"This staircase seemed so vast to me when I was very young,” recalls designer Nour Hammour, as she makes her way up to her childhood home, housed in a stately Parisian building dating back to the 19th century. Little did she know that it would one day serve as the unassuming headquarters for a thriving luxury business centered around one concept: creating the perfect leather jacket. “When we first moved into the apartment it was a temporary arrangement, until we built up the business sufficiently to establish a proper office and showroom. It’s such an elegant environment to come to every day that we ended up staying,” says Erin Webb, who teamed up with Nour to launch the label in 2013.
Photography by Sebastian BöttcherNour wears: Top, jeans and shoes, her own. Jacket, Dhs9,550, Nour Hammour. Erin wears: Shirt and jeans, her own. Shoes Dhs7,300, Tom Ford. Jacket, Dhs4,390, Nour Hammour
Beginning life as a by-appointment line, they soon began to lure an international clientele who travelled to their atelier in the 16th Arrondissement, where they presented their collections in the apartment’s gilded salon, decorated with wood parquet floors, antique 18th century furnishings and renaissance paintings. The pair initially offered four or five styles each season, which they would customise for private clients, lending the brand an air of exclusivity and luxury, before expanding into luxury ready-to-wear. “We’ve grown so much in the last four years that the day may come when we’ll have to move into a larger space,” says Erin, while seated at a table with Nour in the apartment’s spacious kitchen, where the pair regularly hold staff meetings or have lunch with their team of artisans. “It was important for us from the beginning to create a family atmosphere around the company, as we are a small brand with a global reach,” adds Nour, as she leads the way to a room that now serves as the label’s stockroom.
Inside, racks hold rows of identical supple leather jackets, the colour of buttery caramel, that have been hand-embellished with a constellation of metal studs. “Even though our collections include minimalist perfectos, it’s really the more embellished pieces that have become our signature and bestsellers,” says Nour of her eponymous label’s jackets, which are designed to move effortlessly from day into evening. “The beauty of the leather jacket is that it’s a classic yet edgy piece that never goes out of style, and you can use it to dress up or dress down an outfit,” adds the designer, who was born in Washington DC to Syrian parents and moved to Paris at the age of 12. “Most of my dad’s family had moved to France in the 1970s from Lebanon, so I was connected to my Middle Eastern heritage while growing up here,” notes Nour, who would spend two months during the summer visiting her mother’s family in the Syrian city of Aleppo as well as Beirut, which she continues to return to several times a year.
Nour wears: Top, Dhs9,000; skirt, Dhs2,900, both Ashi Studio. Boots, Dhs4,300, Christian Louboutin. Jewellery, her own
“My husband is Lebanese and both of us have wonderful memories of growing up there. I love exploring its many historic neighborhoods and the warmth of the people, so it’s always a treat to go back,” notes the Syrian/American designer, who credits her elegant grandmother with sparking her love of fashion. “The irony is that I wasn’t obsessed with clothes while growing up. I was more into punk rock and would attend a lot of heavy metal concerts, which in turn influenced the way I dressed. In my teens I tended to gravitate towards concert T-shirts, baggy pants and grunge,” smiles Nour, who was introduced to the rarified world of haute couture through her grandmother in her early twenties. “She had been attending the couture shows for years and invited me one day to go along with her to Dior, Chanel, Givenchy and Stéphane Rolland amongst others,” recalls the designer, who was ushered into a world where craft and time were true markers of luxury. “It was an eye opener for me because couture wasn’t simply about making a fashion statement or the latest trends. For many of the women who wore these clothes, it was akin to collecting art and keeping a savoir faire alive,” says Nour, of an approach to fashion that would inform her own career as a designer.
Although Nour went on to attend George Washington University, where she majored in business and marketing, her memories of attending the couture shows were never far from her mind. To experience the industry first hand, she took an internship at Lebanese couturier Elie Saab’s Paris salon and atelier during two summers while still at university. “In any business you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, and while there I was assisting the director of Haute Couture, where I did everything from organising events to meeting with clients, which allowed me to learn a tremendous amount in a short period of time,” recalls Nour, who went on to pursue a Masters in fashion merchandising at the London College of Fashion in 2010. While there, the designer took a fashion PR course, where students were asked to transform a common object into a covetable luxury item. “I was assigned thumbtacks and I thought about what I could do with them, which brought me back to my love of punk rock. I ended up embellishing a vintage leather jacket with thumbtacks at a time when studs weren’t as trendy, and were still associated with ’80s fashion.”
Nour’s creation became an instant success amongst her classmates and she began taking orders from friends and fellow students to create customised vintage leather jackets that she would source from thrift shops and wholesale stores. “I started searching on Google for stud manufacturers who sold them in bulk and catered to the heavy metal industry,” recalls the designer, whose fledgling business continued to grow through word of mouth. “I knew I had a concept worth pursuing and expanding once I started receiving emails from people in different countries requesting embellished jackets, but I didn’t know how to grow the brand,” recalls Nour, who in 2011 applied to the Masters programme in brand management and design at Paris’ Institute Marangoni, where she met Erin on the first day of school while waiting to go into class. “We hit it off straight away and Nour shared her idea with me that first week. I was immediately onboard as I saw the potential in creating a luxury brand together that focused on a very specific item of clothing. We spent that entire year beginning to lay out our plan for the business,” says Erin, noting that their shared work ethic and friendship helped them succeed within the school’s competitive environment.
