Hussein Chalayan: ‘Everything we build and design in a way reflects the body’

The fashion designer, 48, talks about being independent from a young age, why he loves teaching, and sacrificing his personal life

I was sent to boarding school in the UK when I was 12 years old because my parents were separated so it was thought it would be the best thing for me. It meant that I became independent at a very young age.

I’m ethnically Turkish Cypriot, but more than anything I feel like a Londoner. I think for me London is almost a country in its own right. I’ve always thought that, way before Brexit. We Londoners have a liberal worldview where everything is possible. You can challenge social and sexual mainstreams and you can be from any background.

I think having a sense of otherness is a gift. Being from a different place, or having foreign parents, or coming from a different religion, exposes you to different cuisines, different ways of thinking and allows you to open your mind in a very unique way. But it takes time to embrace this difference, when you are a child you get bullied – imagine growing up with my name.

I went into fashion because I am very excited about the body. In all aspects of culture, the body is the central theme, everything we do will finally affect the body, everything we build and design in a way reflects the body. For me things are never as exciting if they don’t connect with experience or physicality or thought.

The grey areas and the things that have seemed impossible are the things I chase. My life has been about recognising a problem and finding a solution to it.

Music is the most amazing thing. It surpasses all mediums for me. There’s nothing that creates that visceral emotion in someone in the same way. If you can get close to that feeling that you get from music as a visual person then I think that’s a great success.

I started teaching fashion [at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna] because I like helping young people. But it’s incredibly tiring. You have to be super empathetic to teach, sometimes I get a bit too carried away. Fashion is a very selfish business. It’s all about me, me, me, whereas when you are teaching it’s not about you it’s about the other person. You’ve got to give them something; they’ve got to get something out of you.

You don’t know yourself at the age of 20, although I don’t think you’ll know yourself truly until you die. There are characteristics that you are born with as a baby and most of us top these up with experiences, but our core remains the same. However, there are some people who can’t change.

I’ve sacrificed a lot of my personal life to focus on my business. You never want to sound like a martyr, but it was a decision I made early on. There are some people who have one collection and make a big splash and make lots of money, but that wouldn’t give me satisfaction – longevity gives me satisfaction. I want my brand to survive me.

I don’t have any regrets, I think everything that happens for a reason and everything that I’ve done has been a lesson.

Hussein Chalayan is the winner of the Panerai London Design Medal 2018, (15-23 September 2018)


Juliana Piskorz

The GuardianTramp

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