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9 Young Arab Designers Who are Innovative, Culturally Proud, and Environmentally Conscious

Innovative, culturally proud, and environmentally conscious—these are the burgeoning brands shaping the Middle East.

Over the decades, the fashion landscape in the Middle East has experienced a radical shift. Until a few years ago, the region was known primarily for its glitzy couture, often seen on international red carpets. Now, there’s been a significant rise in contemporary homegrown labels, too.

When it comes to understanding what customers look for from emerging labels, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, founder of talent incubator Qasimi Rising, offers some insight. “The saturation of established brands has prompted consumers to seek uniqueness and authenticity, providing emerging designers a chance to differentiate themselves. Additionally, the appetite for innovative ideas has remained consistent,” says Al Qasimi. What works in their favor is that young Arab designers are very proud of their roots and often tap into their rich cultural heritage when crafting collections – an aesthetic Al Qasimi believes resonates well with what clients are looking for. “Customers are increasingly seeking individuality in their fashion choices, and when it comes to young regional designers, these qualities are paramount,” she adds. Adhering to these standards, Qasimi Rising has been helping put regional talent on the map. “We provide access to platforms like London Fashion Week, mentorship, exposure to global audiences, and essential business resources. These initiatives help emerging designers establish themselves in the competitive fashion industry,” she says.

As barriers to entry are lowered, alongside fashion incubators nurturing new talent and elite schools like Istituto Marangoni opening their doors in the region, the kind of support young creatives can access is magnified. “In the past, the trend was mainly about creative minds from the Middle East deciding to study abroad to get the skills they need to pursue a successful career in the fashion and design fields. However, these days, the job opportunities in the Middle East are incredible,” says Elena Marinoni, director of education at Istituto Marangoni. The fashion school opened its Dubai branch last year and offers various enriching programs. “The institute is committed to having an active role in the Middle East, to encourage the creation of this ecosystem and build the new generation of fashion designers in the region,” she adds. However, despite the access to the kind of resources young creatives have today, several roadblocks still remain to be addressed. “What needs to be consolidated in the region is a fashion and design system based on the collaboration among all the stakeholders involved: higher education institutions, research centers, industries, and trade fair operators,” says Marinoni.

The recent rise of talent incubators and local fashion weeks further helps regional designers find their footing. For instance, this month will see the first edition of Saudi Fashion Week. Meanwhile, the Saudi 100 Brands initiative showcases creations by 100 Saudi designers through a traveling exhibition. In this feature, two of the highlighted designers are recipients of the prestigious Fashion Trust Arabia prize in different categories, which went a long way in helping them gain recognition. Finally, with the rise of social media – where many emerging designers choose to launch their labels – brands can get global exposure much faster.

From couture to contemporary and streetwear, Vogue Arabia speaks with nine young Arab designers who are carving their niche in the fashion world.

Ziyad Buainain

Launched in 2021 in London, Ziyad Buainain’s namesake luxury label celebrates femininity through color and shapes, with a side of drama inspired by his Saudi Arabian heritage. For instance, a bubble skirt printed with rocks from the deserts of the Kingdom. Or the print of a photograph of a woman holding a purse on a cropped jacket and skirt co-ord. “That is an actual photograph of my great aunt in the 60s that we’ve had framed in our house for as long as I remember,” he says.

Rawdah Mohamed

Born in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Khobar, Buainain moved to Tokyo at an early age and has lived in multiple cities throughout his life, including London, Milan, and New York. Thanks to this upbringing, he uses references from various cultures and often works with models and creatives from different backgrounds. He believes that you get a far more interesting outcome by doing so. The Istituto Marangoni alumnus says he feels most inspired in London, as growing up, he was fascinated with British fashion and the creativity of designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood. “I knew if I were going to start my label, it would be in London.” His silhouettes range from muted sophistication such as a simple long black dress, to sensual and bold garments like sheer trousers or a hot pink bodysuit. “I work on a made-to-order basis instead of overproducing. I try to use as many recycled and deadstock fabrics – these practices are aimed to reduce waste, overproduction, and overconsumption.”

Malik Thomas Studio

Specializing in bespoke garments and mixed media artwork focusing on screen printing and drawing, Amman-based Malik Thomas Studio is helmed by Malik Thomas Jalil. In 2020, he launched his design house, creating primarily outerwear, such as intricately printed hand-dyed wool coats with exaggerated collars and shoulders. The part Iraqi, part Scottish creative grew up in Kent, UK, and often spent summers visiting his maternal grandmother in Amman. “I always found the prospect of building my creative enterprise in the Arab world exciting because I was fascinated with the culture,” says Jalil. Later, he studied art and design at Central Saint Martins and fashion print design at the London College of Fashion, where his focus was screen printing on fabric.

