History tells us that cross-cultural expression has long been a source of inspiration for fashion design – 19th-century couturier Paul Poiret looked to the Middle Eastern kaftan when he set about reforming dressmaking in the 20th century, while Yves Saint Laurent experimented with the Moroccan jalabiya in the 1970s. More recently, Dolce & Gabbana has reinforced this crossover by debuting its abaya and hijab collection for S/S16, one of the first luxury fashion houses to do so.
From the international runways to the Middle East’s regional designers, today’s trans- geographical borders are being broken down by a multitude of Gulf-based creatives who are bridging the gap between continents and cultures, one stitch at a time.
And it is some of these creatives who are being celebrated at the Culture and Craftsmanship Pop-Up at The Shop at Bluebird in Chelsea, London, this month. Currently open, and running until end of June, the pop-up will present a collective of designers who not only illustrate the culture and craftsmanship swirling around Arabia, but who have packaged up their region’s best bits, merged them with European influences and cleverly weaved their way into the wardrobes of Western women and Middle Easterners residing overseas.
Beirut-based creative Sandra Mansour is one such designer. Sandra, one of eight regional designers to be handpicked for the pop-up, some of who are showcased on these pages, has merged a western silhouette with eastern prints and embroidery techniques for her current ready-to-wear collection, and says fashion fusion between the East and West is inevitable; and something that came naturally when designing for her eponymous label.
“Our histories collide so it’s very hard not to bring them together,” explains Sandra, who previously worked alongside Elie Saab before setting up her own workshop in the Lebanese capital in 2010. “The Middle East has been hugely influenced by Europe and the West. Historically, Lebanon was part of both the Roman and Ottoman Empires – and was colonised by the French – therefore our histories have collided architecturally and artistically making it very easy for me to merge both worlds together.”
This collision of cultures can be seen in the designer’s use of embroidery and in-house prints – design elements she feels bring women closer to their heritage and culture irrespective of location. “Our tailors, based in our atelier in Beirut, use very ancient eastern techniques of thread embroidery and we try to combine classic sewing patterns with a modern look,” she adds.
Such attention to cultural nuances has caught the eye of London-based blogger, Soraya Bakhtiar. “I love Sandra’s attention to details, prints and textures,” says the Egyptian/Iranian influencer. “I’m obsessed with the vibe of her clothes – feminine with a chic, bohemian look.” Ultimately, though, Sandra says her brand is about more than bringing together two geographic locations. It is about empowerment – be it London, Dubai or beyond.
“The entire Sandra Mansour brand revolves around empowering women, allowing them the ability to wear pieces that make them feel strong,” she explains. “Middle Eastern women have a very edgy and traditional sense of style [and] they bring very different worlds together. I think my brand stands for that – it infuses contemporary edginess with historical heritage.”
And it is edginess that Sandra’s Middle Eastern, London-based clientele projects when they wear her designs from the Gulf to Great Britain. “I think they take it to the next level and make it more streetwear,” she says, adding, “For example, a hand-embroidered midi dress with trainers and leather jacket instead of the usual dinner-party outfit,” that one might see on Arabia’s shores.
This exploration of fashion is something Lebanese handbag designer Nathalie Trad noted when designing for her regional customers who live overseas. “Although Middle Eastern women in general are becoming more adventurous with their brands and style choices, they still tend to push the boundaries a little more when abroad,” she explains. “The Middle Eastern woman of today is starting to embrace regional designers. They are opening up to wearing emerging talent and making bolder fashion choices, especially when it comes to accessories. We are starting to notice that there is now a certain pride for local consumers in wearing ‘home-grown talent’.”
Being bold with their wardrobe choices, however, is not necessarily new for Middle Eastern women living abroad, profess Libyan sisters Mariam and Dania Sawedeg, the design duo behind Kamushki Jewellery.
“We live in Switzerland and people think we’re extravagant for our tastes,” laughs Mariam. “I think a lot of Middle Eastern women go to London and they really stand out. We love to dress up, we love colours, we love mixing and matching things, and we love to feel good; and we do make a statement. Middle Eastern women love to accessorise, they love jewellery and they love to layer things. And that is how we work. We wear everything – white gold, rose gold – and we like to mix it up because you stand out more.”
