There was a time when high fashion was an élitist pursuit. Behind closed and gilded doors, the world's most gifted creators unveiled their twice-yearly collections and the limited press in attendance used any imagery that sprang from their presentations in only the most strictly controlled manner. Opportunistic copycats – and even way back when, they infiltrated such hallowed portals – were unlikely to be invited twice unless they were prepared to pay through the nose for the privilege. Now, though, even some of the most rarefied fashion is well understood by anyone with even a passing interest in aesthetics. And that is a good thing. The democratisation of design has made the world a better place to be.
With this in mind, while we may not all be prepared to invest hundreds, and even thousands, of pounds on a single garment, we are, for the most part, aware of the iconography generated on the catwalks and beamed across the world within seconds of its first airing – or, not unusually, live. Jean Paul Gaultier's conical bra, for example, is as well known to even marginally inquisitive eyes as, say, Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans. Ditto Vivienne Westwood's mini-crini, rocking-horse platforms and pirate pants. And while Hussein Chalayan may not as yet be a household name, he is the mind behind some of the most thrilling fashion happenings of the past 15 years. If many have still not heard of this designer, they may well be familiar with his most famous creation: a tiered skirt made out of nothing more immediately wearer-friendly than polished wood.
When, for the finale of his autumn/winter 2000 collection – it was called Afterwords – Chalayan instructed the Russian model Natalia Semanova to step into the centre of a circular coffee table that, until that point, had been part of a stage set, and pull it up around her waist and walk, anyone present knew that they were witnessing what is known as a "fashion moment". Furniture transforming itself into clothing in front of one's very eyes was a fashion first.
Since that time, any mention of this designer's name is likely to reference this particular occurrence. Given the finesse with which it was choreographed, and the perfectly harmonious proportions of the finished item, one might expect Chalayan himself to be quietly fulfilled, even proud of that. But no. That would be too simple by far.
"The number of times I've seen that bloody table skirt," he says, over coffee on an icy January morning. "I mean, I love that piece, but it's only the tiniest part of what we've done. If you have to feature it, feature it small, please. OK, it's amazing but I'm sick of the sight of it. People think that creativity and commerce don't go together in my brand, but that's a misconception because we have always – always – made clothes that you can wear. We have always, for example, cut a great coat.
"I think sometimes that those iconic images can be more of a hindrance than a help. The important thing is to feature the duality. It's not about one thing or the other; otherwise I wouldn't have a business. Often, you know, the B-side of a record is the best."
It may be a source of irritation – and, it should be pointed out, good-humoured irritation – for Chalayan, that over the next few weeks, the item in question is likely to become better known than ever. Tomorrow, the designer's first solo exhibition in this country opens at the Design Museum in south-east London and, given the gallery setting, it is this, along with other showpieces, that will inevitably attract the most coverage, over and above any more low-profile clothing.
If anyone's work is suited to a museum, then it is Chalayan's. Since he first came to public attention in the mid-1990s, his output has been considerably more ambitious than most, after all. In fact, home furnishings morphing effortlessly into garments is merely the tip of the iceberg for the Turkish Cypriot-born designer who has been brave enough, in his time, to explore both convent girl and covered Muslim, who has created clothing sprouting nothing more obviously appealing than internal body parts – cut out of fabric as opposed to anything visceral, thankfully – and whose work has dwelt on subject matter as diverse as mortality and climate change. Chalayan has suspended feather-light garments from helium balloons, crafted a dress out of fibreglass, which mimicked the wings of an aircraft in motion at the mere push of a button, and another with intricate seaming that echoed flight paths.
More recently, a single outfit metamorphosed from Victorian crinoline to 1920s flapper dress and silver, Space Age shift thanks to complex mechanisms built into its underpinning; another exuded a dazzling halo of dancing light, a result of laser technology, again embedded in its fragile and unfathomable structure. Not content with restricting himself to the creation of fashion, meanwhile, Chalayan's art projects have included a series of short films: Temporal Meditations, Place to Passage and Anaesthetics. In 2005, he represented Turkey at the 51st Venice Biennale with Absent Presence, another film featuring Tilda Swinton.
"What's exciting for me is that this is the first show of it's kind in London," the designer says today. "Because I was raised here, I was nurtured here, but although I've been part of group exhibitions at the V&A, the Tate, the Barbican, I've never had my own exhibition before." In 2005, Chalayan took over three floors of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands to celebrate his 10th anniversary in business, to considerable critical acclaim. "I've always had more of a showing outside London though," he continues, "and that is the story for all British designers. A lot of great talent comes out of this country but it blossoms elsewhere. The British are so cynical."
Chalayan – a self-proclaimed "idealist" – describes the latest airing of his work as "a jewellery-box of a show". Co-curated by Mark Wilson, who was also responsible for the Groninger exhibition, and by the Design Museum's Donna Loveday, the exhibition's design is the work of Block Architecture, also the brains behind the designer's Tokyo store. "There will only be about 35 outfits," says Chalayan. "It's quite small, but it might be that one room has one garment and another room has many. Or one of my films might be showing. It's really about my world, more than being a costume show."
