Voices

'Fashion is a beautiful thing'

By Kate Le Versha

24 February 2016 - 14:46

At London Fashion Week 2016, the British Council's Kate Le Versha spoke to four rising stars in our International Fashion ShowcaseMashael AlRajhi from Saudi Arabia; Dian Pelangi from Indonesia; Nour Najem from Lebanon, and Hala Kaiksow from Bahrain.

Tell us about your collection for the International Fashion Showcase. How did you interpret the theme of utopia?

Mashael AlRajhi, Saudi Arabia: I created a look with a long coat which is very plain from the front but has lines of intricate hand beading and embroidery on the back. There are 196 lines, representing the number of countries around the globe, showing the beauty and infinity of all countries working together and moving in the same direction. I chose white to reflect religion, symbolising peace and love. I was trying to translate all these ideas into a single piece: a vision of unity and peace in our world.

Dian Pelangi, Indonesia: I started with the idea of utopia in our imaginations, and then thought about the five elements as being essential to life and also present in our imaginative world. I’ve focused on fire, as I want my customers to look brave and bright, stunning and different, like fire. Although I didn’t pick colours obviously related to fire, I took black and white, inspired by smoke and ashes, with bright and shining beading to represent fire itself. The pieces are part of my latest collection, Co Identity, which could be summed up as a cultural explosion of colours, patterns, and designs.

Nour Najem, Lebanon: For me, utopia is where you want to go. But you can’t go anywhere if you don’t know where you come from. I wanted my pieces to show where I come from; my cultural background, and basically the good parts of being Lebanese. The outfits I’m showing have three pieces: a coat, a top, and a skirt. There’s a great deal of Lebanese cultural heritage embedded in the designs: the fabric is inspired by a piece of traditional handmade brocade. This fabric isn’t made any more, because the skills have been lost. So I took a piece of this brocade, copied the motif, and blew it out of proportion to create a sort of ‘carpet’, which is also very important within our culture. I presented this in the form of a kaftan or an overcoat that you can wear anytime, anywhere. With the second piece, the top, I used pieces of aluminium to recreate motifs seen on a backgammon table, and in traditional tiling. The design is geometric, but put together in a very poetic way. I wanted the collection to represent who we are and how we show ourselves as Lebanese.

Hala Kaiksow, Bahrain: In a sense, I feel my pieces present a dystopia, but a hopeful one! It is about a woman rebuilding herself and creating her own identity. The piece is made from strong materials, using 3mm thick felt that has been hand-sewn together. It’s an armour in a sense for everyday living – showing that a woman can shield and represent herself at the same time.

Did you always know you wanted to be a fashion designer? 

Mashael AlRajhi: No, I had no idea I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was younger. When I was little, I used to run around in the tailor's and collect scrap fabric for my toys, but I never imagined it would lead me to my profession. I studied business management and many of my family are in business. My father is a banker, but my mum is an artist, so I suppose I had both influences; the business and creative side, which has certainly had an impact on how I run my label in keeping a good balance between the two.

Dian Pelangi: I was in love with the fashion world from a very young age. My fashion label was originally established by my parents, so I grew up learning about the business of fashion. Fashion is in my blood, I think.

Nour Najem: I didn’t want to follow this route initially. I actually went for medicine. I did three years of biology at the American University of Beirut. I have a BSc, I was about to go on to do medicine, but at the last minute I couldn’t do it and decided to go to fashion university. I also got an MBA at the same time, just to ground everything with the business side as well.

It was a huge leap of faith. My dad still says ‘you’re crazy, you should have done medicine!’. But I just love what I do. Where I come from, fashion design isn’t a well-known career. If you say you work in fashion, people say ‘Oh! You’re a seamstress, really?!’ and I say 'Well, no, not really, I’m a designer', but that doesn’t count for anything.

Hala Kaiksow: When I was around eight years old, I fell in love with the world of fashion but also the world of making things with my hands. I learned to knit at the age of ten from my grandmother. I love working and expressing myself with my hands, and I did art before I came into the world of fashion, so it's always been in my blood.

What advice would you give an aspiring fashion designer?

Mashael AlRajhi: Never wait for the right time or for opportunities to come to you – just do it.