A classically trained ballet dancer, Erin grew up in Sacramento, California in a family of scientists. “Outside of being interested in art history and costume design, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the fashion world growing up. We typically travelled to places in Africa as well as Central and South America, because it tied into my parents’ research and interests,” recalls Erin, who embarked on her first trip to Europe at 17, travelling throughout Italy, where she purchased a 1930s Art Deco watch from a tiny store in Rome, as well as her first leather jacket from a boutique off the Piazza di Santa Croce in Florence. “It was on that trip that I also fell in love with Paris and that’s when the seed was planted for me to eventually move there,” says the label’s co-founder, who went on to study marketing at university in Los Angles before moving to San Francisco to work in PR for five years. “When I turned 26, I felt it was time for a change as I really wanted to work in the business side of the fashion industry. So I applied to the Institute Marangoni when I was told there was one remaining spot open in the programme and moved to Paris a few weeks later,” says Erin who is now married to a Frenchman and speaks the language fluently.
Erin wears: Top, Dhs4,370, Tom Ford. Skirt, Dhs4,965, Alexandre Vaulthier
After graduating from Marangoni, the pair went their separate ways for a year, interning at start-ups to gain experience before launching their label. “We continued to talk about starting the brand and one day while meeting for lunch we decided to take the plunge and go for it,” says Nour, admitting that they encountered a number of challenges as two young women entering the traditionally male-dominated leather industry. “Nothing happened for us overnight. It took time to be taken seriously in an industry where sourcing and manufacturing is predominately run by men,” says Erin, noting that with time they have managed to build a network of suppliers for the high quality leathers they use in their jackets, most of which are tanned in the South of France. Along the way the pair also hired artisans trained in working with leather. “It was important for us to support the unique skills and savoir faire of Paris’ leather workshops, which are slowly disappearing.
“Many of the artisans we work with have been in the industry for over 30 years,” says Nour, noting that the brand’s leather jackets are hand cut, sewn and embellished in Paris; a rare practice amongst more established French brands, which increasingly outsource the production of their leather goods to other countries.
A large part of their early success lies in their refusal to take no for an answer or compromise on the execution and quality of their leather jackets. Walking towards a rack in the design studio, Erin pulls out one of their signature pieces, a leather jacket featuring tone-on-tone studs. “From the start we were told it would be impossible to match the colour of the studs exactly to that of the leather, but we’re always up for a challenge as the point isn’t to simply revive age-old techniques, but to innovate and reimagine what a leather jacket can be,” says Erin of the label’s Paris atelier, which not only perfected the technique necessary for creating tone-on-tone studs, but has also become known for hand-crafting the most beautifully made leather jackets in the world, some of which come embellished with over 10,000 studs, taking an artisan up to two weeks to complete by hand. In addition, the city of Paris provides a continuous source of inspiration for the designers, who frequently take walks along its streets to observe how people dress. “Architecture and metalwork are also a huge source of inspiration for us. I remember attending a ballet performance at the Opera Garnier and being drawn to a red velvet door embellished with a beautiful pattern of hammered studs that we reinterpreted along the arm of a jacket,” adds Erin of their approach to embellishment, which has since branched out to include lacing, fringe, pearls, crystals, furs and painted leathers.
Erin wears: Top, Dhs7,690; skirt, Dhs6,480; belt, Dhs1,640, all Isabel Marant. Shoes, Dhs7,300, Tom Ford. Nour wears: Dress and shoes her own
“There is always this undercurrent of craftsmanship that runs through our collections, which is a reflection of being based in Paris. But even if our pieces are intricately embellished they are still very wearable,” notes Nour, who also credits social media with attracting fashion insiders such as Kendall Jenner, Kate Moss, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Gigi Hadid and Eva Chen.
“As a small brand without the resources to invest in PR and marketing, social media was an effective tool for us to grow organically. It allowed us to connect with customers directly and build a community around the brand, but to also receive feedback and tweak our collections,” adds the designer. “It’s not unusual for us to get orders through Instagram, and about 90 per cent of our customers shop our online store through their phones,” says Erin, who is in the midst of adding the finishing touches to their latest collection, before it is shipped to New York to be previewed during this month’s Fashion Week.
“Even though we have an established network of retailers now, it’s important that we continue to hold trunk shows for our clients as well. We travel quite a bit throughout the year to places such as London, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Beirut to hold private events,” says the California native, noting that trunk shows not only reflect their sales strategy but also influence their design process. “Our shapes and silhouettes have really evolved over the seasons because our clients range from women in their early twenties to those in their seventies, so we use pop-ups and events to get feedback in order to create cuts that are flattering to a diversity of shapes and sizes,” adds Erin, observing that the brand’s Middle Eastern clients typically gravitate to the most spectacular pieces in the collection. “When we first launched the brand, we were two 20-something women who wanted to create a cool leather jacket. Since then we’ve both gotten married, I’ve become a mother and we’ve evolved as people. As a result, our approach to design has become increasingly more sophisticated with each collection,” says Nour of her unique collaboration with Erin, one that continues to bridge cultures through the pursuit of the perfect leather jacket.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.
Photography by Sebastian Böttcher