping at the bit for more, we don't know what will!
You just had the honour of closing the Audi Fashion Festival; how did you find your experience there?
It was my first time in Singapore and it felt to me like the Switzerland of this region in that everything is calmer and maybe not as exciting as Hong Kong, but it's still very much a future city, so I felt that it was interesting to be there. They were very accommodating, very professional and it was very exciting. I would have preferred to have all Asian models, but I couldn't because there just weren't enough models!
Have you spent much time in Asia? This is your first time in Hong Kong, correct?
Yes, this is my first time in Hong Kong. The place I've been to a lot is Japan. And Thailand. We've always had quite a good business in Japan from the early days, so I feel like I know Japan really well. But you see the difference here in Hong Kong. I mean, definitely, we can sense it's the new power! I feel like Japan is super-refined and very sophisticated. I think it's very formal--more formal. I feel like there is definitely a connection between Hong Kong and Tokyo, but it feels to me like Hong Kong is almost a combination of New York and Tokyo, plus steroids! Yes!
Let's talk a bit about your Fall/Winter 2013 collection. One of the highlights of the collection were the transformative dresses; at the end of your show, I even heard from many a show-goer that it brought them to tears. How did you come up with this idea?
Really? Well, the whole thing was about the idea of escaping the body; the body escaping itself and then being held back, so it was like a reluctant spirit that doesn't want to leave. So the clothes were always about moving away, but being held back, so that's why we had these layers that shift. Those clothes were really about transforming from one idea to another; you would change the identity of the wearer, in relation to the theme. Transformation and metamorphosis has been something that has been in my work for a long time. I wanted it to be done in a very low-tech way, so it was actually quite a difficult thing to achieve. There were no wires, nothing; it was just about someone pulling [a string]. We had to experiment a lot until it was right. I also liked the idea that you can, on a practical level, do it in such a way that you can actually wear it that way; you can actually wear the dress and change it in the evening because you're going out.
For me, it almost seemed like a full circle from that wooden skirt that you made that transformed into a table. Did you see you it as a culmination of all those years from that initially very innovative design and now taking that idea into something that is a little bit more wearable?
I think that, yes, it's a good way of looking at it. I'm trying to purify my ideas more and more. I think there's a thread that runs through all the work and here, in this last collection - Rise, it's called - definitely metamorphosis was something I looked at; you know, how butterflies change from the worm to the butterfly so, essentially, I'm always looking at movement, looking a process within a movement, and taking one bit of it, almost like a still from a film. I think I've been working this way for a long time now, so what's nice is to simplify, purify and make it more practical. A lot of the time I'm looking at my old work, as well, because there are timeless ideas that I can take again and do it in a new way. I've been doing this now for 20 years! It's our anniversary next year. I've been at it for a while.
I think it's interesting when you talk about purifying your ideas these days because, to a lot of the press and the industry, you're considered one of the last remaining truly innovative and creative designers, whereas a lot of designers these days have succumbed to commercialization. That is the world that we live in now. How do you exist between the two?
It's challenging because we've actually always made very wearable clothes but, when I started in the mid-90s, there was no digital media. Nothing like what you guys are part of now! We would wait six months for a thing called Collezione, which was this Italian magazine that they print - they still have them - but we would wait six months and then go, "Oh, wow! They gave me four pages! Brilliant!" So, the newspapers used to choose, always, the pictures of the showpieces in order to sell their papers, so we then got known as "avante garde" designers but, actually, there would only be about three pieces in our collections that were like that. I spent most of my time - and I still do - making really wearable clothes and working on sleeve heads, collars, technical stuff, you know? Because that side of our work was always chosen for printed paper in this way, our image evolved in that way. So when then digital era came, it was better for us, because it meant people could see the whole collection in one go. While I'm having my interviews backstage after the show, it's already out there online! But because we started that way in the 90's, our reputation still remained "avante garde" because of what happened before. In a way, we have not become victims, let's say, but we are really effected by that transition. So what happened with us was that I felt the press was supporting our showpieces, but the actual industry was looking at the collection. So this has been this peculiar thing for us. Now what's happened is that they've joined. In a way, now, because people can see the collections so quickly, I feel like both the press and the buyers can see the whole lot in one go and there's no separation, because we were spending so much time making the collections with pieces that you could really wear but were still very interesting, but the printed papers were only interested in things like the table skirt. But that was only one part of what I did! In a way, it's better now.
That's fascinating, because for someone like me who's on the outside, I look at the situation and think maybe you've changed your approach to design, but actually, you haven't changed; it's the media landscape that's changed.
Absolutely. I mean, I've changed a little bit in that I've decided in the last years not to make too many showpieces because there's another thing that's changed for us, and that's that I've been having a lot of museum shows and, actually, what's great with our collections, in my opinion, is that we sell in stores and I really care about how it's made - I spend a lot of time thinking about how it's finished, how it's made - but then there are pieces that are also collected by museums; more show-y pieces. So that need to have the peak of the show is sustained by museums and collectors. There is this duality, which I think is quite unusual. It's not very common. I've had six museum shows and they're all art museums, which is very exciting. The last one was in Paris two years ago in the Musee du Louvre. It was a big deal for us. Apparently, after Vionnet - who is a dead designer - it was the best-attended show.