Statements aside, and the duo says that their brand is as playful as it is cultural, with their globe-trotting influences and heritage etched into every piece. “Our brand is inspired by our culture and our travels and we try to bring the East and the West together,” explains Dania, who references Kamushki’s Cyrene range – a stunning collection inspired by Libyan and Greek culture. “We wanted to make it modern, more westernised, more playful, because Middle Eastern women are affected by the East and West. You can see that in their styles – you can see that they are Middle Eastern but they have a twist of Europe – and we always wanted to have that in our jewellery.”
This mesh of culture and modernity is also true for Qatar-based label The Kayys, its hybrid approach to fashion making the brand as relevant in Doha as it is in London. “We are very much inspired by art and architecture, in particular in Doha, whilst still expressing a softness and romance in our clothes,” explains Ghada Al Subaey, who launched the label with her sisters, Hend and Maha, in 2009. “The Kayys was very much created with the modern Middle Eastern woman in mind, a woman who travels and might live abroad, and who appreciates a contemporary and versatile approach to elegance day and night. We wanted to create a wardrobe rather than just statement pieces, which can be layered and styled in different ways depending on the context and location – our shirt dresses, for example, can work in the Arabian heat in the summer or worn over jeans in the city.”
This play on architecture, naturally piqued the interest of Salma Tuqan, the Palestinian/British contemporary Middle East curator at the V&A in London, who sports The Kayys’ shirt dress for Bazaar’s shoot. “Working in a museum full of craft, my respect and love for craftsmanship has grown,” says Salma, who is also a key supporter of the emerging designers coming out of her region. “I love pieces which are versatile – white crepe or cotton shirts that can be dressed up with jewellery.”
Where The Kayys has drawn on architectural influences from the Gulf and catapulted them to the West, Nadine Kanso, the Beirut-born founder of jewellery brand Bil Arabi who was experimenting with Arabic lettering in her designs long before calligraphy became a creative attribute in fashion at home and abroad, has applied its language.
“For whoever buys a Bil Arabi piece – whether it’s a small piece or a big piece – it is very personal, as well as a statement, whether they are Westerners or Arabs,” explains Nadine. “We have clients who have nothing to do with our culture but they give you another perspective on things because they look at the piece because it is beautiful and artistic.”
It is well documented that London is a melting pot of styles and design savants from the region. Where there are those who prefer to stand out there are also those who’d rather blend in. Cue Reem Al Kanhal, one of the womenswear finalists in the 2016 International Woolmark Prize for the Middle East, India, and Pakistan region. “My brand is not about showing the body,” says Saudi-born Reem. “Rarely will you find something that hugs the body. It is about showing the individuality and inner beauty of the woman. It is all about simplicity but it is also about mixing and matching pieces together. It can be dressed up and dressed down and that is what Middle Eastern women need if they’re working in London.”
Reem’s emphasis on comfort and practicality is what continues to attract customers from Arabia to the UK. Yassmin Ghandehari, an Iranian-born art collector and interior design who now resides in London, is a case in point. “Comfort and practicality comes first nowadays,” she says, pictured left in Reem’s S/S16 designs. “My everyday choices are predominantly functional pieces that focus on texture contrasts and have a strong focus on design and tailoring. My eveningwear follows similar principles. However, I will be more daring and I may use a statement piece of jewellery to contrast the look and add another element of interest.”
The concept of contrasting outfit combinations, however, is perhaps most evident in All Things Mochi, a Dubai-based brand that is oft spotted on the streets of London.
With each collection designed and developed based on a destination its founder has visited – Thailand, Uzbekistan and Spain – it comes as little surprise that the brand’s London-based customers are equally eclectic and culture-conscious.
“In the Middle East, women are quite safe and sophisticated in terms of their style; in Europe, and London in particular, people really mix it up to make the brand a lot more alternative and edgy,” explains Ayah Tabari, who founded the label in 2013. “I think there are a few Middle Eastern influencers really transferring their style onto the London streets, bringing a cool Middle Eastern edge to the London market.”
