You don’t have to be a regular at the Serpentine Gallery’s achingly cool annual summer party to know that the worlds of art and fashion collude in ever more explicit, and prosperous, ways. Galleries lead the urban regeneration of run-down neighbourhoods that become the new centres of bohemian mischief. Catwalks acquire the kind of audacious conceptual playfulness that would make Duchamp’s experiments look like Constable landscapes. London has led the way in the promiscuous flitting of designers whose chief imperatives are to be loved, to be new and to be seen.
Now at the Lisson gallery comes an exhibition from one of the most daring figures from this twilight world: Hussein Chalayan, purveyor of sci-fi fabrics, wooden skirts, the fashion designer for whom the phrase “ready-to-wear” has never seemed entirely appropriate.
Chalayan’s avant-garde credentials are impeccable, right from his justly famous 1993 graduation show from Central St Martin’s, featuring garments that he had buried in the ground to observe the chemical interaction between the ephemeral and the earthly-elemental (the collection was bought en masse by Browns), to his 1998 “Between” spring-summer display that showed models in various states of undress, covered successively by parts of a chador.
The video of that not uncontroversial show makes riveting viewing, and could easily have been part of a gallery installation, festooned with portentous labels over Chalayan’s genuine interest in east-west dialogues, rather than part of a simple fashion collection.
But then the words “simple” and “fashion” rarely come together in descriptions of the Turkish-Cypriot designer’s work. “I have always been ideas-led,” he tells me over coffee in Clerkenwell. “I have never thought of a garment differently from the way I think of, say, a film. I give them both the same attention. I used to think of fashion as an industrial process, whereas art is supposed not to be. But art is going that way too.”
Perhaps surprisingly, but not to those who follow his unpredictable ways, his new piece at the Lisson is not directly related to fashion. “I am Sad Leyla” is an installation that features a performance of a traditional Turkish folk composition by Sertab Erener, one of Turkey’s most successful female singers, accompanied by an Ottoman orchestra.
The work mixes audio, film, sculpture and musical notation. Hussein says he is interested in picking apart the various cultural influences – Persian poetry, Greek orthodox chanting, central Asian motifs – at play in the work. A de-construction of his ethnic heritage? “That’s too obvious a word. I like the image of a piece of music as a body. And I am disembodying it. It is such a layered piece, you can detect 10 to 15 different cultural things going on.”
It is also a reminder that being Turkish “is a political, not a racial definition”, he says. “The piece comes from hundreds of years of migration, cross-breeding.”
Chalayan is more than familiar with the strife that ethnic cross-pollination can bring. He was born in Nicosia in Cyprus in 1970, moved to England with his parents, but returned in 1975, by which time the city had been divided in the wake of the previous year’s Turkish invasion of the island. “We only grew up with the smell of it,” he says of those clamorous events, “but it was very much in our lives.”
I ask if the Lisson installation refers back to some of those childhood memories. “They are innate,” he replies. “I was inspired by what I remember of Turkish culture back then – how everything was imbued with this institutional feel. It was to do with the Kemalist state, everything was geared towards this sense of nationalistic precision. There was something Soviet about it.”
He describes it as a “stripped-down show”, not overtly related to his fashion work, but not without its visual moments either: “It is almost as if each moment should be enjoyed like a piece of jewellery.” He leaps to another analogy: “It is a framing device, framing something that already exists. How you choose to frame something: that is what a lot of my work is about.”
London is both the perfect home from which to explore these issues, and the perfect venue for the show, he says. “Being here helps me dissect where I come from. It is like crossing to the other side of the road to see an amazing building.”
His adopted city also hosted Chalayan’s most important exhibition so far, last year’s expansive survey of his work at the Design Museum, which also toured to Tokyo and is currently on show at Istanbul Modern. He seems a little bit in love with the city that bestrides the Bosphorus (“it’s the best city”), and a little disenchanted with London (“it never seems to hang on to its own talent very strongly”).
I ask how he combines the worlds of art and fashion, and his rapid-fire response suggests it is a question that plays permanently on his mind. “Well, you have to use clothing. So something can be conceptual, or narrative, or visually charged, but it also has to be an item that you can use. But right from college, I didn’t just want to do nice tops. I wanted to work in a more monumental way.”
But the imperative to sell consistently surely made fashion a more challenging environment?
“The business side of fashion is super-difficult,” he confesses. “You have to rely on the loyalty of buyers. If you don’t sell one season, the next one is difficult. And the worst part of it is that fashion’s existence is based on the seasonal calendar, which is absolutely absurd.”
For someone like him, who loves to experiment with fabric technology (he is currently creative director of the sport and leisurewear company Puma), “you can’t keep coming up with entirely new things twice a year. There are techniques that you will use for a few years. If you want to take techniques further, you just can’t jump around that fast.
“I think our lives are a lot harder than [those of] artists. We have to constantly produce, we have financial restraints, we have to fund the production. It’s really tough.” Chalayan has already had to liquidate his company voluntarily once, when he split from a previous partner. “If you are asking me if I get a return, culturally speaking, the answer is ‘yes’, but as a business we are relatively small. It depends what you want from life.”
He is, in any case, perfectly happy with the blend of his activities. “I must be the only person who can sell a film to a collector, and then put the money into a new [fashion] collection” – both of which have brought him acclaim. He was British Designer of the Year in 1999 and 2000, and represented Turkey in the Venice Biennale of 2005. He attributes his cross-disciplinary approach to his education in London. “Central St Martin’s was a proper art institution, fashion just happened to be one of its departments. It was a fantastic place in which to understand the body in a cultural context. We were like body artists, but we also had to learn how to make our clothes sell. It’s like someone who wants to be a film-maker but has to go into advertising to survive.”
Of the worlds of art and fashion, he says they are “as cliquey as each other. I used to put the art world on a pedestal, but it is so market and money-driven now. You meet more interesting people in the art world, because fashion people tend not to question the world around them that much. But they are as power-driven.”
There is a rare pause as he considers his upcoming exhibition. “You know as far as my fashion business goes, if it can just run itself I am happy. But I do just love doing these projects.”
‘I Am Sad Leyla’ by Hussein Chalayan is at Lisson Gallery, London, September 8 - October 2. www.lissongallery.com