And that world is a complex and multi-layered one. It's small wonder that Chalayan dislikes being pigeonholed. "You might say I'm an artistic designer, I suppose," he concedes. "So what? I'm definitely an ideas person. But I've never been interested in labels. They're only there to make it easier for people to understand someone's output. They're restrictive and mean nothing."
The only child of Turkish- Cypriot parents, Hussein Chalayan was born in Nicosia in 1970. He was interested in clothes from an early age. "I wasn't trendy or anything," he's quick to point out, as if that might be uncouth. "But I always liked to wear different colours to other people, to wear my hair in a different way." A respect for individuality, for difference, was part of his make-up then, as now, it seems. "I'm quite highly strung," he says. "I can't sit in a meeting for too long, for example. I have to walk around. Or at least stand up. I have to apologise because, well, it is rather odd, isn't it?"
He describes his mother's side of the family as "extremely dextrous. She made all my clothes and they looked like she'd bought them. Whatever she did, she did really well, and I think that set the standard for me."
He was, he remembers, an introverted child. "I spent a lot of time in Cyprus on my own, but there were always things I had a real passion for. I used to love building things, creating environments was such a big thing for me. And Cyprus, you know, is a Mediterranean island so it's very colourful. It's also a divided island, and I was fascinated by that. We could see the border culture, and you grow up with a curiosity for what's going on on the other side, but you can't actually see it."
He says that the mentality that arises from island culture still informs his work today. "I think that my curiosity has been my big drive. When you come from an island, there's an emphasis on wanting to explore because you're isolated. And that, coupled with any natural curiosity, is a fantastic recipe for an adventurous mind."
It is noteworthy that interviewing Chalayan is very much a two-way process. He asks as many questions as he answers, and his responses are as carefully considered as they are generous. Not for this designer the endless soundbites and hyperbole that, for better or worse, characterise most of his profession. Although he is meticulously well-mannered, he is far from backwards in coming forward where speaking his mind is concerned. When he was awarded the Designer of the Year prize, for the second time, by the British Fashion Council in 2000, he took the opportunity to bemoan the fact that Victoria Beckham, who had appeared as a model on Maria Grachvogel's catwalk only days before, had stolen the limelight from London's less-than-financially stable young designers. "I'd like to take this opportunity to say how disappointing it was this week that all the press were still so impressed by celebrities appearing on designer catwalks," he said. "That space could have been given to all the designers who bust a gut over their collections. It's Fashion Week, not Celebrity Week."
More recently, and on the subject of Kate Moss's collaboration with Topshop: "It would have been better for her to use her celebrity status in an area that suits her. To me, the Topshop collection is not enough of a reflection of her aspirational style," he said.
"I didn't want to be mean, you know, or to upset anyone," he says now. "I'm not a nasty person. I just say what I think." Chalayan also says what other people think but would never be courageous enough to put into words. "I actually don't think it's uncool to work with celebrities," he continues. "I think it depends who it is. Like, Jennifer Connolly wore something of mine the other day and so did Sarah Jessica Parker. If Pamela Anderson wore something of mine and made it look great, then why not? People assume that if you're articulate or have a few brains cells, you are also somehow uncompromising; that if you are passionate, you are a fixed person, but I'm actually very flexible, very open to ideas."
Aged 12, and following the separation of his parents, the designer travelled to this country with his father, a restaurateur, and still based here. It is the female members of his family, however, that always attract the most open expressions of warmth. He once described his mother to me as "the sweetest of mothers". His maternal grandmother is "poetic, she used to call me in song, we loved each other, it was a love affair. I have always been interested in women. I love women. My mother, growing up where she did, had so few opportunities, and that made me ambitious. I always wanted to make the best out of any talent or any passion I might have."
In London, Chalayan went to Highgate, a private school ("I guess it's like a child's idea of the army"), and then enrolled first on a foundation course in Leamington Spa, then on the fashion degree course at Central Saint Martins. Prior to that, he had considered a career as an architect."Basically, I felt that I had to do something linked to the body. Architecture was the first thing that came to mind because the essence of what's talked about – you know, the relationship between an environment and a space you create around something, with its social or physical connotations – is very much what I think about. When people talk about clothes, they don't do so in the context of society, in the social or cultural context, they just take them at face value. That's not something that interests me."
These were halcyon days for the celebrated art college. Alexander McQueen was the name to watch on the MA course. Katie Grand was soon to arrive and co-found the style magazine Dazed & Confused. "I sat next to Hussein," says Giles Deacon, who was in the same year as Chalayan. "We had a whale of a time. People think he's going to be this super-serious person, but he's got this really funny, gorgeous personality about him."
"People always say I'm serious," Chalayan confirms, "but that's so not true. I don't take myself seriously as a person at all." He pauses for thought before conceding: "I suppose I can be very arrogant and hard-headed, but I try to be arrogant for the right reasons, if you like. And I do take my work extremely seriously."