As evidenced by the designers and personalities profiled here, the future of fashion is clearly one that merges culture and tradition with contemporary cues from the both the East and West. Where will your Middle Eastern style take you this summer?
THE AESTHETES AND THEIR WARDROBES
SALMA TUQAN - 31, PALESTINIAN/BRITISH, CONTEMPORARY MIDDLE EAST CURATOR AT THE V&A
For Salma Tuqan, fashion is all about self-expression. “Fashion is very much a reflection of what I am feeling inside,” explains the London-based curator. “It also reflects some of the things that I hold dear – investing locally, using local resources, supporting emerging designers and the handmade.” Influenced by her mother and inspired by her travels, Salma says her style in the city “flips between extremes”, possibly a result of her varied upbringing. “My heritage is a mixture, shaped by cities I’ve lived in, travelled to and my Gulf childhood experiences. One of the Palestinian touches that I love wearing are pieces that are hand-embroidered.” Ultimately, however, it’s all about expressiveness, whether Salma is channelling her Middle Eastern heritage through textiles or statement jewellery. “My mother taught me that style is acutely personal, has no limitations, and that confidence, self-expression, fun and risk are all key components of it.”
SORAYA BAKHTIAR - 26, EGYPTIAN/IRANIAN, DIGITAL INFLUENCER
When it comes to compiling an outfit, everything depends on one’s mood, says Soraya Bakhtiar, a London-based, Iranian/Egyptian blogger who transports her Middle Eastern style sensibilities to London’s boroughs through a play on colours and textures. “My style is quite bohemian with a little bit of an edge, but then again it changes based on where I am in the world. I find myself a little bit more eclectic since I moved to London, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting fabrics.” It is the “bohemian” undertones of Sandra Mansour’s Verdi trousers and Guipure gilet that resonate strongest with Soraya. “Sandra is one of the few designers I can relate to as we both grew up in Switzerland with a Middle Eastern heritage,” she says. “Through the years she has managed to balance and merge these two cultures beautifully, from her prints to her silhouettes.”
YASSMIN GHANDEHARI - 42, IRANIAN/BRITISH, ART COLLECTOR
As one of London’s most influential art collectors, it should come as little surprise that art is what inspires Yassmin Ghandehari’s wardrobe. “My taste in fashion has always reflected my taste in art,” explains Yassmin, also a renowned philanthropist and interior designer. “For me, fashion, art, architecture and design are intrinsically connected and the way I dress is an extension of the art I am looking at or what I am designing at that moment and vice versa.” To illustrate this point, the collector says, “When I was interested in contemporary art, my choices were modern and edgy. Right now I’m interested in minimalism.” Comparing the West to the East, Yassmin believes that in London “less is more”, while in the Middle East “more is more”, adding, “In London fashion is more understated and my everyday choices are predominantly monochromatic. In the Middle East I will wear more colour with more embellishment.”
YASMINE LARIZADEH - 26, IRANIAN, CO-FOUNDER OF THE GOOD LIFE EATERY
Self-professed “fashion freak” Yasmine Larizadeh bounces between two styles from her base in London. By day, you’ll often see the Iranian entrepreneur in “a version of the same thing”, usually jeans or leggings, a long sleeve tee and trainers. Come evening, she elevates her ensemble by accessorising and having “fun” with her wardrobe. “Outside of work I like to be creative and definitely express myself through what I am wearing,” explains Yasmine. “The heritage clothing of the Persian empire includes a lot of colour, embroidery, statement jewellery and kaftans – which I wear a lot in the summer months in London. I will often pair a plain outfit with statement jewellery, tribal for example, which is not only a nod to my heritage but All Things Mochi’s too.” With an affinity for design touches that resonate with the East, in London Yasmine naturally hones in on pieces that remind her of home and taps into footwear to make an outfit less formal.
Words by Tracey Scott | Styling by Elaine Lloyd-Jones | Photography by Phill Taylor