Dian Pelangi: Focus on what makes your work individual. There are so many fashion designers in this world, so it's important to stand out. Never give up on doing what you love, and remember to always put your faith and passion into your work.

Nour Najem: Believe in yourself, and forgive yourself as much as you can, because you’re going to go through a lot of hard times. Give it everything that you have. As long as you love what you do, at some point that’s going to come through.

Hala Kaiksow: It’s not a glamorous job. It’s worth it when you see the end result and you can see how far your garments can travel on their own, without you even having to speak. I think fashion is a beautiful thing; a mixture of art and sculpture that’s moving around the body and showing itself differently every day.

How do you get inspiration for your designs?

Dian Pelangi: My ideas and inspiration mainly come when I am traveling. I love to meet local people and learn about their culture, so I can take it away with me and represent it within my collections. Experiencing places I’m not familiar with makes a huge impact on me, not just in terms of my view of the world, but also in terms of my work and creativity.​

Nour Najem: I was raised in a family of architects and artisans so a lot of my inspiration comes from my background. The things I read, the things I was shown as a kid, colours, textures, and history of art. It’s all about research, I think. It’s about knowing what you want to portray and who you are at the core as a designer.

Hala Kaiksow: For this collection, I mainly looked at work wear from around the world and cultural garments, all hand-sewn and hand-mended. For example, I was inspired by a Japanese peasant’s patched boro kimono, a shepherd's jacket from Iran, and a sailor's aran jumper from Ireland. I take inspiration from everything, including my own Arab culture, and try to modernise and reinterpret it. I try to twist and turn it on its head, to give it a new context in a modern sense.

Does your heritage play into your work, and if so, in what way?

Mashael AlRajhi: I try to use my Saudi heritage with my designs, so you’ll see a lot of layers and coats, and traditional hand work and embroidery.

Layers are important to me, as in Saudi Arabia women wear abaya robes, with many layers underneath, so I bring that into my collections. I also like using traditional techniques such as hand embroidery and smocking to create contemporary shapes and effects. I play with flat fabrics, giving them volume and texture.

Dian Pelangi: I always bring my Indonesian heritage into my designs, so I can promote our culture. I use Indonesian craft techniques such as batik and tie-dye, and a traditional woven fabric called Tenun, which I’ve adapted in a more contemporary way, so I can bring it into everyday outfits.

More broadly, mine is a family business, inspired by my father who started this company from nothing. So I could say that personal heritage also plays a big role in my work, because it is very important for me to remember where I come from and my own roots, and envision it in most of my designs.

Nour Najem: My heritage is a huge part of my work. My brand is known for traditional cuts and references – such as the backgammon and tiles in my International Fashion Showcase pieces. There’s also the artisanal part of it. I’m known for handmade details and handmade fabrics that tie everything together.

I follow the social enterprise model with my label. So I develop a lot of handmade detail and handmade fabric in my collections, made by women from underprivileged backgrounds. I teach them the techniques, and they do the work when their husbands are out. This is very empowering for women in our region, as they often aren’t allowed to work. With the skills they’ve learned from me, some of these women have been able to go and work full-time. It's given them the courage to change their lives. Some of them say they just want their daughters to see them working, to help them to realise that they can be their own person.

Hala Kaiksow: I’m really inspired by geometric patterns, by our garments and the climate in Bahrain, and how what’s so familiar to one person is so strange to another. I try to reinterpret my cultural garments in a modern way. So a jumpsuit I've designed is based on a traditional piece of dress for women, and I’ve also tried reinterpreting traditional Arab menswear for women.

What do you like about the way people dress in your country?

Mashael AlRajhi: I like the way men dress in Saudi Arabia, with all their different layers and how they cover the body. It gives a really strong, square silhouette with all the fabric falling from the shoulders down to the floor.

Dian Pelangi: People in Indonesia are very creative and I love the way they dress. We have a lot of cities and each has its own traditional fabric. People love to play with colour, which suits my label, as ‘Dian’ means light and ‘Pelangi’ means rainbow, so our name means the ‘lights of the rainbow’.

