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Dissolving dresses and LED screens: Hussein Chalayan's brand of innovation

Story highlights

  • Hussein Chalayan is one of Britain's most celebrated fashion designers
  • His work will be included in the Met's upcoming exhibition "Manus x Machina"
  • He has often worked with Swarovski to create memorable show-pieces

(CNN)Fashion designer Hussein Chalayan sees himself as "a weaver of different worlds". Drawing inspiration from design, science and art, he is one of the industry's most celebrated and intellectual talents, having come to prominence in the 1990s with a graduate collection that he buried with iron filings before presenting.

Now helming his eponymous label, he has previously had stints as creative director of TSE New York and Puma, and is currently on the design team at Vionnet.
    His innovative spirit has often translated into impactful show-pieces, used to convey complex themes of the wider collection. Audiences have witnessed garments that transform before their eyes, sculptural pieces that convey speed though stationary and dresses that dissolve with water.
    Such "wow" moments may be what he is generally known for by the public, but his showmanship is underpinned by skilled craftsmanship and an ability to translate narrative.
    With pieces having been displayed in London's Design Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Palais du Louvre, in Paris, it's easy to see why many feel his clothes blur the lines between fashion and art. In May of this year, he will be featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, as part of the exhibition "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology".
    We spoke to the designer to find out where his inspiration comes from and his thoughts on fashion's status quo and future.
    CNN: Some people may think of you as a futuristic designer -- what would you say in answer to this?
    Hussein Chalayan: I think there's a difference between being considered a futuristic designer and being an innovative designer. They are two different things that people mix up. You could be on a farm, using natural materials and be incredibly innovative without using a single bit of wire, electricity, fuel or metal. So for me, technique and the way you think is what's interesting. I think of myself as someone who connects things that don't necessarily seem connected -- in different fields and cultures. So I guess I see myself as a weaver of different worlds, and I think the innovation comes from that.
    Innovation has been characteristic of your work from the beginning. Where does it come from?
    I think it's partly to do with my own innate curiosity and partly to do with the fact that I'm from a tri-, or even quatro-, cultural background. I sustain that by living in London and am surrounded by people in the same situation. The multitude of those cultures coexisting, definitely opens my mind.
    What influences you outside of fashion?
    I'm interested in behavior, in how different people think depending on where they are from. I'm interested in history, in sensuality and the senses that we don't use. I'm also interested in mysticism and things that go beyond rational thought and science. I think of myself as studying the world and while I do that I try to come up with ideas that maybe propose different ways of looking at something.
    You've obviously got wide ranging interests: why has fashion been your core discipline?
    The body is my central element -- how the body is used in expression, how certain cultures use the body and how they differ, or what I find in common within body language that you would usually think of as being very different. It is the central element of everything we do. Everything around you is an amplification of the body. I also I think it's magical how it can renew itself. You can cut yourself, or give birth, and you recover or heal. I think the kind of curiosity I have is not just mine, it belongs to a lot of people, I just talk about it and find the visual way of accompanying it.
    Speaking of visual accompaniments, show pieces have often been a characteristic of your work -- why?
    It's a bit like going to a restaurant and not caring about how something is presented, just eating the food and going. I like the shows to be a cultural experience because I think it's enriching. I'm excited about it so I want other people to be. But it's not always a "wow" show moment ... We've done very good presentations where there hasn't been a show moment.
    What about fabric technology? You've had a longstanding relationship with Swarovski...
    With Swarovski, my approach is always to come up with ideas that I think can work well with crystal and, in a way, make sure the ideas are in parallel. The more connected, or in parallel they develop, the more successful. It's much more interesting that we think of fabric and surfaces that are more integrated.
    What are your thoughts on the wider world of wearable tech?
    I think people who do wearable tech need to work with designers who understand the body. I like what it could stand for, but I never like it aesthetically. It's a bit like when architects do shoes, it always looks really masculine or plonked on to me.
    You are going to be part of the upcoming Met exhibition "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology". Tell us a bit about your involvement?
    I think the Met exhibition is really exciting. It's a great idea to be working on technology and the future in connection with fashion. For a big organization to undertake [something like this] is very exciting and unusual. I'm really happy that we'll be featured in it in ... I think it will also help open up this field to a broader audience, it's about time more people knew about it.
    Do you think we will ever see a redefinition of haute couture to incorporate technology?
    Of course, they could be integrated much more but I think it really starts with how fabrics are made. More work needs to be done on fibers that could be interactive or that can change depending on the situation. This integrated fiber weaving culture could lead to genuine innovation where things will appear seamless. You won't even know that something you're wearing can engage with certain mood levels, how it comforts or warms the body. There are steps towards that, so I think it will happen.
    Outside of fashion, what areas do you feel we need to focus on in terms of innovation?
    Obviously, it comes from dialogue. Right now that is what's really missing. You need to think about yourself not in isolation as there's a lot to be exchanged from other cultures. So, for example, if a designer works with a scientist or a microbiologist, I think you're going to get much more innovation than if you work with people who are similar to you. It's all about mixing with or creating a dialogue with people that are different to you and actually maybe realizing they're not so different. So that's what I think the future is, dialogue, on all levels.
    Chalayan is showing its Autumn-Winter 2016 collection today at Paris Fashion Week