On January 3, a US drone strike in Iraq killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, sparking mutterings of World War III. The next day designer Paria Farzaneh presented her Fall/Winter 2020 collection, centred around the idea of an Iranian wedding ceremony at London Fashion Week Men’s, posing a sharp, positive counterpoint to the conflict in the Middle East.
While Farzaneh might not have been able to predict the political upheaval in the region, her work can be credited with challenging Western perceptions of Middle Eastern aesthetics. Her work draws on her Iranian heritage, with her latest collection refracting it through the lens of utilitarian outerwear melded with traditional patterns. All framed in a hopeful narrative.
“It’s a time to come together, to remember where you come from. Even though I was born here, I have been to Iran every year of my life,’ said Farzaneh on growing up in England. ‘I feel I am doing them proud, speaking for them, and that’s important to me.”
Farzaneh is part of a new crop of menswear designers reinterpreting their Middle Eastern heritage, something that has become increasingly popular with Western audiences.
“There’s a global eye on the Middle East at the moment,” says Tania Fares, founder of Fashion Trust and Fashion Trust Arabia, an annual non-profit organisation which provides financial support and business mentorship from expert panelists to designers in the MENA region. “Many designers are building their brands across the region and internationally, but not all are able to sustain and grow over time and achieve the international recognition they deserve.”
In Tel Aviv, Israel, there is Amit Luzon and Eyal Eliyahu, the duo behind menswear label ADISH which endeavours to deconstruct the tense socio-political dynamics between Israel and its neighbouring countries, in particular Palestine. The work renders traditional patterns and techniques in modern ways with a sharp focus on craft.
The intent wasn’t always political. Multiple industry insiders in Israel advised them against it, Luzon explains. However, injecting politics into their designs was decided upon after Nada, the leader of the group of women that brand works with at the Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank, with whom ADISH works on its production. “To hear what the women in the camp have been through in their lives in Palestine, which is only 40 minutes drive away from our studio, was a catalyst for us.”
After two years of working together, the brand opened an independent embroidery workshop in Dheisheh refugee camp. On every piece the brand produces there is a tag with the signature of the women who make the embroidery on the items. “It’s super important for the ladies to credit them and the places they come from,” says Luzon. Today, the brand produces half its collection in Israel (outerwear, weaving and embroidery), the other half in Palestine (tailoring and craft workshops). For Adish, it’s a symbolic way to show peace between the two, at conflict, regions.
“Being in the middle of the conflict here, especially in the current political climate, it’s really hard to feel like you can actually make a difference or change anything,’ said Luzon. ‘We are doing our part by bringing attention to traditional Palestinian craft while also making a difference in the lives of artisans who work with us,” says Luzon
London-based designer Hoor Al-Qasimi hails from the United Arab Emirates. She succeeds her late brother Khalid who passed away in July 2019. Earlier this year she presented her first collection for QASIMI. Each season, the brand produces a flotilla of modern, refined garments — with a focus on military, utility, and streetwear — heavily inspired by a multicultural background of a childhood spent between Sharjah and London.
“I wouldn’t say we aim to challenge Western perceptions, but I feel it’s important, as a brand with a heritage from both sides of the world, to educate [the West] on Middle Eastern values and its unspoken culture. QASIMI aims to do this through being both soft and humble, and not overly forceful,’ says Hoor al Qasimi.
The smatterings of military influence stem from the designer’s upbringing during the Gulf War; albeit far from the conflict, the memories of warfare still last. “All my work is highly emotional and always challenging, whether it’s art or fashion. Khalid was very much the same,” al Qasimi says of her late brother.
Consistent amongst the new crop of designers is a sense of preservation of aspects of their personal heritage — from upbringings between East and West, interest in fabled tales from the region’s past, trips to countries their parents and grandparents grew up in — stories that would otherwise have not seen the light of day.
“This is a time for designers to reclaim their narrative through storytelling,” says Sara Sozzani Maino, Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Vogue Italia, who served as a judge for the inaugural Fashion Trust Arabia ceremony. “For designers now, it’s fundamental to clearly communicate the message they want to give and how they want to create awareness and positive impact in the industry.”
Designers from the Middle East have enjoyed success for years. All from Lebanon, Reem Acra, Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad built flourishing businesses in New York and Paris. Though for all their frothy tulle and delicate embroidery, the new crop of designers are seemingly more questioning and interpretive of their backgrounds.
And they’re succeeding. The international press coverage of designers from the region has boomed in recent years, from Saudi Arabia hosting its first fashion week and the Fashion Trust Arabia drawing a star-studded lineup to Qatar. Furthemore, in 2017, Conde Nast launched Vogue Arabia, following with the launch of GQ Arabia in 2018..
"Working with Fashion Trust Arabia allowed us discover new talent in the region and learn more about what inspires them. Each brand [is] incredibly proud of their heritage and it [is] clear how much this has influenced the way they design and produce their collections," explainsNatalie Kingham, Fashion and Buying Director at Matches Fashion, which today stocks many brands from the region including Adish and Racil. "From the use of local artisans, to inspiration from ancient artefacts and dress within the region, the intricate detailing and storytelling is so compelling and we find it resonates really well with our customers."
Yet there is no consensus amongst designers from the Middle East about what reinventing heritage looks like — the MENA region spans approximately 19 countries, each one equipped with its own history, experience, and culture. The designers, in turn, interpret their own heritage and challenge Western perceptions, their own way.
“Just as every country is different, every designer is different, so it's very difficult to identify Middle Eastern style because the region is so culturally diverse. Our aim is to not necessarily define an “Arab” style, but more so to highlight the wide variety of talent,” says Fashion Trust’s Tania Fares.
Western designers have not always been auspicious in their connections with the East. In 2018, Gucci came under fire for showing a turban in their Fall/Winter 2018 collection. A visible marker of Sikh identity, the brand, and retailer Nordstrom who sold the item, received criticism and accusations of cultural appropriation on social media. It’s up to designers from the region to create the narratives that are true.
“There’s real potential from young Arab designers and Middle Eastern-based labels with the international market,” says Fares. [Now] we’re looking forward to showing it,” says Fares.