break it down: hussein chalayan

Still think you can’t honour your creative vision and find success? Clearly you haven’t met fashion designer Hussein Chalayan (well, neither have I, but that won’t stop us from analyzing his playbook).

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1970, Chalayan moved with his family to England in 1978 and studied design at London’s famed Central Saint Martins. He immediately raised eyebrows with his 1993 graduate collection, called “The Tangent Flows,” which included clothes that he buried in his backyard and later dug up to exhibit. Struck by the strange beauty of his vision, luxury London retailer Browns snapped up the whole collection and displayed it in-house.

The publicity spree continued when Chalayan won a fashion competition sponsored by design-forward liquor brand Absolut. The win meant that at age 25, Chalayan was given approximately £28,000 in financial backing to develop a collection for the 1995 London Fashion Week.

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His reputation for avant-garde, intellectual, rigorous designs grew and Chalayn soon connected with the famously eclectic Icelandic singer Björk, who wore a Chalayan jacket on the cover of her 1995 album, Post, and donned several of his pieces throughout her Post tour.

For the next three years, Chalayan was a design consultant for New York knitwear label TSE. He also designed for Marks and Spencer, worked with Italian clothing manufacturer Gibo, and served as fashion director for Asprey, the British jewellery and luxury goods company, all while designing and showing his own label. He was also named British Designer of the Year for 1999 and 2000, and in 2006, Chalayan was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

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What’s most impressive is that Chalayan has had serious low points to match all those career highlights. When TSE terminated his contract in 2001, it forced Chalayan into voluntary financial liquidation. He refused to go down without a fight, however, and restructured his company to design a comeback collection later that year. In the following seasons, Chalayan had to move his studio three times and at one point, he worked from home with his entire team before relocating to Paris.

Collaboration has always been a key part of Chalayan’s creative ethos. He’s designed laser LED dresses with Swarovski and in 2008, he was named the creative director for sports lifestyle brand Puma — just to name a few of his more famous match-ups. He’s now partnering with Susie Crippen of J Brand Jeans. And if you’re after more highbrow credentials, Chalayan’s work has been exhibited at London’s Design Museum, The Tate Modern, The Contemporary Art Museum in Tokyo, the Musée de la Mode in Paris, New York’s F.I.T., and at the 51st International Venice Biennale, among others.

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The position

Chalayan’s name is synonomous with experimentation. He’s the futuristic designer who has sent models down the runway in self-undressing clothes and repeatedly pulls from world politics, science, culture and technology to produce creations that blur the lines between art, fashion, performance and culture.

The math

Talent and audacity

After spreading himself — and his finances — too thin in the early 2000s, Chalayan stripped his business (if not his designs) back to basics and refocused his brand. He continues to produce collections that challenge and inspire. You never know what to expect from Chalayn, and everyone from well-heeled fashion houses to sneaker companies are eager to leverage his modern, in-your-face creative attitude and technical skill to boost their own cool quotient.

Will he go too far with the commercial collaborations? That’s a matter of time and opinion. For now, Chalayn provides a terrific model of how to stick to your creative guns and still build a career that works. And if you fall down, return to your original vision and think hard about what really matters. Then get right back up again.

spring 2007 ready-to-wear

posted 5 May 10 in: business, fashion, inspiration, media, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.

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