Yes, I was going to say; so many designers' exhibitions only happen once they've passed away, but you're in a unique position where you are still alive!
Yes! And they were very happy with the attendance and they extended it, in fact. So there is this other side to our brand which, I think, makes it more special, because there are so many other designers out there. Until recently, I've shown less showpieces because I felt it was taking away from the collection that I thought I spent a lot of time on and I thought was beautiful. So, in a way, I decided to tone it down a little, but they were never boring. There was always something happening. Then, the last few seasons again I decided to put the more showpieces in again, like the transforming dresses. But it's a balance.
You're not a stranger to challenge and struggle. Over the years, you've suffered through a lot and fought to keep your label alive. I think you've already spoke a lot in the past about that struggle, but what I want to know is what keeps you going? What keeps you motivated after so many years? Because you've been through a lot of hardship, I think.
Well, I'm 42! I could probably be your dad. How can I put it? Even when we were having hard times, I remained positive and there were a lot of things that were based on choice. It wasn't ever so bad - I mean, of course, I had stress - and we are in a difficult business. The worst part of our business are the financial restraints. That's the worst part. If there were no issues with time and finances, this is one of the best jobs, but because there are restrictions with money and time it can be a stressful job. What kept me positive was that I felt you only live once, so I always tried to find new ways of thinking about how I could survive. I wanted to do it without asking for money from family or anything like that. Somehow I think it's also been about renewing the work. I'm someone that always likes to move on and so even though the collections have parts that will repeat, it's always done in a slightly different way, we always add a new element so that you can keep the momentum. I mean, the buyers always want something similar to something that has worked, so you kind of repeat that, but you add something new. It's like cooking a curry; you add new ingredients in, but you keep the old ones in there too to give it the flavour! In a way, it's always been about always trying to move the collection on.
You've also fought very hard to remain independent.
Yes, that's very important to me. For a very short while, we were partners with PPR [Editor's note: now Kerring] but it stopped and we couldn't take it further because the crisis came at the same time in Europe, the financial crisis. In a way we didn't pursue it properly. We did it for about two seasons and then there weren't any budgets because they were cutting them down left, right and centre. But I remained the Puma Creative Director for five years and that just ended recently so that's how we went around that, because that was one of the deals and we said, okay, we carry that on. It was actually a good project for us.
I know you have to get going so I'll just ask one last question, because I think it would be interesting for our readers to hear about how you're merging the Chalayan Black and the Chalayan Grey lines into just one line, Chalayan. Tell us a little bit about that.
We decided that, because of the way that people were buying the collection, they were mixing the Grey line and the Black line - the main line - so we thought because they were mixing we might as well put it all under one roof with three segments: entry, mid and higher. Because, essentially, my brand is an alternative luxury brand. In my brand, we always use double-faced, we use cashmere and tailoring so, of course, I have a lot of experience; I was a designer for TSE in New York, which is a cashmere house, and I was also Creative Designer of Asprey's in Bond Street, both three years each and I learnt a lot there. Actually, there is a technical side of my way of thinking and then the luxury side and then, of course, style and what I think is relevant so, for me, I think it's really important to keep the luxurious segment - the top-tier - the mid is, I guess, in between, and the entry is for people who are first-time buyers or our younger audience. We thought it was a good way of working.
But the Chalayan aesthetic is there through all price points?
It's all in there. Absolutely. And, in a way, I feel you can leave the rail with something you can afford or you can leave the rail with something you've saved up for or that you feel is an investment piece, so I feel it's a good balance. Also, I feel it's the way people dress now; you mix and match. You might wear a beautiful double-faced coat, but you might have a sweatshirt underneath. So I don't think it's all about wearing expensive pieces all together any longer; it's about looking at people buying, say, Uniqlo with designer. One thing, though, that I think you can't be cheap with is shoes. You always have to spend money on good shoes!
So the entry price-point pieces aren't a "watered down" version; they're pieces that will work with the rest of the pieces in the collection.
Absolutely no. I would not say they're watered down; I would say they're affordable because maybe the fabrics are a bit more playful, I would say they're a bit more "easy", but I never saw them as being watered down. The Grey line for me wasn't watered down, it was just that it had maybe a slightly younger audience, so I guess it's to do with being more playful. You know, I've got such a big repertoire of work -- you've seen our book?
And that's only just one part, you know? And, imagine, I've been doing it for nearly 20-years already!
Don't forget to head to I.T Hysan in Causeway Bay to check out his Spring/Summer 2013 collection and pick up a limited edition signed copy of Rizzoli's book on Hussein Chalayan's work.