We caught up with designer and Central Saint Martins graduate Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, discussing the influence his heritage has on his work, his experience as an architect and more.
As a young Emirati designer who was born in the UAE and raised in the UK, Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi enters a lot of discussions with a unique perspective. A graduate of Central Saint Martins with education that has encompassed literature, languages and architecture before honing in on his original passion — fashion — the designer started the Qasimi womenswear label in 2008 before expanding into menswear in 2010.
After taking some time out to restructure the label and create a different approach, Khalid has returned for Spring/Summer 2016 with "False Flags": a collection that explores the intersections of Western and Middle Eastern fashion, as well as ideas of media and communication distortion in the modern age. In a conversation at his Soho studio, the designer shed some light on the background to the collection, the QASIMI label and the topics he is confronting along the way.
How did your time at the Architectural Association and Central Saint Martins influence your work?
I was always interested in fashion growing up, obsessed with it, collecting a lot of magazines and things like that. Even before University I really wanted to go into it, so I did a foundation at CSM. In the foundation you get to decide a lot of things, and there was a huge group of people that wanted to get into fashion, which meant a lot of pressure. I felt a bit put off by that, but there was one course called Spatial Design and I really enjoyed it. It gave me a broader, architectural, higher-level design education and I wanted that strong overall understanding, rather than limiting myself to fashion.
While I was taking that course my tutor really pushed me to apply for the AA because it was a much more creative school. It wasn’t necessarily a technical approach; we would learn from our mistakes, build without any sketches and then work backwards, learning through our faults and missteps. I went to work in the industry for a bit, but these influences never really left, so I went back to CSM to really focus on fashion.
I’ve heard other designers talk about how architectural design is really beneficial for understanding design, translating challenges of large space down to a smaller scale.
Maybe this is a bit of a cliché, but it’s always about seeing the body as the landscape. That’s how I view fashion, and I really focus on construction and finishing — how to make sure all those finishes are done in a perfect way. This is especially true of menswear for me; with womenswear you’re much more free to do a lot of things, but with menswear it’s all about the story of the garment and how personal it can be to the customer. Men like to discover details that are very personal to them within the garment; internal finishes, things that you discover through time and which become part of the garment itself.
Menswear often seems much more about working within a fixed set of parameters.
Which is challenging, but I think it’s really interesting. You have a defined limit, and it’s your job to try and push things within that framework. You can do what you really want to do with womenswear, it’s almost too free, but with men you’re often more likely to test the boundaries than cross them.
Previous collections seem to have been a bit more pattern-driven at times, whereas SS16 is much more tonal. What are your thoughts on this?
This season was really about minimalism. There’s a lot of heaviness and darkness at the moment; in fashion you’ve got lots of prints and visuals, but the same is true with global political situations. With minimalism it’s even tougher because everything really has to be perfect.
When I was doing the collections back then I feel like I was moving in one direction. After taking some time out it seems like that movement has continued but I, personally, became a bit tired of it. It’s still there, a lot of print and heaviness, and I really wanted something fresh, clean, different from what was available. Even the architectural palettes are within that theme.
Could you talk me through some the inspirations of the collection?
Beyond the architecture there was a focus on Middle Eastern clothing. It’s very easy to self-reference in my opinion, and whilst I touched on Middle Eastern style in this collection it really wasn’t so much about my background as it was about ideas of movement. The idea of mixing two opposing ideas together goes a bit deeper than myself.
There was this idea of pacifying military clothing, minimalizing it. At the risk of a touchy subject, there were ideas of terrorism as well. This is more about the state that we’re in and the symbolism of certain things. To a Western person, some aspects of traditional Middle Eastern clothing are perhaps seen as aggressive or threatening, but if you look at it from the other point of view, the traditional Western military outfit could be much more threatening, or indeed terrorizing. It’s about how you view things and the ways we create meaning.
The longer tunics and extended shirting silhouettes seem to highlight an intersection between those two worlds.
Exactly. Again, looking at how things can be brought together, especially opposing ideas. Some of the photos we used for inspiration were taken in Whitechapel — photos of muslims in London going to mosques with their sneakers on underneath their gowns. It’s a very strong look that’s placed in a Western situation; I like ideas like that.
You’ve spoken before about a deep appreciation of London. Could you expand on this? What makes this city so important to you?
Well I came here when I was nine years old and I studied in Tunbridge. I used to run away from school and come to London at the weekends, getting in trouble all the time. I grew up during the whole Cool Britannia, influx of fashion, McQueen, all of that which was happening in the ’90s. It was a really important place for me, it always has been.
