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Fashion Forward in the Middle East

Fashioning a Culture of Couture

In Rami Kadi’s latest collection, ‘Standing In the Shadow of Women’, black leather and silicone coexist with lace and florals, offset by brightly-coloured sequins.
From Rami Kadi’s latest collection ‘Standing In the Shadow of Women’. Source: Rami Kadi

Fashion is synonymous with luxury in the MENA region, but a new cohort of designers are helping to shift the balance away from Western labels to locallly grown high­-end brands, inspired by traditional aesthetics and materials.

Rami Kadi is a dreamer. The Lebanese-American designer confesses that inspiration for his work often strikes while he’s asleep. For his latest collection, ‘Standing in the Shadow of Women’, Kadi dreamt three female personas: the woman as warrior, “fighting for her rights, and fighting for her freedom”; as sexy, intelligent and business-savvy; and as “innocent”.



Kadi clearly adores women. In his dramatic designs, black leather and silicone coexist with lace and florals, and flowing, opulent designs revel joyously in the possibilities of materials. Kadi demonstrates that essential quality of any designer – the ability to complement the human form with innate grace and beauty. And this celebrity favourite has clearly found influential fans around the world, having dressed style icons from Emirati singer Ahlam to Dita Von Teese.


Kadi's increasing popularity reflects Arab fashionistas’ increasing interest in homegrown, local talent, young creatives who blend traditional aesthetics with cool cutting-edge twists. Kadi's increasing popularity reflects Arab fashionistas’ increasing interest in homegrown, local talent, young creatives who blend traditional aesthetics with cool cutting-edge twists. The rolling wave of creative energy now washing across the region includes such initiatives as the digital launch of Vogue Arabia, the incubators of Fashion Forward (FFWD) and Arab Fashion Week, and even the debut of an Arabic version of hit American reality show Project Runway (Elie Saab, also a mentor of Kadi’s, will be both a producer and a judge). All this points to a leap forward in the Middle Eastern fashion scene, as it moves from purely consumer-based to excitingly creative.



FFWD co-founder and director Bong Guerrero concurs, noting that while the Middle East is “notoriously very brand-focused”, with larger retailers preferring to stock international brands, regional buyers are increasingly considering local talent for their rail space. “Consumers are looking for smaller, individual boutiques and buys,” he says.


Saudi Arabian designer Mashael Alrajhi is another rising fashion star, has piqued international interest with her boundary-pushing approach and frequently androgynous shapes. The first woman to design contemporary menswear in the kingdom, her label Mashael is sharp and contemporary, blending heritage with modernity. Alrajhi explains that Mashael aims to capture a human element in fashion design. “When clients respond to it, it’s because they see themselves reflected in the outfits – at the same time, it allows them to explore a different kind of sartorial expression that isn’t boxed.”


Elinor Avni brings a similar energy to Tel Aviv-based fashion jewellery line Noritamy. The label’s co-founder and creative director, she  describes the core clientele as designers, artists and architects with “a good sense of fashion, who are very sure and confident with their style”. Noritamy typically creates sculptural pieces – wearable art for the woman who wants to make a statement. While the designs are certainly striking, they’re also sophisticated, with a timeless quality. Known for working with heavy materials like leather, metal and wood, Noritamy also recently launched a fine jewellery line, Toolbox, which invokes the hardware used in the creation of the pieces. The contrast between the grit of the process and the delicacy of the product makes for stunning results.



Meanwhile, having worked as a flight attendant before launching her namesake label in 2014, UAE-based French-Algerian designer Faiza Bouguessa has been inspired since childhood by her seamstress grandmother. However, in adulthood she admits to always having struggled to find abayas that chime with her personal style. Bougessa says she turned to design “to give women the feeling of being part of the global culture, while still being able to observe tradition”.Often geometric and minimalist, her distinctive creations have an understated edge often softened by crepes, chiffons and satins, making for light, breathable abayas.



Another dauntless fashion pioneer, former banker Karen Ruimy switched careers at 30 to become a sage of style and spirituality, launching Kalmar, a fashion house that complements her love of words, music, art and performance. It debuted at Milan Fashion Week this September, with a practical yet dreamy beach wear collection inspired by Ruimy’s Moroccan heritage and deep connection to her homeland. Having lived in London and Paris as well as Marrakesh, Ruimy considers Kalmar a perfect symbiosis of cultures and styles: “You have the beauty of the colours, the land and the easiness of the Moroccan style of life, but with a twist of modernity."


Kalmar’s ethos sums it up. Today, the Middle East and North African fashion scenes are developing with unprecedented dynamism as creativity, culture and couture gain momentum with style mavens across the region and around the world. And as more and more clients get serious about collecting and supporting local talent, the signs that this is a long-term, sustainable fashion industry appear stronger than ever.


With increasing demand for Arab style and couture, the fashion scene might well follow in the wake of contemporary Arab art in recent years, and become yet another successful creative narrative from the Middle East.

Sarah Illingworth