I remember when the first images of the Darmaki origami heel loaded onto my screen. Sultan Al Darmaki, the 33-year-old designer hailing from Al Ain (a city in Abu Dhabi that sits inland of the border with Oman), had managed to nimbly translate his vision. I immediately e-mailed him my feedback, “Unisex. Conceptual. For the woman or man with a solid footing of her/his own identity, perennially curious, and in constant search of personal evolution.” The line up featured various iterations of a solid (yet lightweight) block heel and a sleek shoe. Next to my collection of Walter Steiger stilettos, the Darmaki signed, suede “Chanda” has since been one of my most reliable go-tos.
Every time I meet the towering Darmaki (he stands at 6’3), he is always dressed in black (in his go-to Thamanyah clothes); his curly hair either pulled back, or loose and wild around his face à la Cervantes. Darmaki is the leading emerging footwear designer hailing from the Middle East and one of world’s up-and-coming talents. But you don’t have to take my word for it, nor the word of Level Shoes buyer Alberto Oliveros, who has been ordering exclusive Darmaki iterations for several seasons now, and stocking them alongside the likes of Alaïa and Aquazzura. This week, Darmaki, the humble giant from Al Ain, has been named one of the top 18 emerging shoe designers of 2016 by shoe bible Footwear News.
The night before Darmaki received the honor, he left me a message describing the Suhoor (attended by fashion designers Faiza Bouguessa; Ahmed Abdelrahman of Thamanyah; accessories designer Nathalie Trad; and jewelry designer Nadine Kanso that he hosted that week in Dubai. “In the past year, a lot of young designers, artists, press, musicians, have been all working in silo, and I wanted to bring everyone together. We need to get to know each other and work together.” He continued, “We need to throw the idea of working in silo out of the window. It’s 2016, it doesn’t work like that anymore.”
Darmaki isn’t the only Middle Eastern talent on Footwear News’ radar. 30-year-old Amina Muaddi is a Jordanian-Romanian shoe designer, and the founder of Oscar Tiye. With an A-list following that includes the likes of Gigi Hadid, Miranda Kerr, and Kylie Jenner, the designer is known for creating sophisticated (and very sexy) footwear.
In 2014, and in an interview with Style.com/Arabia, Muaddi revealed to me how the Middle East influenced her collections. “Many of my shoes are inspired by the Arab world and carry a very strong, cultural interpretation,” she explained. “For example, the Cassandra shoe is inspired by the Great Mosque of Abu Dhabi. The Jamila is inspired by Henna tattoos and builds on your foot like a tattoo, in red and black. The heel of the Malikah represents the body of a Scarab and the wings symbolize the Scarab taking flight,” she explained. The scarab beetle in question is the brand’s logo, and is symbolic of Muaddi’s roots and Arab identity.
While this news is exciting for both the designers and our region, it is not lost on me that while both talents hail from the Middle East, they lack the resources needed to run their companies from the Arab world. At the outset of his career, Darmaki flew to Milan to meet manufacturers in Italy while Muaddi studied fashion communication at the European Institute of Design in the same city. Today, Darmaki has established his brand in London while Muaddi is based between Milan and Paris, and Darmaki and Oscar Tiye shoes are “Made in Italy.” The Middle East may be a growing hub for fashion and design talent, but designers need an ecosystem in order to function and thrive. World-class factories, schools, and mentorship are necessary in order to excel on the world stage. Darmaki’s Ramadan Suhoor expresses the Emirati designer’s desire to connect and collaborate with his regional contemporaries, and we must all do our part to help build the platform on which we can collectively realize our intrinsic potentials.