For Hubert de Givenchy, it was Audrey Hepburn, for Yves Saint Laurent, it was Betty Catroux. But who do Middle Eastern designers turn to when inspiration strikes? We talk to several of the region’s most beloved couturiers, who open up out the women that most motivate them and their work.
Linda and Nancy Jebran for Nicolas Jebran
Originally printed in the 2018 September issue of Vogue Arabia.
“Fashion is the mirror of the soul, it takes the woman to another level of self-confidence and influence,” philosophizes Nicolas Jebran. “Fashion reflects a state of mind as well as a state of being and the passion born within.” Jebran’s international success can be attributed to his determination and fierce perfectionism, with the Lebanese haute couture designer admitting one of the toughest elements of his role is “making every woman happy with what she’s wearing; giving her a perfect and happy image of herself.”
With a client list that includes Beyoncé, Kendall Jenner, Mahira Khan, and Maya Diab, Jebran has certainly had strong, inspiring women to please. Two of the most important women in his life are his mother Linda and sister Nancy, who, he says, are more to him than family and muses. “I’m inspired by women with fight in them,” he shares. “I admire how my mother and sister act and react. Their ability to accommodate, to alter situations, to look at life from a different perspective encourages me.”
Jessica Kahawaty for George Azzi and Assaad Osta
Lebanese duo George Azzi and Assaad Osta honed their design skills at Esmod Beirut in 2004 before cutting their teeth at Elie Saab. After 18 months of learning directly from the couture master himself, they decided to take another plunge together – launching their own label. Their conceptual and structural volumes, asymmetrical cuts, and fabric manipulation rapidly saw Azzi & Osta establish itself as a favorite label on Hollywood’s red carpets. From Beyoncé to Eva Longoria and Marion Cotillard, rarely a gala or premiere is complete without one of their creations on show.
Citing fashion as their life mission – being able to “transform an artistic and dreamy idea into a wearable dress” – the pair counts Lebanese-Australian model and humanitarian Jessica Kahawaty as a muse. “She inspires in every way,” they say. “She’s strong, independent, and charming. She’s a successful businesswoman, a great philanthropist and, of course, she has great beauty.” Queen Rania of Jordan and Amal Clooney are also the “prefect representation of the Azzi & Osta woman.”
“We like feminine, independent, compassionate, and elegant women, who value their heritage and embrace the future,” add the designers, who are set to launch a ready-to-wear collection. “It’s happening this month. We aim to be a global fashion house.”
Feda Alawadhi for Bazza Alzouman
Kuwaiti designer Bazza Alzouman launched her eponymous brand in 2014, specializing in feminine, luxurious gowns. With her intricate pieces, made with advanced construction techniques, she bridges the gap between ready-to-wear and couture. “I like to create elegant designs with a twist for the modern, well-travelled woman,” she explains. “I want the clothing to be feminine but not girly; flattering but not overly body-conscious or restrictive.”
Edgy yet chic, Feda Alawadhi is an unassuming muse, with Alzouman admiring the stylish creator of Kuwait-based skincare gym Thahab via Instagram. “I’m drawn to her free-spiritedness, and her choice to live authentically and fearlessly as she truly is,” Alzouman says. The designer also cites her sister Sarah and friend Nawar Al-Zaemi as muses. While the three women offer inspiration, the end result is always at the forefront of Alzouman’s designs, with comfort being as paramount as the aesthetic. “I love when people fall in love with a design, when it sparks their emotions. That is the ultimate accomplishment.” Her big goal is to create a sustainable luxury brand.
Saphia Azzedine for Sandra Mansour
“Saphia is someone who has always broken down barriers. She’s a passionate thinker and believer, and her strength is inspiring,” says Sandra Mansour about the Moroccan writer, actor, and director Saphia Azzeddine. “Her determination and beauty are a source of constant inspiration. She has the ability to evoke emotion and allows you to question your ideals and thoughts.”
As well as Azzeddine’s unflappable confidence, art and history also help Mansour’s creative process, with the designer often “escaping” to galleries and museums – “where I find myself motivated to design.” For Mansour, fashion is a form of expression. “It’s not necessarily about its importance,” she explains. “It permits me to express myself and create.” Her designs are comfortable yet chic with a less-is-more approach – a perfect realization of her Swiss and Lebanese roots. After learning the tricks of the trade from Elie Saab – gaining experience in fabrics, textiles, embroidery, prints, and cuts – Mansour established her workshop in Beirut in 2010 and began her career as a fashion designer. In less than a decade she has built a loyal fan base, including dressing Russian designer Ekaterina Malysheva for her wedding to Prince Ernst August of Hanover. Lady Gaga and Gigi Hadid have also wore her creations.
Lana El Sahely for Rami Kadi
“Fashion is what I live for, what I breathe, and what I love,” insists Lebanese designer Rami Kadi. He is positive about the influx of Arab designers getting international attention. “I’m always proud to see more Arab designers, I like this diversity. I believe it’s a great accomplishment seeing Arab culture supporting fashion lovers and designers.”
Renowned for fusing traditional silhouettes with innovative fabrics and techniques, Kadi – who is part of the Esmod alumni – launched his own studio and opened his first boutique when he was just 25. Seven years later and he has a major following from Bollywood to Hollywood, with celebrities including Aishwarya Rai, Shanina Shaik, and Katy Perry wearing his creations. One of his biggest admirers is Lebanese social media star Lana El Sahely. “Every strong, independent woman inspires me,” he says. “Lana is one of my oldest friends. She always supports me. She was the first Middle Eastern blogger to be recognized internationally and she’s transformed her blog into an e-commerce brand, which is what fashion is about.”
While Kadi plans to eventually expand his brand – he’s currently developing a children’s collection, a hotel line, and a perfume – for now, he is happy with seeing his creations come to life. “My favorite thing about being a designer is the moment my muses wear my pieces. Seeing the end result on their silhouettes gives me so much happiness.”
Victoria and Sarah El-Nayal for Nabil El-Nayal
Raised in Syria, Nabil El-Nayal loved exploring fabrics and textures at his father’s textile shop. Spotting his potential early, his mother and muse, Victoria, encouraged him to be creative. “Without my mother, I wouldn’t have studied fashion at all,” he says. “I had so many people against the idea of me pursuing a creative pathway. But she said I would overcome any obstacle, and in many ways, I think I have.” Equally as supportive of El-Nayal, who moved to England when he was 14, is his sister, Sarah, who works with him on all his collections. “My relationship with her has evolved from me looking after her as a baby – she is nine years younger than me – to her being my best friend. My mom, sister, and business partner, Jennifer, offer a woman’s perspective on my work, which is so important. They challenge me daily to be the best designer I can be.”
El-Nayal – who recently graduated with a PhD in fashion from Manchester Metropolitan University – has a striking signature design aesthetic, thanks to his obsession with Elizabethan craftsmanship, and musicians Rihanna and Lorde are big appreciators. In September 2017 he designed an exclusive piece for Lorde’s Melodrama world tour. “My work draws from the Renaissance,” explains El-Nayal. “I work with black and white, favoring silhouette over color. The classic white shirt and the smock form the basis of my design work. I have a love of drama and achieve this through striking forms, fabrication, and construction.”
Now Read: Beirut Couture House Azzi & Osta Ventures Into Ready-to-Wear
Photography: André Wolff, Luca Trevisani, Ziga Milhelcic
Hair and Makeup: Velvet Management, Jean Najem, Joanna Kamar, Maya Yammine, Tony Mendelek, Maison Fady Kataya, and Melanie Meyer at MMG.
Style: Amine Jreissati