Hussein Chalayan Hits the Mainstream

Thanks to a majority investment earlier this year by sportswear brand Puma AG, Chalayan hopes to broaden his business with plans for concept stores.

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LONDON — It’s Hussein Chalayan’s Hollywood moment.

This story first appeared in the September 30, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The designer, whose love of experimentation — from dresses that double as chairs to long knits with built-in walking sticks — means he’s often dismissed as niche, is aiming for a bigger profile. Thanks to a majority investment earlier this year by sportswear brand Puma AG, which is in turn controlled by the luxury conglomerate PPR, Chalayan hopes to broaden his business and appeal to a wider range of customers. In addition, as Puma’s new creative director, he’s been giving the brand’s lifestyle collections a shot of fashion sensibility.

“There has always been this misconception of my brand as avant-garde, but I have always made wearable clothes,” said the 38-year-old Chalayan, a native of Nicosia, Cyprus. “I feel like a specialist actor, appreciated by the theater, who can now work in Hollywood. And why shouldn’t a design house like mine be more accessible?”

Chalayan and his recently named chief executive Giorgio Belloli, formerly of Prada Group, said the initial strategy is to increase wholesale distribution, develop accessories and explore collaborations, co-branding and licenses. The two are working on relaunching the firm’s Web site and restart the men’s wear business, which last sold two years ago.

Eventually, the two plan to begin opening stand-alone stores. The first concept corner — and a harbinger of what those stores might look like — is located at London’s Dover Street Market. Chalayan’s space has a spare, organic feel with clothing suspended from ropes slung between what appear to be tree trunks. Belloli said the company expects to break even in five years time.

“We’re starting from zero, re-approaching the market and building new relationships with wholesalers. Our first aim is to create a visible and credible main line,” said Belloli, who joined the company in May.

Belloli said the distribution strategy in the past had not been clear, and the brand never really forged relationships with the big American department stores, such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.

Until the Puma deal, Chalayan’s diffusion collection was produced by Italian manufacturer Gibò Co. SpA, which also makes lines for designers including Paul Smith, Michael Kors and John Galliano.

“There is so much potential in the U.S. market — it’s the one we’re looking at closely right now,” said Belloli, who worked in the U.S. for the Prada and Helmut Lang labels. Chalayan’s collection currently sells at stores including Barneys New York and at Blake and Ikram in Chicago.

Earlier this year, the label unveiled its first pre-collection — for spring — which will hit shop floors later this year, and a footwear line. An accessories collection is in the pipeline and will bow for spring 2010. Chalayan said both the footwear and accessories collections would benefit from the research he does for his ready-to-wear.

“I want to create a new point of view with these collections, employing technology that wouldn’t normally be used to make shoes or bags,” he said. “Over the past 14 years, I’ve looked at everything from aircraft design to conductive fibers. I want to see where we can take all that research. But no, you won’t be able to put on my shoes and fly — I do live in the real world.”

Chalayan said he’s excited, too, about his access to the PPR and Gucci Group infrastructure. “It was the real reason I did the deal with Puma — to tap into the know-how, logistics, operations and manufacturing of Gucci,” he said, adding he was relying on Gucci’s customer service and delivery operations.

Chalayan’s collection will be made at the Gucci factories in Novara, Italy, which also produce for the other brands in the stable. Logistics and distribution will be overseen by the Gucci Group plant in Ticino, Switzerland.

The other half of Chalayan’s working life is spent on the Puma sports lifestyle collections; his Puma team is even based at his East London studio. Chalayan is not working on one particular collection, but rather advising Puma generally on its various lines.

“It’s more about adding a design content to what they’re already doing — making it a bit more fashion-conscious in clothing and other areas,” he said. “Until now, they’ve been very trainer-focused.” The initial impact of his work, Chalayan said, won’t be seen until early 2010.

“Working there has opened up a whole other world to me, with regard to technology, ergonomics and Puma’s approach to urban living.”

Chalayan said that after years of struggle in order to keep his company afloat — thanks to consultancies in the past with Tse Cashmere and Asprey, as well as the Gibò manufacturing deal — and coming back from voluntary liquidation in 2001, he’s relieved to have a new partner and his first ceo. “Giorgio has taken the pressure off me, he is heaven sent,” said Chalayan.

But in many ways, the pressure has just been turned up a notch. “I think it’s a big challenge to develop your own identity. It’s your name and you’re on your own. There is no history behind you, no bigger label that you are working for,” he said.

“Before, I had no life. Now, I have no life. I’ve always been very busy,” he said. “But the more pressure, the more exciting things are — and that’s a big motivator.”

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