This has manifested itself from the start in the way Chalayan is motivated almost to the point of obsession. It is the stuff of fashion folklore that, in 1993, the designer buried his degree collection in a back garden to discover how it would decompose. That did not stop Joan Burstein, owner of London boutique Browns, from taking it in its entirety and installing it in her shop window, just as she'd done for John Galliano almost a decade before. In fact, the career trajectories of these two designers are not entirely dissimilar. Chalayan rose to prominence at a time when designer fashion was characterised by a buying spree on the part of luxury-goods conglomerates including, most prominently, France's LVMH and Italy's Gucci Group; anyone attempting to remain independent did so at their peril. A fledgling designer – even one as feted as Chalayan – could never hope to rival the advertising budgets and infrastructure of those corporate superpowers.
Chalayan, along with his contemporary, the more obviously media-friendly McQueen, began to attract an international following to London Fashion Week that was unprecedented, and yet he struggled financially, just as Galliano had before him. The older designer was at Dior by that time – he remains there to this day, and the parent company LVMH supports his signature line. McQueen moved to Givenchy – he is now in partnership with Gucci Group as is, following a stint at Chloé, Stella McCartney.
In 1998, Chalayan was appointed design director of TSE New York, remaining at the helm for two years. In 2001, he became creative director of Asprey for three years, launchin a quietly beautiful clothing collection for the jeweller. "It was a very difficult project," he says of the latter. "Very enjoyable, too. It taught me – as did my previous experience with TSE – about luxury product." What it failed to generate, however, was long-term backing for his own label, which has always eluded him. Until now.
In February last year, with the Paris collections in full flow – Chalayan has shown his womenswear in the French capital since the beginning of the new millennium – a press conference announced his appointment as creative director of clothing for the German sportswear brand Puma, of which more than 60 per cent is owned by PPR (Pinault Printemps La Redoute), a rival of LVMH. Chalayan's first designs for the company will go on sale in the autumn of this year. In return for his expertise, Puma has become a majority stakeholder in Chalayan's own company and is the title sponsor of the forthcoming Design Museum show.
"Hussein Chalayan is not only hugely creative but also has an incredible passion for fabric and technology," says Puma's CEO, Jochen Zeitz. "For that reason, we have a mutual understanding of one another. Only very few designers have managed to create a business on their own without being part of a big fashion conglomerate, and he has done that. But he has now come to the point, I think, where he wants to take the next step."
Puma's relationship with PPR means that Chalayan benefits from the infrastructure of the Gucci Group – the same Italian factories that produce, of course, Gucci but also McQueen, McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent and more, are now responsible for Chalayan's collections, too. "I became a designer to try to create a new language for clothes and another way to look at the body, culture, the environment, politics and so forth," Chalayan said when the deal was first announced. "Although our business has remained relatively small, this partnership will hopefully mean that my work will reach more people, both through designing for Puma and with the expansion of my own business."
To label Hussein Chalayan a "conceptual designer" would be to underestimate the importance he attaches to the fact that his clothes come to life when they are worn. "It's exciting to see the clothes being worn because then it becomes real," he explains. "I always think of the idea first, then about how I am going to represent it with clothes. I guess that makes me a conceptual designer in a way, although that is such a cliché these days. You're conceptual, you're avant-garde, whatever. The story behind a collection is only important as a vehicle through which I can become interested and inspired. At the end of the day, I don't want someone to buy a garment because they know the story behind it, but because it fits them, because they like the way it looks. I actually spend most of my time working towards that, looking at the lines of the body, at how to fit, at fabric. The concept is only the beginning. From thereon in, it's really all about technique."
Chalayan's clothes are often grouped with the more radical designers – Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela and so forth. His aesthetic tends to be more body-conscious than theirs, however. He may share a customer base with such designers in as much as his clothing is neither bourgeois nor status-driven in the conventional sense. It is also determinedly – exceptionally – modern. If Chalayan chooses to reference the past, it will be in an archaeological sense, as opposed to a nostalgic one. Not for him a Seventies-inspired collection one season, a homage to the Eighties the next. Chalayan's clothes, like Margiela's, possess an extreme sensitivity to, and even tenderness towards, the body within them.
"I can be rational but I'm also emotional," he says. "I like the clothes to have their own life. I'm excited when a composition that I draw or develop relates or reacts to the body. I like there to be a harmony with the body, for the clothes to be like a second skin. That, for me, is successful design."
If there is a single thing that unifies Hussein Chalayan's work, it is that it is cross-disciplinary, however. "Yes, my work references art, architecture, politics, technology, science, nature and philosophy, up to a point," he says. "My quest, in a way, is to identify the connections between different entities. In the end, though, it's important to remember that it's still fashion, and if it wasn't, I wouldn't be having this exhibition. What's interesting to me is the merging of all those different worlds."