WATCH: Rami Al Ali Interviews Julien Macdonald About Fashion, Couture And Dressing Celebrities

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Oct 23 2017 / 19:21 PM

One creates gowns for the world’s starriest pop icons, the other is the go-to for Arabia’s most lavish weddings

Rami Al Ali is a man of many talents. The 45-year-old Syrian-born designer has dressed the most glamorous women in the Gulf from his atelier in Dubai, Rami’s home for the last 21 years. Now, for Bazaar, Rami turns interviewer, comparing notes with the British fashion designer Julien Macdonald, 46, over the pair’s respective businesses, both of which stem from a couture sensibility peppered with an unapologetic love of glamour.   

Rami Al Ali A/W17Rami Al Ali's A/W17 couture collection

Rami Al Ali: When did you shape the character of your brand?
Julien Macdonald: It took me a long time to develop a style. As a designer, you need to learn from your mistakes. I was very lucky because I was spotted by Karl Lagerfeld when I was at the Royal College of Art and I became his protégé. At Chanel it was very chic and elegant and when I left, I wanted to do something that was totally different. And so, I decided to make very glamorous, very sexy clothes. Clothes that would be worn by pop stars, and not by the chic, couture clients that Chanel had.

RAA: Why is glamour the most important element in your clothes?
JM: My mother was always glamorous. I have two sisters and in my house everything was about dressing up. There was always lots of perfume and make-up and dresses. We never came from lots of money but my mother loved to knit and make things. My sisters would sometimes dress me up – there are pictures of me as a young boy in dresses – and my mother and my dad would go crazy. But I never wanted to be a fashion designer.

RAA: Really?
JM: I’ve never seen myself as a true fashion designer. My design comes from decorative things, things which are pretty, things which are beaded. I spend more time drawing the decorative parts of the embroidery rather than the dress itself. So my shapes tend to be quite clean. Although when I was the creative director of Givenchy in Paris, after Alexander McQueen, I had to learn how to design and make clothes like blouses, skirts, trousers, coats.

RAA: When you worked for houses such as Chanel and Givenchy, what did they add and what did they take from
you, Julien?
JM: The first designer I worked with was Alexander McQueen, I called him Lee. He would push everything to the max. Once, I went to see him and he said, “Oh Julien, I have something for you,” and it was a bag of hair. He said, “I want you to knit me a jumper out of this hair from my mum’s dog.” One of the maddest things I ever did for him is knit a jumper out of his dog’s hair. That is not a lie!

RAA: And under Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel?
JM: He helped me learn about women, and how women should be dressed, in the most famous couture house in the world. I spent two and a half years by his side and I met a very eccentric gang of Karl’s entourage. So, I learned my trade from one of the best living designers in the world. Karl’s very fashion forward. He wants to be the leader of fashion and not a follower of fashion. I learned about elegance and style and sophistication and pushing fashion to the boundary of the max with absolutely no budget constraints whatsoever. It’s Chanel haute couture, just do whatever you want.

RAA: How was the experience at Givenchy?
JM: My years at Givenchy were very difficult because the house itself had lots of problems. It hadn’t been a success, it was not making any money at all. I entered into the house at a very dangerous time.
At the time, I was designing very glamorous, sexy clothes and the house was known for dressing Audrey Hepburn, the most chic woman in the world. So the fashion world went crazy and they said, “Why have they asked Julien to be the creative director, when Audrey is chic and elegant and Julien designs the kind of dresses that would be worn by Marilyn Monroe?” It was completely opposite to the identity of the house.

Julien Macdonald's A/W17 Julien Macdonald's A/W17 catwalk collection

RAA: So you dress modern day Marilyns! Describe the sort of woman who wears your dresses.
JM: You’ve got to be a really strong, confident woman to wear my dresses. The women I’ve dressed have always been on fire. I just did Jennifer Lopez’s tour in Vegas. Beyoncé’s one of my biggest clients. I dress all of the Kardashians. Hailey Baldwin is a huge fan of my brand. Two days ago, I dressed Sofia Richie, Lionel Richie’s daughter. These young girls are the future of fashion. They are the most talked about women in fashion at the moment and that is why these women and their families are on the covers of magazines. When we pick up the phone, we never know who’s on the other end. About four weeks ago, Celine Dion’s office called and she goes, “Hey Julien, this is Celine. I really, really want this thing for my tour.” It was a fringed catsuit. I said, “We’ve only got one of those, it’s going to take four weeks to make.” And she goes, “No I need it tomorrow.” So, we went on a plane, we got it to her and that night she wore it and it’s part of her tour costume.

RAA: It must be amazingly satisfying when you have such a huge celebrity acknowledging the work that you do.
JM: Well, I’ve built a personal relationship with them. I went to Kim Kardashian’s house in Calabasas. It was just like the TV show. She goes, “Oh Julien, do you mind staying because Kanye’s coming, he really wants to meet you”, and half an hour later Kanye West walks through the door and I’m thinking, “This cannot be happening, I’m keeping up with the Kardashians!” Welcome to the crazy world of Julien Macdonald.