Could you ever imagine yourself living in or identifying with another city?
Not the same way that I do with London. I’m very comfortable here. Obviously the Emirates is home to me and when the weather is nice there it’s good, but when it’s too hot you can’t stay for long. I think everybody has a love-hate relationship with London, and now I go back and forth between here and the Emirates quite often I’ve found this new appreciation for the city. It’s important to get out and then come back in.
Do you think your experiences coming from an Arabic background have differentiated you from other designers?
I don’t know, because I can’t really relate to how other people see things. I just see things in a different way I guess. There are always different ways of viewing things. With my background, politics is very much embedded within our situation in the Middle East. We are always discussing politics, at home, over dinner, it’s present in conversation all the time. That’s something that I don’t necessarily see in fashion: politics within the clothes, translating politics and history into fashion.
You were quite candid about discussing some of these things before. Do you think, now, you might be in a stronger position to confront some of these issues sincerely?
Of course. If a British designer were to confront these things I think it would be something much more touchy, or edgy. I mean, it is important to me because, being Middle Eastern, being Muslim, people often expect you to explain yourself, you know?
I think that’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to be able to say, "If that is one position, then this is my position, this is how I view things, and I don’t necessarily think there’s one point of view. I think there is a larger picture with a deeper story." If there is a Western point of view, then there are other points of view also.
You spoke about using calm tones to neutralize the military image, which is interesting when Western military garb is already so present within fashion.
For me it’s the other way around actually! There isn’t necessarily a Middle Eastern “military image” — we’re talking about traditional clothing that has been hijacked and militarized. I think the Western military image is far more aggressive in terms of color, cut and construction. What I wanted to do was to collage or paste the fluidity and cleanliness of a Middle Eastern image onto that image, to pacify those Western military images. Of course, the Middle Eastern side has a military narrative, but it was appropriated. There’s much more to this collection than “referencing the Middle East,” because it’s a lot more complicated than that to me.
Well it’s interesting to realize that many will be thinking about the militarized image of the Middle East when they see this, rather than how that pre-existing image itself became militarized.
Obviously with a collection titled "False Flags" there’s going to be a slightly confrontational element. I like to be a bit controversial.
Have you ever felt that might be expected of you?
No, not expected, but I like to do it because it’s a place where I actually feel like I’m in a position to speak on what’s going on. That’s why you have these overlaying panels and distorted stripes, that idea of distortion, distortion of media, concealment.
I’ve read that your family (rulers of the Sharjah Emirate, neighboring Dubai) were quite apprehensive about you working in fashion at first.
I don’t really like to bring my family into these sorts of discussions. I mean, okay, it wasn’t easy and you have to fight for what you believe in. I think a lot of people, especially in the UK, might assume that building a fashion label might be an easy task for me, but there’s a lot more to this story than that. You have to really fight and prove yourself to them, and the same is absolutely true within the industry.
I think there’s a firm understanding within fashion that whoever you are, you have to work as hard as everyone else to be recognized and accepted.
When you see certain individuals moving within the fashion industry it’s very tempting to think, "Okay, they’re just jumping on the bandwagon," but we don’t know what the bigger picture is.
What will you be looking towards in the future?
I was discussing this with my team the other day. There’s one thing about our brand DNA and I think that will always be reoccurring with us; there has always been a military aspect. That thread runs through, but I really like to look at different subject matter every season. I like conflicting ideas and working with those conflicts, as well as politics and history.
When it comes to a certain look, I like to really change as much as I can every season, to push my boundaries and develop something new. Some people don’t like that. For them, they can’t see where things are necessarily going. But, for me, repetition from season to season is a bit easy. I’d much rather leave things behind and explore something new.
There are a lot of labels who do that slow burn with steady changes and it works, but there are also brands with incredible spontaneity. With Prada you really never know what’s coming up; sometimes it’s the same for three seasons, but then all of a sudden it’s completely different. I see the DNA running through, but we’re coming back after a break for three seasons and I really wasn’t going to do things how I’d done them before. This restructuring has forced me to really take a step back and analyze the business, the statistics, the inner mechanisms.
Words: Gregk Foley
Photography: Aleksandra Podburtnaja Styling & Art Direction: Shandopaul Sewell and Jamel Alatise Grooming: Rebecca Keates Models: Kevin Rowsell (FM London) & Mateo Carlos (Select Model Management)
Special Thanks: Coutts and McGuiness families