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These Millennial Arab Designers are at the Forefront of Sustainability

Increasingly conscious of fashion’s disastrous impact on the earth, millennial Arab designers and entrepreneurs are at the forefront of creating mindful clothing for the world.

Photography: Mann

In 1915, German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin sounded the warning bell when he said that compulsive buying disorder or buying mania would sweep our world. And it did. KPMG’s 2017 Global Online Consumer Report surveyed thousands of people in 50 countries and noted that we no longer “go” shopping, we “are” shopping every minute online. This buying frenzy has resulted in 34 million shipping containers (with a standard length of 6m) being carted around the world every year. Our addiction to novelty has led to unprecedented wastefulness and materialism putting insurmountable pressure on natural resources. Consumers, manufacturers, and retailers have created a world where we are “stuffocated” – oppressed by the unmanageable heap. In recent years, we have tunnel-visioned ourselves into a place of dystopia, where most of us still turn a blind eye to the environmental, societal, and ethical impacts of our individual choices. Mother Earth is carrying the weight of our greed. This brings us to the notion of slow fashion. What does it take to be a slow thinker, a slow creator, and a slow consumer? This is becoming the most important sartorial discussion of our era.

The slow fashion movement took inspiration from the slow food movement, which focuses on quality, fair pricing, and environmental health as the pillars of consumption. Slow fashion is mindfully manufactured clothes that lengthen the life of the garments. It involves buying designs that have cultural and emotional value – all of which disengages us from buying and throwing in the horrifying speed we do today. An average consumer is buying 60% more clothes than in 2000, while one garbage truck of clothes is burnt or sent to landfills every second. The fashion system needs a rejig. Mindful luxury invites us to consume less and believe in the process as much as the end product, else we will continue to be fooled by the destructive, resource-depleting systems of newness, novelty, and the revolving images of disposable fashion. The UN Sustainable Development Goals defined 17 transformative steps to protect the planet. Matteo Landi of the UN Industrial Development Organization says, “A significant shift is required towards an economical paradigm that is based on sustainability, redistribution (or more event distribution), and businesses that are purpose driven rather that profit driven.” The high-octane world of fashion is taking heed.

Emma Watson at 2016 Met Gala wearing a Calvin Klein dress made from recycled plastic. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Sustainable Couture Designer Ronald Van Der Kemp at his SS18 Show. Getty Images

Actor Emma Watson has been on a sustainable high-fashion journey since she reached celebrity status, using her press tours to showcase a variety of sustainable brands like Egypt’s Okhtein, Stella McCartney, and Ronald van der Kemp. Models Amber Valletta and Christy Turlington Burns advocate for the human rights of garment workers in the short film series Driving Fashion Forward. Recently, Chanel announced that it is investing in a Boston startup called Evolved By Nature that makes sustainable silk. Meanwhile, the Kering Group (which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen) has made substantial commitments to build large-scale sustainable practices into its business. To mark World Environment Day on June 5, it launched a digital platform dedicated to pioneering its environmental profit and loss account. It opens data that will offer insight and support its fashion companies on environmental impacts. Kering is also at the helm of the first full set of standards covering animal welfare for luxury.

Queen Raina in an Abadia coat. Getty Images

The conglomerate is ranked as the second most sustainable company across all industries in the world and first in luxury and fashion, according to business magazine Corporate Knights’s 2019 annual Global 100 list. There is also the rising voice of young Arab design entrepreneurs who aspire to build a sustainable future for consumers. “It is considered at every stage of our design process,” states Shahd Al Shehail, founder of Abadia, known for reimagining the traditional Saudi farwa coat. The modern iterations of age-old craft are luxurious, timeless, and versatile, and gained credibility when Queen Rania of Jordan wore an Abadia farwa to her daughter’s graduation from the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. Abadia partners with NGOs like Herfa Heritage to work with women crafters. “We are growing our artisan footprint across the region, adding new groups and exploring new techniques,” says Al Shehail.

At this year’s Grammy Awards, Cardi B turned heads in a bejeweled Mugler catsuit with a sparkling pair of Poise Design pumps. The founder of the Lebanese footwear brand, Emma Boutros, has taken a sustainable approach by repurposing indigenous fabric to make shoes. “I want my designs to be unique statement pieces and to carry a part of me – an Arab woman living in the Middle East who wants to spread awareness about our beautiful culture worldwide. I looked for a pattern or a fabric that was common to all Arabs, and sourced the kouffyeh from local artisans.”

This is cultural sustainability at its best, as Boutros integrates old craft traditions, passed down from father to son in local villages, and uses factories that hire Syrian refugees and Egyptian, Lebanese, and Armenian artisans with years of expertise. What inspired her upcycling was her collaboration with award winning Lebanese fashion designer Roni Helou. He is at the forefront of bringing attention to the garbage crisis in Lebanon. “He made me think – why not sustainable footwear?” says Boutros, vowing, “I will keep tweaking my methodology until I reach a totally sustainable practice.” Egyptian accessories brand Okhtein talks about cultural sustainability being at the heart of the designers’ oeuvre. Working with women-oriented craft clusters all across Egypt, sisters Aya and Mounaz Abdelraouf say, “We learned that craftsmanship takes a lot of effort and time. It’s a must that designers preserve this form of art. We live in a world that is moving so fast and although it’s exciting, we need to reflect on what’s good for our environment.” Norhan El Sakkout, Egyptian founder of Saqhoute sustainable fashion, encourages her customers to consume less. However counterintuitive this may sound, she is focused on higher priced quality clothes that last longer than the fast-fashion fare. Landi emphasizes the need for a spending shift, “It is imperative that we strive towards a more meaningful engagement of the private sector that goes far beyond sponsoring or donation. This could generate the necessary snowball effect and impact, while also maintaining economic growth and prosperity.”

In Lebanon, there are limited options for recycling old clothes. While some are donated, the majority are dumped in landfills. The environmental impact of dumping clothes is catastrophic. Lack of NGO resources and effective distribution systems sees less than five percent of potential second-hand clothing being collected. This is where FabricAid steps in. “More than half of the six million people residing in Lebanon are above middle class, with clothes available for donation,” explains co-founder and general manager, Omar Itani. “The available clothes exceed the amount needed by underprivileged communities by one-and-a-alf times. This is what gave me the idea to start FabricAid.”

The company bridges the gap between those who have excess clothes and those who need them, while disadvantaged communities get to choose and purchase the items they want. “Arab millennials want the work they are doing to impact the world; they feel the need to do something for society, to make the world a better place,” reflects Itani. “We now account for a bigger part of the consumer market and companies will have to adapt their products to this new purchasing power, making luxury and sustainability one in the same.”

Originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia

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