RAA: Working with the customer in the way that you do is very intimate. Which makes you not just a designer, you’re the best friend, the secret keeper, the psychologist...
JM: When I work with celebrities, I never try to forge relationships with them. I’ve always seen myself as the guy who’s made the dresses and left it at that. I know so many designers that force themselves onto their clients. I’ve never pushed myself on them and I think that’s why they come back. I’ve delivered a product that they love and I’ve never tried to be their best friend. There’s a certain kind of respect which I give them. They choose to come to me because my dresses are exclusive, you can’t go into a shop and buy them.

RAA: So it’s almost the same process as couture?
JM: You can only buy my clothes at Bergdorf’s in New York and select Neiman Marcus stores. The cheapest dress is about £8,000 (Dhs40,000) and the most expensive is £90,000 (Dhs450,000). So the kind of woman who goes and buys my dresses must be rich. You can’t have a £20,000 (Dhs100,000) dress hanging in store with people picking it up and damaging it. At somewhere like Bergdorf, they’ll have one dress on a mannequin and if a client says, “Wow I love that dress,” they’ll say, “We have the Julien Macdonald room in the back and we’ll bring it out to show you if you’re serious about spending that amount of money.” At the moment, I’ve actually stopped making clothes, because I can’t make any more. I’ve turned people away. Like for the dress Sofia Richie wore, it takes one person three weeks to knit on a tiny knitting machine, done by hand. It’s couture and there’s a waiting list. Hundreds of people are saying they want it and I’ll say, “No! It’s not for sale.” It’s not a money-making machine. I was lucky when I was young to work for great brands, and money never ever made me happy, so I’m happy with the things that I have. My business model is very different to other people’s.

Rami Al Ali A/W17Rami Al Ali's A/W17 couture collection

RAA: How many people work for you?
JM: It’s an empire from the outside but my business consists of seven people. It’s tiny!

RAA: You want to be exclusive, you want to be an artist.
JM: It’s not just a matter of being exclusive; my team of people is small, it’s fun, it’s happy. I’ve been surrounded by hundreds of people all wanting something from me and it’s so draining after a while. Even though you see very famous people in my dresses, there is only one of those dresses in the world. I will repeat that dress a maximum of four times. It’s special, no one will ever walk into a room and have the same dress.

RAA: I agree with you. You give the customer a new skin.
JM: But then I’ll contradict myself, because lots of people want to buy into my brand and can’t afford to. So, I’m currently planning to design a ready-to-wear collection of dresses. I’m not interested in making separates like blouses and skirts and trousers; sometimes the best place to buy those things is Zara. Let’s not be snobs about fashion.

RAA: But your main line will still exist?
JM: Oh, yes, of course. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and sometimes you can get a little bored doing the same thing. About a year ago, I launched rock ‘n’ roll menswear pieces into my collection. One of our biggest clients is Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.

RAA: How useful is social media for you?
JM: I don’t have a personal account because I come from an old kind of fashion world where I think a designer’s personal life is a secret. Not that I do anything crazy or super-fabulous. My life is the life of the women that I dress. I don’t think there’s a need for people to see me sitting around the pool on holiday because I think it devalues my brand. I’m famous through the people who wear my clothes. I’ve done a lot of TV work in Britain; people would recognise me and I didn’t really like it.

Julien Macdonald A/W17 Julien Macdonald's A/W17 catwalk collection

RAA: I hear you, I understand. I come from the same school. For us, now, social media is the best fashion reference for couture clients. They like to see the product on another client, not just celebrities, for them it’s more realistic. We have a lot of local blogs and platforms where they show weddings and parties without revealing the name or face of the customer and it’s become very competitive. It reveals how much they spend, their tastes, if they travel. It’s become the new celebrity reference when customers place an order for couture.
JM: Kind of like an underground secret world! English weddings tend to be very traditional, very old fashioned gowns. How about weddings in the Arab world?

RAA: Fairy tales. Literally, fairy tales. The weddings are more like red carpet events. Everyone is dressed to the top in couture most of the time, especially the family of the bride and the groom. The jewels, the hair, the make-up – all top notch. It’s more women dressing for women, not women dressing for men. Which is, I find, more difficult. Their standards are higher. The way they evaluate elegance and beauty, it’s different from the way men do it. It’s really intriguing. Everyone watches each other, evaluates each other.
JM: It’s kind of a bit like a fashion competition? Who has the best dress, who has the latest shoes. Kind of similar to my world. My customer, when they come to see me in London, they’ll say, “I’m going to a party and I want to look like the best person in the room,” so there seems to be that similarity. At the end of the day, it’s the same woman, they’re just living in different worlds.

RAA: I think there is a lot of similarity between what our clients look for. Here in the Middle East, in general, women dress for the social position to show their background, their education, their tastes in fashion, their social positioning – all of that comes when she orders a couture gown.
JM: And mine are dresses which get you on the covers of magazines and get you press attention.

RAA: We have a lot of things in common. We both had an early window into the world of women through our families, sisters and mothers. And we both design unique dresses. We make the woman look glamorous and beautiful. We have the relationship with celebrity and we make it always about the dress, not the designer, not the personality. It’s more about our work. That’s why we always push it forward.

Videography by Richard Hall

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia