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August 27 2014

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Hussein Chalayan on His “Unobvious,” “Intelligent-Sexy” Vision for Vionnet

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Hussein Chalayan

On the surface, Madeleine Vionnet—the 1920s and thirties revolutionary known for inventing the bias cut and creating elegant, sculptural, corset-free looks—and Hussein Chalayan—the conceptual daredevil responsible for the bubble dress, wearable furniture, and, most recently, his Spring ’14 hat-umbrella hybrids—don’t appear to have much in common. However, upon further inspection, the grandmother of modern dress and the cerebral Cyprian designer are remarkably similar—namely in their obsessive attention to detail, forward-thinking attitudes toward femininity, and refusal to be slaves to the past. Perhaps that’s why Goga Ashkenazi, who acquired Vionnet in 2012, tapped Chalayan to design the storied house’s demi-couture range. “I can kind of see why they asked me, because of my, let’s say, architectural approach and my interest in geometry,” said Chalayan, whose first Vionnet collection will hit the runway on January 21 during the Couture shows in Paris. “I like to do work that looks new rather than referential. So I think it’s a good collaboration, to be honest.”

Since the announcement of Chalayan’s appointment last week, his forthcoming take on Vionnet’s philosophy has been hotly anticipated. And it will be interesting to see how his presence at the house affects its stature. After laying dormant for more than sixty years, Vionnet was awakened in 2006, and saw a veritable revolving door of designers—some of whom, to put it nicely, didn’t do its namesake justice. Since buying the struggling brand, Ashkenazi (who, in addition to serving as its chairman, is the creative director of the label’s ready-to-wear line) has made a noble effort to restore Vionnet to its former glory. Could Chalayan’s twenty-plus years of boundary-breaking experience be the ticket back to the top? Here, Chalayan talks to Style.com about his debut Vionnet outing; making couture more accessible (if only a little); and why, despite his artistic approach, he’s not just a conceptual designer.

How did Goga Ashkenazi approach you about this project?
Davide Dallomo, who works with Goga, reached out to make the introduction. Then I met Goga in Milan just after the summer. We had a few conversations, and we signed a month before Christmas. Goga liked my initial sketches. We got along right from day one, and I was happy that I was able to realize a lot of my ideas with a few of Goga’s suggestions and changes. We had our first fitting before Christmas, and I’m pretty pleased.

Why did you say yes to Vionnet? Did you have any reservations?
I had to think about it, of course. But when I met Goga, she’s honestly such a life force. She’s got this amazing creative energy. She’s a great entrepreneur, and I thought, “My God, you’re only 33.” Also, she talks about how we’re all honoring Vionnet here. It’s not [Goga's] personal line. Vionnet is such an establishment. It’s got an undisputable heritage, so I thought it might be an exciting thing to do.

Vionnet was a revolutionary in the twenties and thirties, and her work has been inspiring designers for almost a century now. Is it intimidating to design clothes that bear her name?
No, because it’s not old Vionnet. This is a modern interpretation of Vionnet, and the whole idea is to keep her name going. I don’t think there’s pressure because we’re not trying to replicate what she did. We’re trying to work through her spirit. We live in different times. I’d like to think that she’d be pleased with it. It shouldn’t be seen as intimidating. I like to be positive about it rather than to think, “Oh, my God, how am I going to manage?”

In the last decade, several heritage houses have been revived to varying degrees of success. As a designer with a distinct point of view, what do you think it takes to respectfully work for and thrive at a heritage brand?
The whole idea is to look at what Vionnet would have done if she were living in this place and time. We are genuinely looking at the principles and the worldview that Vionnet had, and thinking about how that could be interpreted for now. There are already parallels in my work because of my interest in graphicism and sculptural forms and their relationship to the body. But it’s about honoring the brand. It’s not about my brand. It’s a different kind of responsibility from doing your own thing. The whole project is surrounded by a big sense of responsibility to do the right thing, and to respect Vionnet. Of course, my name will be associated with it, but honestly, it’s an honorary project.

While haute couture can soar into the six-figure price range, demi-couture sticks at a still daunting—but more accessible—five figures. Why is that? And can you speak to the difference between the two practices?
It has nothing to do with the nature or the preciousness of the garments. It’s to do with the number of fittings that the client gets. The fittings are what really raise the cost, so we will do one fitting only, as opposed to ten fittings.

What is the relevance of couture today, whether it be demi-couture or haute couture? How do you think it fits into the fashion landscape in this economic climate?
Goga is the director of Vionnet, and its owner, but she’s also a couture customer. So one thing she was saying is that you spend endless amounts of money on the fittings, and that’s why she wants to do demi-couture. In this economic landscape, it’s a very good way of looking at couture—you are still offering highly refined garments, but customers are saving on the costs because of the reduced number of fittings. That’s quite a good move on her part.

Do you have a sense of who your Vionnet demi-couture client will be?
I think it’s a woman who has a very individual sense of style and who doesn’t want to wear typical couture dresses. She wants to stand out. She doesn’t want to wear that nipped-in waist, big-skirt thing. It’s someone who doesn’t want to be feminine in that obvious way. The collection is feminine in a very different, more unusual way, and the clothes are really sexy, but they’re intelligent-sexy, rather than silly-sexy.

What can we expect from the forthcoming collection?
There will definitely be a couple of different characters in there. It’s a really tight, fifteen-to-twenty-piece collection. We have a sculptural part that’s about form, and it’s more slouchy. Then we have a much more flowy part that’s feminine but very layered. Then we have a drapey part that’s still quite body conscious, and then we have a part that’s super-graphic. I’ve got these mini groups that are related but different. I’m interested in a couple of different types of women. There are also accessories that are part of the garment.

Vionnet has had a tumultuous few years, with a revolving door of designers. How do you think that your demi-couture appointment will help Ashkenazi to restore the Vionnet name?
Well, I’m only working on demi-couture, so my role is for a very specific part of Vionnet. I would like to think that I’ve worked with integrity for many years now. I don’t plagiarize. I work within my own pool. I try to push boundaries, so I’d like to think that we can do the same for Vionnet within the realms of what Vionnet’s about. I can’t really comment on what happened before except that I’m aware that other designers have taken on this role, and I’m aware of the result. But it’s best just to be positive. Goga has breathed new life into the house and into the ready-to-wear, and I think it’s on a really good track. They have a couple hundred [retail] accounts all over the world, so the ready-to-wear is doing well. It’s on a good setting as a brand.

You mentioned the importance of pushing boundaries. Do you think that Madeleine Vionnet would have been on board with the conceptual designs that you’ve put forth during your career?
I don’t consider myself a conceptual designer, even though people call me conceptual. I just think that we’ve made really nice, interesting clothes that have mostly been wearable. The press has another image because they only look at my showpieces. I spend hours trying to eliminate seams in coats and dresses—and for me, that kind of work is really challenging and exciting. If you buy anything from me, you’ll see that we try to get rid of seams, we try to cut [the garment] out of one piece, we try to do so many things that are more subtle, and that takes up a lot of my time. I think if Vionnet looked at my clothes that are quieter, she’d be more interested in them than in all the more obvious things that you would associate with me.

What are your goals for the demi-couture line, and what do you hope people take away from this first collection—other than one of your designs?
There’s definitely a very strong design language that I’m hoping people will find inspiring. It’s a very contemporary woman, and I think it’s an unobvious woman. But I don’t know what people will get out of it. I do what inspires me, and that’s the only way you can think. I always do what excites me—in my own work, as well—and try to share that with people. If you start projecting onto yourself what people ought to think, you go crazy. So I’m doing my best. Definitely.

Photo: Paul Hampartsoumian

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