He moved to Amman in 2018, working as a junior designer before branching out on his own. “I wanted to create garments that are artistic explorations – with each piece experimenting with a new way of embodying my drawings.” When he started his label, importing fabrics was a significant challenge, so he resorted to sourcing them from Amman’s second-hand markets and deadstock warehouses. Finding the right dye was difficult, and he recalls having to visit medical supply wholesalers in industrial corners of the city to purchase thickening agents. “I think I built a reputation as the bizarre young man with ginger hair who speaks in the Iraqi dialect while circling Amman’s workshops asking for obscure materials for the sake of fashion.” While Jalil still creates bespoke garments (orders can be placed on Instagram), his focus has shifted towards creating original artwork.

Atelier Fatima

“In my experience, you don’t get taught enough couture and dressmaking techniques in university,” says Dubai-based designer Fatima Saad of Atelier Fatima. The Libyan creative, who grew up in Abu Dhabi and graduated from Esmod Dubai last year, is open about her difficulties designing her graduate collection. “Navigating everything from the right fabric choices to figuring out the technical elements of the collection was at times very difficult for someone who had only ever made ready-towear at school.”

Saad’s stellar first collection, which showcased a series of glamorous eveningwear focusing on refined shapes and silhouettes with a dramatic flair, got her featured in Vogue Arabia last year. As a child, Saad was a big fan of Disney movies and the princesses’ ballgowns. Her love for fairy tales and fantasy is visible in her designs – an ivory silk Mikado strapless top with an oversized bow at the back paired with cigarette pants, an ivory silk faille pleated minidress with a midriff cutout, a merino wool tailored peplum top with duchesse silk satin lapels – all entirely handmade by her. “For now, I’m focusing on personal and creative projects with Atelier Fatima alongside getting more experience. I don’t want the constraint of commerciality just yet,” she says.

Ohanna

Creative director and co-founder of Ohanna, Hanna Hazem, has made it her mission to create elevated streetwear for women. Launched in 2019 in Alexandria, Hazem’s hometown, Ohanna’s clothes fuse femininity with ancient Egyptian elements, with designs that have been seen on celebrities such as Chanel Iman and Doutzen Kroes. Born out of a shared love for fashion and music between her and her business partner, Omar Maher, the label celebrates duality and artistic expression. “Through our designs, we aim to empower everyone to embrace their unique selves,” says Hazem. “Streetwear is often targeted towards men – we saw an opportunity to change that. Our designs allow women to embrace streetwear while maintaining their distinct femininity.”

The online offering includes silhouettes ranging from boiler suits with contrast piping, colorful skiwear, mesh corset tops, and joggers with silk detailing, all made in their workshop. Ancient Egyptian touches are added through the signature print on the lining, consisting of centuries-old motifs like the scarab beetle and the Eye of Horus. “We realized that by creating a signature print, we could create culturally significant and globally appealing pieces. By infusing streetwear with these elements/ prints, we connected our heritage to modern trends.” She says overcoming initial doubts about blending tradition with streetwear was a challenge, but the positive response they received was reassuring.

Rakan

Launched in the US in 2018, Rakan by Rakan Shams Aldeen is a luxury label fusing classic silhouettes with modern elements. Think oversized A-line coats made from houndstooth, or blouses with surface folding and architectural pleated skirts. The Syrian designer says he was drawn to the allure of fashion since he was a young boy. His mother, grandmother, and aunts designed their own outfits by going to local fabric shops, picking their designs, and working with skilled tailors. “When I was around five or six, a teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I just blurted out, ‘I want to be a fashion designer!’ That memory never left me,” recalls Aldeen.

Rakan with Diane von Furstenberg

As a young adult, architecture studies laid the foundation for his future in fashion. In 2019, he participated in Project Runway, which he credits as a pivotal but tough experience. “I overlooked the strategic aspect of the competition and was eliminated halfway, which was undoubtedly a low point. It was a hard setback to take.” Over the years, through trial and error and by working with different design houses such as Christian Siriano and Tory Burch, he learned about how the industry operates on a larger scale. He is the recipient of the prestigious Fashion Group International’s Rising Star award in 2020 and the following year, Maye Musk wore his clothes – a lace bodysuit paired with a Prince of Wales checked blazer and houndstooth trousers. “Maye wearing my designs for a TV interview and subsequently incorporating them into her wardrobe was incredibly gratifying,” he enthuses. Currently, he’s shifted base to Amsterdam where he’s also working on his latest collection, coined “2.0,” a seasonless line that will launch on a new website soon.

Zeid Hijazi

In April 2022, Palestinian designer Zeid Hijazi took the plunge and launched his eponymous label on Instagram while still studying at Central Saint Martins. The collection titled Kalt married his Palestinian heritage with futuristic silhouettes. “I think it is politely dystopian with a sense of an ancient Arab reality,” says Hijazi, who was raised in Amman, of his aesthetic. Think couture-esque jackets with ultra-high power shoulders, a skirt with a triangle hem intricately embroidered with traditional motifs, and funky ties. “If you visit Palestinian households in Jordan, you’ll see a lot of pillows and furniture with traditional embroideries – some of which were created before the occupation. The craft still exists, but I felt that bringing a contemporary twist would make it more interesting for people my age.”

