Can we imagine a better world through fashion? It’s a question that has been on designer Hala Kaiksow’s mind since moving back to Bahrain last year following a stint in London. “Fashion, like art, is an expression of culture, but it can also be a reflection of who we are and what we value the most. I think that’s why I invest so much thought into what I put out there as a designer,” says the young Bahraini, while walking towards her studio overlooking a peaceful garden, where four large cotton canvases sporting distinctive tie-dye patterns, have been laid out to dry in the sun. “These are some of my more recent experiments with Shibori, an ancient Japanese dyeing technique I was lucky enough to learn from a master in France a few summers ago,” says Hala, pointing to the radiating swirls of colour on the fabric’s surface. “I’ve always been interested in learning natural ways of dyeing materials or creating colour transfers,” continues the designer, who’s experimented with a wide variety of ingredients that include saffron, clay, coffee, Brazilwood and woad; a natural source of indigo dye produced from a flowering plant indigenous to the Middle East.
Hala Kaiksow seated on a work table in her studio wearing an unbleached cotton ensemble from her latest collection.
Photography by Loredana Mantello
Inside her tranquil studio, a cross between a Japanese teahouse and a Nantucket cottage, several large wooden worktables have been laid out across the dark parquet floor. She stops at one piled with rolls of fabric in subtle earth tones. “I’ve always been drawn to raw textures and materials that recall Bahrain’s landscape, whether it’s rock formations in the desert, the colour of a traditional gypsum wall or the bark of an ancient tree,” says Hala, who prefers to work with natural fibres in their raw state, combining them with unexpected materials such as metal, wood and latex to create unusual textures. “So much of my creative process is about experimentation, which comes from my training as an artist,” adds the designer, who taught herself to weave textiles on a special loom by watching YouTube videos. “A lot of people may not be aware that Bahrain has an established tradition of handwoven textiles that were produced by men in certain villages across the Island. Unfortunately this craft is dying, which is why I worked with one of the few practicing Bahraini weavers, named Abu Essam, to produce textiles for my last collection,” says the designer, noting that working in this way was a new experience for her after producing her graduate collection in Italy, where she had access to textile mills and factories.
Hala points to a dress mannequin in a corner of the studio wearing a knit coat in chunky merino wool and a thoub underneath made from latex with mother-of-pearl embroidery. “For me, clothing is a kind of armour that’s also meant to empower women, and I convey that through a combination of soft and hard materials. It’s also about reviving the importance of the human hand in crafting the clothes we wear, which is something that’s deeply lacking in mass-produced garments today,” says Hala, reflecting a sentiment shared by other practitioners of the slow fashion movement, which has been gaining momentum over the past few years, partly inspired by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, when more than 1,100 workers producing clothes for major Western brands were killed when their factory collapsed. “Slow fashion is about addressing the relationship human beings have with clothes, such as the way we hold onto certain things in our wardrobe because they were made with care from fine materials, rather than viewing them as quick trends or throwaway items,” adds the Bahraini designer, noting that understanding the process or the origins of how things are made is changing the way we consume luxury fashion.
Part of the emerging global slow fashion movement, Hala wears a tailored shirtdress or oganic cotton.
Photography by Loredana Mantello
In the era of social media, where the fashion industry has accelerated, trends now go viral, leading mass-market brands such as Zara, Uniqlo and H&M to respond by shifting from seasonal lines, often planned a year in advance, to an endless cycle of clothing that goes from factory to store shelves in a matter of weeks. Yet there is also a hidden cost to surprisingly affordable clothes, one recently explored in documentaries such as The True Cost and Traceable, which examine the toxic waste generated by factories producing disposable garments, unfavourable working conditions and unregulated production. In response to the gravity and urgency to establish ethical and transparent practices in the industry, Kering, the luxury conglomerate behind brands such as Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga and Gucci, launched an educational partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion to find new solutions.