Celebrating 20 years of his eponymous fashion house, Syrian couturier Rami Al Ali retraces the steps it took to build – and why he’s now moving with purpose to pay it forward.
On a balmy, late winter’s evening in Dubai, Rami Al Ali, elegant as ever in slim, pleated pants and a white, cuff shirt, is overseeing the final touches of his Vogue Arabia shoot, celebrating 20 years since the launch of his fashion house. The table decor is imbued with ancient aesthetics from his country of birth and where he was raised – Syria. “It’s not just the craftsmanship,” remarks Al Ali, eyeing the mother-of-pearl elements native to Damascus, added by his Syrian friend, decorator Louay Mardam Bek. “It’s the elegance, the lines, those organic, naive branches with beautiful prints.” He very well could be speaking about his own contemporary couture that swaths the glamorous guests seated at his table in liquid satin, silk muslin, and tulle.
“When I hear the name Rami Al Ali, words bang into my mind and yet those words never fulfill his worth,” starts Egyptian actor Yousra. “Rami is one outstanding, marvelous, spectacular designer; always updated and ahead towards the international direction and genre. His spirit is reflected in his work; a signature that has a different taste and print in the world of fashion.” Al Ali started dressing Yousra for the red carpet in 2002 and the image of her in a white column gown with cap sleeves and floral yoke is one of his fondest memories. It would kickstart an eclectic list of celebrity dressing that – over the course of two decades – would include Aishwarya Rai, Beyoncé, Chanel Iman, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Chastain, Mary J Blige, Shu Qi, and more.
“When I hear the name Rami Al Ali, words bang into my mind and yet those words never fulfill his worth.” – Yousra.
In the beginning, he didn’t have such clarity on what would eventually become an almost instantly recognizable aesthetic, one that is both sensual and demure. A combination of showcasing femininity, something in particular about the body, and celebrating the female curve. It bears a marked richness but in a modern, subtle way and with a detail that lends to its uniqueness. Over the years, it’s his meetings with clients, where he would learn about women’s lifestyles, their traditions, and their tastes, that would guide his hand. “They loved what they were seeing in the market, but it didn’t entirely match their tastes – that twist that comes from the region was not there. I wanted to fill that gap,” he recalls. “I wanted to be 100% Middle Eastern but I also wanted the client from the West or from Asia to be interested and to like it.”
The son of a historian mother and architect father, Al Ali hails from eastern Syria. He remembers his childhood as idyllic. “It was the good old days,” he smiles. “Everything was available, natural, and there was not much competition.” Along with his parents and four sisters, he would holiday in the various corners of the country, enjoying simple luxuries like nature and each other. “As a child, Rami was rebellious. He rejected the norms imposed on him and any sort of control that limited his wild imagination,” recalls his older sister Reem. “He opted instead to think for himself, researching the context of things and the reasoning behind them. It was an early indicator of a strong personality, and a direct marker of someone destined to be an independent thinker and an exceptional creative.”
Little by little, the seeds for a life in fashion were planted. “I got the taste for fashion from my mother and the capacity to translate ideas onto paper from my father,” recalls Al Ali. Meanwhile, his sisters served as windows to a woman’s world. “I was very open and hungry for knowledge. I loved seeing and trying new things, and connecting with people around me. I started noticing how interested and infatuated I was with appearance; with what a dress can do to us and to others.”
As a child, he watched his mother go about her house chores during the day before that moment of transformation that would come at night, when she would don a dress for a social engagement. “Her posture changed, her voice, her behavior, too, and so did the people around her,” he remembers. “Every time that happened I noticed how intrigued I was.” The young Rami started drawing, his sketches always focused on clothes. His mother took the work to a tailor and the result gave him confidence that fashion was something he wanted to try.
