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Ashi Studio New Collection Marks the Brand’s 10th Anniversary

Designer Mohammad Ashi with his models. Photographed by Stephanie Galea for Vogue Arabia

Originally featured in the October 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.

Three days ahead of his Abu Dhabi extravaganza, where Saudi couturier Mohammed Ashi will invite 250 Thai guests to an Arabian desert-themed fashion experience that will recall the recent far-flung resort affairs, he is still meeting with back-to-back clients at his stately 18th century villa showroom in Beirut. “I’m maintaining my happy face, but deep down, I’m stressed,” he chuckles, articulating his words and rolling the Rs – the trademark of a man who spends his days speaking to clients from all over the world: India, America, Thailand, Singapore, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The pressure is constant for Ashi, whose business revolves around dressing women who seek to express themselves and bring their image to life via his clothes.

“The dresses we sell range from US $25 000 to US $30 000, but we also have women from the couture club – that is rooted in the US – who come with a blank check.” He muses that one must be up to the challenge of designing for a woman with an unlimited budget. “That’s where it gets difficult. Those women know what they want and will pay upwards of US $150 000 to get it. Couture is a different world. Believe me.”

Ashi Studio Spring 2018 collection. Photographed by Stephanie Galea for Vogue Arabia

While his showroom is a revolving door, in the 10 years since Ashi launched his maison, Ashi Studio, he has seen the spend on couture shift significantly. Due to the global economic crisis, demand is shrinking. Furthermore, clients have begun to accept ready-to-wear collections. He himself launched ready-to-wear with a Fall 2015 collection in the spring of that year. He credits the late Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani for planting the seed. The year prior, he had received an email from Vogue Italia editor Sara Maino, asking him to gather his work and be in Milan in two days to present it to her. “She introduced me to Franca Sozzani, who told me, ‘I love what you do. I want to support you.’ She didn’t care where I was from. Franca told Anna Wintour I was Lebanese and Sara said that I came from Dubai. To them, I am just a human who creates.” Sozzani constantly pushed him to do ready-to-wear. “She wanted me to be legitimate. But I just didn’t have the money. ‘Find a way,’ she would say. And I did.”

Ashi Studio Spring 2018 collection. Photographed by Stephanie Galea for Vogue Arabia

Conceptual even as a child, Ashi studied at New York University, but quickly realized that becoming an artist was not in his future. He spent his free hours devouring films, watching The Color of Paradise repeatedly, analyzing the storyline. “Then I saw The Hours, and it was a turning point. I bought poems by Virginia Woolf and studied the characters.” This is how he first delved into character study. “I was raised in a culture where you have to be normal. I learned that if you’re not normal, it’s OK.” Today, all his collections, with their signature undulating, sculptured silhouette dresses that evoke a whirlwind of philosophic emotion and otherworldly landscapes, revolve around this idea. But for the young man with no fashion experience, design was still a long way off. “When I went to my father to announce that I wanted to study fashion, he almost had a heart attack.” Ashi enlisted the help of a family friend to persuade  him to reconsider. Shortly afterward, his father invited him to Milan. “All of a sudden, he gave the driver an address and there we were, in front of the Istituto Marignoni.” With the blessing of his family, he enrolled at the renowned Italian design school but struggled with the language. He then attempted studies in French at Esmod in Paris but faced the same language barrier. A teacher suggested he attend Esmod in Beirut, where classes were in English. He made the move and graduated top of his class, three years in a row. Following an internship at Givenchy and a job at Elie Saab, Ashi decided to begin working for himself. He rented a sewing machine, installed it in his Beirut apartment, and hired a tailor by the hour. “Some days I couldn’t even pay her. I would just beg her to finish.” Another turning point was when a friend took Ashi’s designs to the US. At the 2011 Grammys, he was the designer of the hour. Several of his dresses made the red carpet, worn by actors Eva Longoria and Naya Rivera from Glee. “That night the phone didn’t stop ringing. I didn’t have a secretary. I didn’t even have a site. All I had was Facebook,” he recalls, breaking into a laugh.

Today, he laments that social media has contributed to the demise of the mystery and glamour of fashion. “Look at the muses. It’s a big business. She is someone who must appeal to you as the designer, and your client.” Gianni Versace had Naomi Campbell, Hubert de Givenchy had Audrey Hepburn, Yves Saint Laurent had Loulou de la Falaise. They have all made the history books and are still cited today in collection inspirations. “I don’t have a muse because it’s very awkward. We’re not living in a golden age where they are having breakfast at Tiffany’s. These girls are having breakfast at McDonald’s, in sweatshirts. ‘Muse’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a persona of the past,” he says.

Ashi Studio Spring 2018 collection. Photographed by Stephanie Galea for Vogue Arabia

For all the shifting sands of the fashion industry, Ashi remains steadfast to his purpose. To manage the burgeoning business, over the last year he has been transferring his operations to Italy. “The reality is that Beirut doesn’t have the craftsmanship it had in the past. We have fashion schools, but we don’t have any platforms for tailors to learn. If you see the people who work with me in Lebanon, they are in their seventies, the youngest person is 60. Everyone wants to be a designer but no one is looking at the people who bring the magic to life.”

Ashi Studio Spring 2018 collection. Photographed by Stephanie Galea for Vogue Arabia

The Spring 2018 collection shown in Abu Dhabi is his second Made in Italy collection. If he considers that the tailoring has improved, Spring 2018 also represents a major creative leap for the designer. Ashi, who has only ever showcased monotone looks (“I could only see these sculptural forms in black or white”), reveals fuchsia, emerald green, and canary yellow on the catwalk in softer silhouettes along with structured crocodile bags – his first foray into accessories. “Ten years ago, I said, ‘I don’t want to be an art designer. I just want to be a designer.’ I want to be an international couturier. To make fashion that is current. We will push as much as we can and as much as we can afford. We are still trying to be a brand that is acknowledged by the fashion industry.”

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