In 2015, when Zayn Malik finally decided to part ways with One Direction —the global juggernaut boy band that had ruled the pop charts for the last four years—, only one question remained: would the band falter or would Zayn? Today, while the remaining four members of One Direction continue to claim to be on indefinite hiatus, Zayn is enjoying massive success as a singer-songwriter, fashion designer and style icon. While there is still a chance One Direction may resurface, there is no doubt that Zayn has made the right move.
Zayn —yes, he is popular enough to go by one name— is still basking in the glow of his 2016 solo release Mind of Mine, a project that established him as the first British male artist to debut at # 1 in both the UK and the US with a debut single (“Pillowtalk”) and debut album. Described as a hazy trip through the emotions of a young man discovering who he is, Mind of Mine blends alternative R&B, downtempo electronic and pop dance to produce a critically acclaimed album that provided plenty of distinction between Zayn the boy and Zayn the man.
Born in the working-class neighborhood of Bradford, West Yorkshire to a Pakistani father and an English-Irish mother, Zayn found an early release in art and music. He was particularly drawn to the urban styles of graffiti and Hip Hop. At the age of 17, Zayn took a chance and auditioned for The X Factor in Britain. Though he failed to survive the solo round, Zayn was grouped with Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne to continue on in the competition. The group, dubbed One Direction by Styles, would finish third in the competition, but before they could sulk in defeat, mentor and music mogul Simon Cowell would quickly sign them to his label Syco Records.
Having drawn a massive following during the final stages of the show, One Direction was a social media hit, and before they even released a single, a fan base that would eventually span the world was already forming. The band would soon explode, releasing consecutive #1 albums with Up All Night (2011), Take Me Home (2012), Midnight Memories (2013) and Four (2014). However, during the world tour for Four, Zayn became increasingly uncomfortable with the boy band life, and in March of 2015, while the group was touring Asia, Zayn officially quit.
Known early on as the “Bradford Bad Boy” in One Direction, Zayn cultivated a mystique about him that included mischievous and flirtatious behavior with a shyness around reporters and a quiet demeanor when the band appeared in public.
Rumors still surround the events leading up to Zayn’s departure and what the other members thought of his decision. Though he cited a need to live a normal life again, Zayn was quickly spotted working in a recording studio and many were suspecting that he wasn’t tired of music. He was just tired of the music he was stuck playing. One Direction may have provided fame and fortune, but it was still categorized as a boy band and Zayn clearly wanted to be seen as a man.
The mystery Zayn caused with his sudden career left turn was not exactly surprising. Known early on as the “Bradford Bad Boy” in One Direction, Zayn cultivated a mystique about him that included mischievous and flirtatious behavior with a shyness around reporters and a quiet demeanor when the band appeared in public. Once engaged to Perrie Edwards, Zayn followed up his split with his mates by calling off the engagement and relationship in August of 2015. He now dates model Gigi Hadid and the two were the subject of a Vogue fashion shoot in May of 2016.
Zayn’s rise as a solo artist coincided with his branching out into fashion and design. He would launch his own line that included streetwear decorated with Zayn-specific imagery and Urdu script. Black and white hoodies, bomber jackets, t-shirts and long-sleeved t-shirts defined the collection and the inclusion of Urdu script was Zayn’s way of staying true to his Muslim roots. Though he rarely spoke about his faith, Zayn’s affiliation with Islam caused serious backlash on social media, enough that he would delete his Twitter account due to anti-Muslim slurs directed at him and his family.
Rather than dwell on the ugly side of fame, Zayn would find solace in the studio where his soulful, wide tenor vocal range was being paired with such stars as M.I.A, Taylor Swift, Usher and ‘Lil Wayne. Zayn was now in his element, and no longer being restricted by boy band rules, he could finally delve into more serious topics and express a sultry sexuality that has led to his being ranked # 27 on Glamour’s “World’s Sexiest Men” list in 2011, voted British GQ’s best dressed male in 2014 and making it to # 6 on MTV’s “50 Sexiest Men Alive” list. His colorful tattoos, wild and dyed hairstyles, trendsetting streetwear looks and club-hopping lifestyle have made Zayn a certified celebrity—a journey that has taken him much further than One Direction ever could.
In addition to his music success and own clothing line, Zayn was recently tapped by Versus Versace to design the label’s Zayn X Versus line. In addition to creating men’s and women’s outfits, Zayn will also be featured in two Versus ad campaigns that are sure to increase his already skyrocketing exposure. In typical Zayn fashion, when the news was announced at the Versace fashion show in London this past fall, the enigmatic superstar was nowhere to be found, leaving Donatella Versace to field press inquiries by herself. Photographers had caught Zayn slipping out of the show with girlfriend Hadid as the two enjoyed the freedom afforded by rebellious spirits.
One Direction may have made Zayn a household name, but his decision to jump ship at the peak of their commercial success was a bold move that showed his confidence, independence and ability to stand strong on his own. How far Zayn goes with his voice and creative design talents is pretty much up to him. A follow-up to Mind of Mine is eagerly anticipated as is his vision for the Versus brand. But don’t expect Zayn to play it safe. If we’ve learned anything about living in Zayn’s world, it’s to expect the unexpected.