After moving to Damascus to study visual communications – there was no fashion school – he decided to travel to the US to further his education. A stopover in Dubai would prove life-changing. While in the UAE, filling out paperwork related to schools in the US, he was encouraged to do an internship. A stint at the fashion house Ghanati saw him conceive fresh ideas that could be viewed as the opposite of what was the norm at the time. “It was very much the old couture ways; heavy, costumey,” he remembers of the local styles. He indefinitely postponed his move to the US and opened his eponymous couture house in 2001, with a staff of five, in Deira Creek, which, at the time, was the place where international brands like Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana were flourishing. It was also the beginning of a peak period in Dubai. “It was a perfect timing,” nods Al Ali of his founding days. “The market was rich, there were a lot of events, and there was a lot of support from the media.” One early supporter, journalist Diala Makki, recalls, “The first time I met Rami, I felt we were bonded by the soul and that we shared a similar vision.” She chose Al Ali to dress her in her role as host of Najm Al Khaleej, the Gulf version of American Idol, ultimately offering him a televised window to showcase his work to thousands across the region over the course of two years.
Following the Dubai boom of 2005-2006, Al Ali moved his atelier and showroom to a private villa in Jumeirah. His sights were set beyond the emirate, however. In 2009, he took the decision to start showing in Rome, and would do so for three years. Though he didn’t know it yet, the city would serve as a stepping stone to Paris, the international capital of couture, where he would show for 16 consecutive seasons before the pandemic grounded all international travel to a screeching halt. “Paris, for me, was not part of my vision when I first wanted to go global. It was too far, too big, too scary, and too competitive. What was I going to do there? But Rome gave me confidence; it gave me that push that maybe I was thinking about Paris in the wrong way,” he remembers. Transitioning to the City of Light proved to be fortuitous. It also paved the way for many other up-and-coming brands, from both the couture and ready-to-wear worlds, otherwise too shy to show at the world’s fashion capital. Couture fashion expert Timothy Pope remarks of Al Ali that he is “one of the rare couturiers working today in the realm of high fashion who embraces and is capable of delivering both a classic, feminine aesthetic, while maintaining innovation and modernity.”
Though less recognized, ready-to-wear is also a line that the couturier develops. HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud was the first to champion it. “Before she was the Saudi ambassador to the US, Princess Reema was overseeing the operations for Harvey Nichols Riyadh. She told me that it had potential and I should do more of it. Harvey Nichols Riyadh was the first store to support it. It’s a new world that I am still discovering,” he comments. “It has a mindset and behavior that differs from couture; I am developing it every year.” He has also launched White, a line for brides looking for ready-made dresses. Now, back home in Dubai, the Covid-imposed break has incited Al Ali to gather elements of his past to push forward with a new purpose.
Having driven at full steam for two decades, he is taking stock of his success and opening his doors to his wider community. “When my sisters moved from Damascus to Dubai, I started building my own Syria around me. I also had guilt that I wasn’t doing anything – I wasn’t living it nor was I being affected by it like so many people there,” he considers. Al Ali’s thematic ard dyar courtyard dinners aim to bolster the talents of his Syrian contemporaries whose successes are all too often merely whispered. “We Syrians have such a quiet character that we don’t know how to speak to the masses,” he starts. He likens the Syrian personality to Damascene architecture. “Damascus is an old city surrounded with a boundary wall with seven doors that are closed at night. Any foreign face is deemed a threat. We don’t realize that when we don’t speak of our triumphs, we kill hope and possibility for youth who don’t see Syrian success stories.”
Last year, he noticed a need for a greater sense of purpose. “I don’t want mine to be just a business, but one with a reason behind it.” He reflects on the lasting effect women have had on his life. “They are chameleons. Their ability to adapt so quickly has always amazed me. I take for granted the emotions behind it. How much ego a woman has to set aside in order to do everything she does in her life. I wish I could do that… I try.” And yet, his focus today has nothing to do with elevating his own name. Truly, he is Syrian through and through. “My purpose is to get someone else out there,” he remarks. “Purpose, in itself, is my goal for the years to come.”
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Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia