Transition defined my early years, whether it was the multiple languages spoken at home, my parents divorcing, or the constant travelling between London and Cyprus. Being from a multicultural background can be a blessing – it made me curious and open minded – but so often people who are end up confused and frustrated.
I was raised by my mother and other women after my parents split. I was fascinated by the prospect of telling their stories through design; of using clothing as a tool for female empowerment. But the prospect of studying fashion seemed unattainable, and in a patriarchal [Turkish-Cypriot] society like ours it seemed impossible. Then, aged 16, I read in Vogue that Rifat Ozbek – a Turkish designer – had studied at Central Saint Martins. I thought to myself: why shouldn’t I, too?
Fashion school was a wild adventure. We were in Soho in 1989, which was still dangerous, raw and seedy. In fashion you have to be social: to observe the body and to see how it behaves, so we were out every night in the capital. It meant I was skint, which made me creative. Today, so many fashion students are too rich and pay people to do their work, which hinders creativity. It’s a consequence of colleges only being accessible to those who can afford them.
Gender-free clothing is the future. For years I’ve been unrestricted in my work by traditional expectations: femininity is also for men; masculinity for women. Now I teach in Berlin, and see how for the next generation of designers this is simply second nature. We share pronouns and think beyond binaries. I can imagine doing a single genderless collection, and that’s so exciting.
Nepotism is killing fashion. The same old faces get the same old jobs: people only help others out who they know. It’s so obvious and embarrassing – it’s a mess and it’s appalling. The pandemic has given us a chance to pause for thought: do we need all this product we create? Does fashion need to change so regularly? But we also have to make our relationships more sustainable.
I have no regrets about accepting my MBE; I did so for my family. Cyprus was a British colony: my mother grew up singing God Save The Queen in Turkish at school, and my work has considered the consequences of imperialism and its legacy. But this country has given me a lot: an education, success and opportunity. To get the honour was a confidence boost, and provided affirmation to my parents that their little boy, who loved to draw, had succeeded beyond their imagination.
My life was turned upside down by 9/11. I’d experienced racism at boarding school, but from that day I was made to feel uncomfortable, acutely aware of my cultural identity. Having a Muslim name affected my business. Buyers would make comments: “I wouldn’t have a designer with that name in my shop.” It took a long time for me to adjust.
I miss my hair. It used to be long and thick, but as it grew thinner I cut it shorter and shorter until I had none. I’d love nothing more than to emerge from the sea to shrug my wet mane around, or to style it for an occasion. When you’ve got nothing to work with you’ve only got one look: bald. It’s really boring.
Chalayan’s latest collection is available at chalayan.com. More at @chalayanstudio