Fashion, and particularly 'modest' fashion, is growing really fast in Indonesia. I really love that Indonesians are so open to modernisation, pluralism, and diversity in fashion. As a Muslim fashion designer, I think Indonesians know how to dress themselves fashionably while remaining modest and comfortable. But I’m also very glad that I can show my modest fashion line here in London. It’s been great to hear how local Muslim communities and the established fashion labels in London have come together, and to see how that can evolve.

Nour Najem: I actually don’t like the way people dress in my country. What you might see here in Britain as being tacky, people may love in Lebanon. I think at some point they are going to wake up.

There is this idea that you have to be very sexy and show off your curves. I’ve heard people say ‘we’ve worked really hard for our bodies, so we’d like to show them off’. But it’s not only about that. Who are you as a person? You’re not just a body, you’re not just sexiness. For me, the less you show, the more sexy you are and the more seductive you are. Confidence is sexy.

Hala Kaiksow: Bahrain is pretty open and free, and that’s great for a Middle Eastern country. I feel like you can really express yourself. The men’s thawb might be surprising for other cultures as it looks like a dress. I find it beautiful and it works for the climate; it's airy and breathable.

What’s more important in fashion – wearability or beauty? 

Mashael AlRajhi: I prefer items that you can wear in different ways, so something you could wear with pants, shirts, or even a bikini. Something that is versatile.

Dian Pelangi: I feel that wearability is more important. I want to design something that people can wear and will love. I think we should make people comfortable in what they wear, and inspire them with our designs.

Nour Najem: Dressing well is about confidence and being who you are. You could feel very beautiful, but if you aren't comfortable, at some point you’re going to start feeling tired and restricted and people are going to sense that.

Hala Kaiksow: When it comes to design, beauty is in the balance. Beauty is the first thing I go to, but function is important too. Seeing your garment endure for a lifetime is a very beautiful thing, and functionality plays a big role in that.

What’s the practical process of putting together a collection?

Mashael AlRajhi: It takes three months to put a collection together. I have to travel to Europe to get fabrics, so I get unusual fabrics from London, and the basics from Spain and Italy. I don’t use sketches. I prefer to work directly on the mannequin. The whole process is quite organic, so I might start with the fabrics before I have even designed the collection, or I might have everything planned out in advance.

Dian Pelangi: The collection we’re showing here is a collaborative collection with London College of Fashion graduates Nelly Rose Stewart and Odette Steele. We first presented this collection at Jakarta Fashion Week, so we only had two months to create the collection by hand.

Nour Najem: Designing a collection usually takes three to four months. We start with research, including fabrics, the theme and idea, shapes and silhouettes, then develop the first drafts of the patterns and prototypes, and finally create them in fabric. I develop my own handmade fabrics, so that can take the most time.

Hala Kaiksow: I think ideas are always bubbling away in the back of your head, and in your collection you crystallise those ideas. So your ideas for a collection could have been developing for a year, or even since childhood.

I start with inspiration and by exploring ideas for a few months. Production and sampling take the most time. All my clothing is handmade and uses hand-woven fabrics, and I also use more unusual materials like latex and mother of pearl to express certain concepts.

How do you like to dress? Do you wear your own designs?

Mashael AlRajhi: I do wear my own designs. In the first year I didn’t wear my own designs – I don’t know why. But now I love wearing my designs and playing with the layering. I like to mix styles, so I love wearing comfy things with something more chic, something casual with haute couture.

Dian Pelangi: I like to dress elegantly and using colour.

Nour Najem: Anything not constricting. Otherwise it’s just about feeling very confident. I like to show pieces of my heritage and who I am in the way I dress, and I think it shows. I like being able to tell a story and I always wear my own designs.

Hala Kaiksow: Comfort is really important, but I also like how I dress to represent my personality. Pants are really important to me, as they are functional, I get to move, and l like playing with layering.

To me, it’s really important as a woman from the Middle East to try to be a voice. I think it’s so important to educate women and to give them equality in just a human sense. We’re just as capable, we’re just as strong and we have so much to say as well. I think it’s amazing that there are three Middle Eastern women in this exhibit – it’s a proud moment for us.

Read more about Mashael AlRajhiDian PelangiNour Najem, and Hala Kaiksow.

If you'd like to find out about the British Council's fashion work, please see our Architecture, Design and Fashion pages.

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