Man of Mystery Hussein Chalayan Opens Up—Just a Little

For close to 20 years, Hussein Chalayan has been one of fashion’s most enigmatic designers, defined as much by his high-concept designs as the questions they raise. “Is it a table or a skirt?” “A hat or an oversized crustacean?” “Did Lady Gaga really knock off that bubble dress?” Cross-referencing fashion with notions of sculpture, architecture and science, Chalayan’s aim has been to keep people guessing.

Three new projects go a long way in explaining the man of mystery: a solo exhibit at the preeminent Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; a fragrance collaboration with Comme des Garçons; and the publication of a massive monograph, a painstaking process that Chalayan says took almost three years. Of course, answers have a way of inviting more questions—and we have some…

Airborne, the name of your new fragrance with Comme des Garçons, is arriving in stores now. What can we expect?
We started the process by dissecting all the possible smells from the northern Cypriot topography, from flowers, weeds, vegetables to air, the sea, earth and wood, and where possible their burnt and fresh variations. After selecting different elements, such as neroli, lemon and lentiscus, I proposed an imaginary scenario as to how these ingredients could incur change during and after an air journey from Cyprus to a London urban setting.

If you could only bring back a single scent from your memory, what would it be?
Airports and travel. I moved around a lot when I was a child and so had to readapt to new scenarios frequently. Scent marked a big part of these shifts in environment. It fed my sensual and historical curiosity, and as I am an innately curious person, travels fuels it further.

How does it feel to be the subject of a museum exhibit? And at the Arts Décoratifs in Paris, no less.
It’s of course a huge honor to have my work presented there. It will be my first solo show of a large scale in Paris so it’s a great privilege. Being part of exhibitions is not a burden. It’s another way for an independent label such as mine to reach a larger audience by exposing them to my entire body of work.

Also new for you is your book with Rizzoli, which contains family photos and images handpicked from your archive. We’ve always heard creating a book is one of the most grueling tasks for a designer. What was the process like for you? What was the most challenging aspect?
The most challenging aspect was to make it more a personal publication. I wanted to share the process more than most books and also to share the evolution of the Chalayan brand.

The best creators are often said to be their own greatest critics. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert reportedly spent hours agonizing over a sentence (that is, when he wasn’t fending off STDs). How true is this sentiment for you?
Yes, I agree to a certain extent. After every project and collection is finished I can always spot things that could have been improved. I feel the work is never done. I can recognize there is amazing work in my collections, but I usually see my pieces as prototypes for further development. But in a way it is a good thing as it means I keep learning.

Which collection do you consider to be your personal Madame Bovary, aka your masterpiece?
I think my masterpiece is in being an independent label, the ability to compete against large fashion conglomerates and doing it on my own terms.

You’ve been rather vocal on the subject of celebrity collaborations with fashion houses. Have you changed your mind?
I understand that celebrity collaborations sell, but I think it’s all dependent on who and what they are designing for.

Is it safe to say that the muse is a moot point for Hussein Chalayan? Have you ever designed with an ideal person in mind?
I like the idea that anyone can wear my clothes, be it somebody who is simply interested in culture and enjoys fashion as an art form, or somebody who just wants to look sexy and feel empowered.

What does a typical workday look like for you?
No day is typical.

And a question we’ve been dying to know. Who is Leyla and why is she so sad?
“I Am Sad Leyla” is a song that was composed in 1940. It tells the story of Menjun and Leyla, a couple who were madly in love. But as Leyla’s father did not allow them to get married, she married another. Menjun went mad and was forever sad, and so it evolves from a simple tune into a dramatic statement about life and loss.