Husam El Odeh: The unconventional

Portrait of Husam El Odeh by Tomoko Suwa

Photo: Tomoko Suwa — Courtesy of Husam El Odeh

Congratulations on winning the Emerging Talent award for Accessories at the British Fashion Awards! Has the win changed the volume of your work and your popularity, and what are you most appreciative of, since it's such a prestigious award?

Thank you! In a way, work has not immediately changed so much apart from lots of press requests. It was really exciting and obviously is a huge recognition for the things I have done in my relatively short career. My favourite comment was from my five year old niece who thought I won "Germany Has Got Talent" when she saw the clip online…

It seems that you find inspiration in the unlikeliest places, e.g. airport X-ray security equipment. How exactly does a piece of equipment translate in your work; what is your thinking and creative process from seeing something like that and transforming it into a watch or a pendant, for example?

The X-ray machine inspiration was really watching people and the sort of things they pull out of their pockets, then it sort of reminded me of that Helmut Newton shoot with the X-rayed jewellery from the 90’s and, of course, I literally grew up in a hospital (my dad worked as a doctor for internal medicine and we lived just across the road) and have a very playful relationship with equipment like that. More generally speaking, my inspiration often comes from the everyday encounters with things. Part of it is watching people and what they develop relationships with and, of course, watching myself and the things I get attracted to. The next step is seeing what this evokes: contexts, fashion references, history. The last step is editing for the context of a specific collection. You know, sometimes there is a kind of piece that will be nice by itself but it also needs to make sense in the store and fit into the pattern of how people buy things. A designer who I worked for when I was a student once said that you have to give them something they know and something new.

You have collaborated with brands such as Acne and with designers like Mario Schwab. Could you tell us a little bit more about it? Who calls the shots in collaborations like this and what do you enjoy about them?

Marios and I started working together when we were both still at University. It really depends on the season but he knows my own work well and quite often he would come to me with an idea based on something he had seen me do and applied to his collection, and then we would take it from there. The same goes for Acne. Of course, I have the context of the brand I collaborate with in mind when I work on it and try to interpret what I get from looking at the research I get given, then you sit together again and work out what works best. Marios can be difficult to work with because his vision is very intense and his signature is very distinct. With Jonny from Acne it was more playful, like a bouncing off each other. It is really great when you do collaboration like that because it gives a context that you don’t get when you simply do a jewellery collection. For Miharayasuhiro, for example, I made a crown for one season; if I made a crown for my mainline it would be really out of place and a little loony, but that collection was based on the “little prince” so it was perfect.

How does it feel having Karl Lagerfeld as one of your fans?

Maybe fan is exaggerated—after all, he just bought one piece (the original watch vest) that was on display in Colette. It was a huge compliment though and I was super excited! I think I am a bigger fan of his…

Would you consider working exclusively for a big fashion house? Do you feel that it would limit your creativity or help you boost it?

It really depends on what exclusive means; I would always like to keep my mainline. I would love to work for one of the fine jewellery houses just because it would open up a whole Pandora’s box of materials and possibilities. But generally I am very open-minded.

Where did you grow up? And by deciding early on that you wanted to be an artist, how easy or difficult was it for you to pursue your dream?

I grew up in Germany. If things were difficult, it was more that I grew up in a tiny town in the countryside and there were no role models, so I was extremely scared of rejection since I had no measure of how good or bad I was. I was lucky enough to get straight into art school in Frankfurt but then changed to Berlin very soon.

What made you choose jewellery design over drawing? Do you still draw?

When I came to London there was that point were I got really tired of the self obsession of fine art, it was just not for me. Jewellery was a good way of pursuing my ideas but with the cover of a product. I intellectualise a lot but I prefer to keep that to myself and people can take what they want from the end result, so when someone just finds a piece pretty I am happy enough…I do still draw a lot and have published some illustrations in various magazines (Men's Vogue Japan, Dazed and Confused, QVEST).

What was on your new season's mood board, aka. your inspirations for the season?

The entire collection actually started with a gold pendent my mother had given me once—it was a gold Middle Eastern charm, it was awful actually, but I still wanted to wear it. So one afternoon in the studio I melted…started melting it. I love seeing metal melt and there was a point where you could make out that the nugget it was becoming had been something else before. I stopped and put it on a string. I was really interested in how it had changed form but there seemed an essence of the original shape. The idea sort of grew in the back of my head and triggered memories of the German folk tradition of melting led to predict the future, the history of chemistry and the Alchemists of medieval times looking for a formula to create gold. I obsessively watch science documentaries (much to the despair of my partner) and I guess that came into it too. I found stones (smoky quartzes) that you can change the colour of by heat and melted lots of pieces of jewellery, then picked my favourites, carved them out and filled the crystals like a crystal cave, we dipped things in gold…it was really playful.

As a person who works a lot with his hands, are you the type who never leaves the house without pen and paper? Is there an item that you always carry around with you?

I usually have a pencil somewhere, I have hundreds...I find things and have them with me for some time then let them go again—it is like my subconscious pondering on a half thought.

Which fashion designer do you feel close affinity to and perhaps are even inspired by his/her work?

There are so many I admire…I discovered Ann Demeulemeester as a student and ruined my credit rating for her; Helmut Lang was another one of those; Karl Lagerfeld has defined our modern idea of timeless elegance infused with wit; Martin Margiela has pushed boundaries; Jil Sander has championed understated luxury—there are more, each for a different reason.

As your designs are very modern and controversial (€”e.g., earrings that don't hang from the lobes, but the back of the ear) one would wonder if you are inspired by a vision of the future, or whether you find inspiration from the past?

Are my designs controversial? I like finding solutions for how something can relate to the body. A part of it is my fascination with finding a technical solution like an engineer for the body; some of it, I suppose, can also be traced back to my dad’s cabinet of surgical tools we had at home when I grew up. I have, since my teenage days, had a huge interest in anthropology and history, but I don’t want to bore you. So yes, my work draws from solutions people have found in the past but I try to re-imagine them for the future.

Do you believe that a dose of irony should be mandatory in the fashion world?

Yes! Even, "YES!"

When starting on a collection, do you review past pieces of yours or do you start from scratch?

I believe in building a collection, and evolution in your work is very important to keep coherent. There should be recognisability to your signature as a designer. Like I said before, there is an editing process where I check if the structure of a collection makes sense with the previous collections in mind. I always carry the pencil necklace in each collection, with slight changes. Sometimes it is a matter of developing an idea that was emerging in a previous collection.

Vogue described your designs as challenging and avant-garde. Is it your aim to stir things up in the jewellery industry?

I don’t mean to stir things up—I just like playing with things. If that means people question their usual perceptions, I would consider that a success, but again, if they just find something in my work that they can relate to then I am happy too. I like to think that some pieces are classic in a modern way.

What makes a brand appealing in your eyes?

Depth and beauty. Both very vague entities but that almost is the point with fashion and jewellery.

What is your idea of success? Becoming a household name or being true to your vision?

Ideally, both! In a very personal way, it is also a success that I have the privilege to do something I love.

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