In 2020, Hijazi won the Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA) Debut Talent award. Later, fashion school came with its challenges. “I was often underestimated at the beginning of my program as my classmates didn’t believe in an Arab student.” Despite the preconceived notions, he created a well-received first collection, which involved flying between four cities to source fabrics, meet artisans, and shoot a lookbook. Currently in his final year at fashion school, the designer is excited about the future of his brand. “I can’t wait to explode into the commercial world and get stocked around the globe.”

Reem Atout

Born in Egypt and raised between Qatar and the UAE, designer Reem Atout founded her namesake label last year in Doha. Growing up, she was fascinated with Egyptian movies and spent her time learning embroidery, which ignited her love for fashion. “I always caught myself paying more attention to the costumes than the plot itself. From there, I knew I wanted to grow my passion for creation into something bigger,” she says.

Her first collection, Teta Chic, which won her the Cairo Design Award, was an ode to her grandmothers and was created from their old jalabeyas, which they shipped to her from Egypt. The concept was to resurrect their style by modernizing the traditional garb. “Entering your grandmother’s house, you see the flowy drapes of the curtains, the plush velvet couches, the audacious clash of prints, and the vintage TV. I wanted to translate that into each look,” Atout says. Keeping the jalabeya’s silhouette and modesty intact was necessary to maintain its essence, and enhancing the original embroidery through the cutouts was her focus. To modernize it, she added athletic streetwear elements by layering each dress with a jersey set printed with a vintage TV glitch pattern she created. Atout says sustainability is the core element of her brand. “The path to sustainability would be easier if we looked at our clothing as an archive of stories and memories rather than a piece of fabric.” Atout is now busy designing her Spring 2024 collection and is finalizing its points of sale.

Marnissi

Launched in 2021, Belgium-based label Marnissi is the brainchild of Mohammed El Marnissi. The designer describes his brand as genderless and creates garments everyone can wear. Think contemporary haute couture referencing the latest trends and cultural elements alongside impeccable craftsmanship using durable materials.

Born in Morocco and raised in Belgium, the designer knew fashion was his true calling during high school. In 2021, he graduated with an MA in fashion and apparel design from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. Last year, his innovative designs made him a finalist for FTA’s debut talent category.

In his first collection titled The Orient and All its Mystery, discover eclectic pieces like a pink oversized shirt with 3-D flowers, a naturally dyed raffia coat using techniques inspired by Moroccan carpet weaving, or entirely hand-embroidered beaded pants. “A mythical love story from the Middle East inspires my collection. It’s a tragic anecdote about two young people from conflicted tribes who fall in love with each other. This combined with references from the 60s and 70s characterize this collection,” says El Marnissi. While the garments were made in his studio in Antwerp, the embroidery was done by a team of artisans in Morocco.

The designer strives to work with ethically responsible factories and suppliers, using natural dyeing processes and leftover stock from established fashion houses to reduce his footprint. “Sustainability and social responsibility are of utmost importance to myself and the future success of my brand. I wish to continue doing so on a larger scale.”

Fatma Mostafa

It’s not every day you come across a jewelry label that combines hand embroidery with 24ct gold-plated brass. Egyptian jewelry designer and artist Fatma Mostafa does precisely that. Think embroidered water lily earrings inspired by impressionist painter Claude Monet, a pendant depicting Egyptian landscapes, or a cuff featuring a flower made from shimmery threads. Mostafa’s unique visual sensibilities led to her winning the 2022 Fashion Trust Arabia prize in the jewelry category. “This prize has given my brand many opportunities on the international stage – it has been life-changing,” says Mostafa, who launched her namesake brand in 2017. Another milestone moment was when Bella Hadid wore the designer’s “Sheikh Jarrah” pin – a not-for-profit piece she designed in 2021 to support Palestine. “When I gave Bella the pin, she promised me she would wear it, and she did. It was a remarkable moment to see my dream come true through a good cause,” states the designer.

Mostafa grew up in a family that appreciated crafts and learned embroidery from her mother. She later studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo and graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree. She explains that her education laid the foundation for her to start experimenting with different mediums, and soon after, she founded her jewelry label. “The brand is about creating a space to express myself through all the arts I love while offering an artisanal product to my clients.” Mostafa is often inspired by her country’s rich heritage, which is reflected in her designs. For instance, her Over the Mountain collection references her travels to the Egyptian desert and mountains. Each one of her pieces can take up to six days to create and are reminiscent of miniature paintings. As her business grows, Mostafa passes her craft down to other women by teaching them her techniques. Her creations can be found on her website and Matchesfashion.com.

Originally published in the October 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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