Talented designers from this side of the world are starting to spread their wings on the international stage. But the stories behind the clothes are just as fascinating as the labels themselves
When it comes to fashion, what cities spring to mind? New York, probably? Paris, perhaps?
Historically, the Western world has always led in the style stakes and boasted some of the world’s top designers.
But times are changing and people are starting to look to the Middle East for style inspiration.
Whether it’s Reese Witherspoon attending a film premiere in a chic number by Lebanese designer Elie Saab, or Kim Kardashian seeking out Fujairah’s Sheikha Madiyah Al Sharqi at the royal designer’s show at Paris Fashion Week, there’s no denying the international influence that regional designers are having in the fashion industry.
There’s the likes of Dubai-based label by Lebanese designer Lama Jouni, which has been favoured by fashion hotshots like Bella Hadid and Nicole Sherzinger, and the coveted ethical brand Mochi by Palestinian born, Dubai-based designer Ayah Tabari.
For UAE-based, Armenian-born designer Talar Bilemjian, who set up her brand Talar Nina in the UAE in 2016, it’s an exciting time to be a designer in this region as people in the fashion and art industries look for “untapped” talent and styles they haven’t seen before.
“I definitely think people are starting to look here; even stylists in places like New York are using brands that are based in Dubai. Especially on the red carpet, people are opting for Lebanese designers, and now they’re coming to [the UAE], too,” Talar notes.
“I think it’s refreshing and people like to look here because it’s unique and the designers each have a different story; you never know where they’re from or what the story is behind their clothes.”
Talar’s own story includes a childhood in LA and London, where she studied art and textile and art history next door to the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design.
“We’d go there every time we had a lunch break or free period, we’d just walk around and look at the permanent fashion galleries,” she recalls.
“It was really inspiring to live in London and be able to go to museums on a daily basis; that really pushed me to focus more on design, especially textiles, that was probably one of my favourite and best subjects in school. So when I moved to the UAE I went to ESMOD, the French fashion university [in Dubai], and I did the three-year course. Then I graduated and it just took off after that.”
Living in Dubai for seven years, the 25-year-old’s design inspiration is an amalgamation of her unique upbringing – her grandparents also ran a boutique in Amman importing Italian clothing – as well as exposure to museum treasures, with a bit of Emirati influence thrown in for good measure.
“I definitely think that I keep the culture in mind when I design because I have a lot of Emirati clients as well – nothing over-revealing or to short; I make amazing joggers that a lot of girls love because they can wear them with heels or with flats if they’re travelling; they can dress them up or down, which is a huge part of the brand.
“My style has always been pretty modest in a sense so I definitely think that I wouldn’t design anything that I wouldn’t wear myself.
“The fabrics for me are the key elements because if I can’t find the right fabric, then I have to think of a different piece. Usually the silhouettes pretty much stay the same; we add two to three new pieces each time.
“The last collection we added a new skirt and high-waisted pants to wear with the bomber jacket. We always have the bomber jacket pieces but the embroidery and embellishments will be different according to the inspiration for that collection.
“But the fabric plays an important role for me; I want them to feel good on and look nice. It’s quite difficult in Dubai to find good quality fabrics so you really have to look but after two years I’ve finally found the right place to go.”
While no doubt having her own dreams for expanding her brand, Talar takes inspiration from the people around her, citing the likes of Lebanon’s Rami Kadi and Palestinian-born Faissal El-Malik as regional designers she’s keeping her eye on. What’s more, she says, the growth of the industry in the Middle East is dependent on the support designers give each other.
“I definitely think there’s a lot of potential in this region; there are so many amazing designers, artists and photographers,” Talar says.
“The UAE is getting a huge spotlight shone on it now, especially with all the different influencers here and publications that are trying to show that there’s a lot of great talent here. It’s not just abayas; there are a lot of great brands here that are now getting the attention that they deserve.
“Since I’ve lived here, the past few years have been the most exciting. I think it’s just going to keep getting better; we just all need to help support and push each other.”
Ones to watch
These regional designers are making waves in the global fashion industry.
Elegance, femininity and 1920s nostalgic flair are at the heart of this shoe brand, founded by designer and fashion entrepreneur, Farah Sultan. The Kuwaiti-Omani designer, who nabbed the Arab Women Award – Young Designer in 2017, studied architecture and design at the American University of Sharjah after years of yearning to set up her own label.
Today, her handcrafted collections are produced in the same Italian factory as Carrie Bradshaw favourites Manolo Blanik and Christian Louboutin. What’s more, her playful products have been spotted on celebrities like Sarah Drew from Grey’s Anatomy and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter Rumer. Visit: arnaa.com
The vision behind this brand is just as special as the collection itself. The brainchild of Palestinian designer Ayah Tabari, the ethical brand brings together various cultures through its colourful designs, each handcrafted by local artisans using traditional embroidery methods.
No doubt, Ayah’s colourful upbringing – she was raised between Amman and Riyadh, studied in London and settled in Dubai – had a big part to play in this cross-cultural label. Visit: allthingsmochi.com
Giving back to the community is key for this brand. Founder and creative designer Sally Sarieddine, from Lebanon, puts environmental and sustainable issues at the heart of the brand by sourcing raw materials that are made by skilled artisans in a bid to support families of local communities in Lebanon.
Specialising in unique bags, the brand even has a series inspired by Arabic fabrics often seen in majlis. Visit: lalaqueen.com
WORDS Rachael Perrett