I’m what some people call “a third culture kid”: I’m an American of South Asian descent (my dad is Indian, my mom is Pakistani), and I’ve spent the majority of my life in the Middle East. I also lived in New York City after college. I’ve been exposed to a large variety of aesthetics and design sensibilities over the course of my life as a result, and all of it has fueled my curiosity around how clothing and culture intersect.
The Middle East is comprised of about 22 diverse and distinct nations. Although the high-fashion sensibility of the entire region often seems chalked up by outsiders to things like jewel encrusted, over-the-top kaftans and knit Missoni turbans, each nation has its own history, landscape and aesthetic. Naturally, the fashion that comes out of these different areas mirrors these unique cultural personalities. What’s particularly exciting is the growing demographic of women who, in living through years of political and social change, are eager to break free from traditional conventions by carving out our own paths and narratives.
I consider myself among these women. We’re challenging all of it, from our careers to marriage to personal style. The reason I choose to tackle this topic through clothes, specifically, is because I believe in their ability to positively connect people. It’s important to me that a Middle Eastern designer, or a Muslim designer, or a designer who creates with full coverage in mind for the sake of her customer, is just as relatable and covetable to a New York woman as the American and European brands she may be more familiar with. This kind of representation can aid in widening our global perspective of fashion and style.
Below, meet four Middle Eastern designers I have my eye on: Mochi, Faissal El-Malak, Nathalie Trad, and Bouguessa. Each one doing their part to reshape and broaden the perception many have of Middle Eastern style.
Who: Born in Riyadh, raised between Amman and Dubai, Jordanian designer Ayah Tabari founded Mochi in 2013 with the intention to share stories of artisans from around the world and support them in the process.
From the website: “We travel extensively to different destinations, familiarize ourselves with the cultures and traditions in order to design a collection that truly and authentically represents its origins. We aim to assist these communities by creating jobs and opportunities for work and growth among these women in hopes of contributing to their well-being, morale, standard of living and purchasing power.”
To Tabari, Mochi symbolizes “fun, integrity, unity and empowerment for women.”
Why I’m into this label: The colors, the shapes and the general happiness that the brand exudes.
How I’d wear it IRL: Because Mochi is all colors, tassels and baubles, and my day-to-day style leans a bit more relaxed and understated, I’d add a blazer over this crop to add a little more structure, and cover up to my liking. The great thing about Mochi is just one piece makes all the difference.
Who: Accessories designer Nathalie Trad was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised in Dubai. She went to school at the prestigious ESMOD in Paris attended Parsons School of Design in New York City. It was during an internship at Proenza Schouler that Trad says she was able to “forge a unique signature style,” one that set up the foundation for her inaugural collection, which played with geometry, nature and modern architecture.
“New York and Paris definitely served as a breeding ground for creativity,” she told me over email. “I got to reflect, absorb and take stock of my surroundings, then redirect this new flow of energy into my own work. I didn’t want to just create accessories, I wanted to create wearable sculptures that broke away from the mold.”
Why I’m into this label: Her take on accessories and handbag design is unlike anyone I’ve seen in the region or even globally. On a personal level, I come from the art/museum world, too, so Nathalie’s process and taste very much speaks to me.
How I’d wear her designs IRL: With an understated outfit — her bags do most of the talking. (That said, if you’re a hyper-maximalist, a Nathalie Trad bag is perfect to add even more interest to an already-maxed-out outfit.)
Who: Palestinian native Faissal El-Malak is the 2018 Vogue Arabia Fashion Prize winner. He was born in Windsor, England, and grew up between Doha, Qatar, and Montreal, Canada. After studying fashion in Paris, where he lived for six years, Faissal moved back to Doha to launch his namesake label. Today, he calls Dubai home; it’s also where he grows his brand.
“I have always been very passionate about textiles and how they’re milled, paired with construction and craftsmanship, and [their] relation to identity,” he tells me over email. “I launched my brand because I wanted to tell my personal story of the Middle East through fashion.”
Why I’m into this label: I love how Faissal marries artisanal textiles (handwoven in places like Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt) with modern silhouettes. On top of that, his clothes are easy to wear.
How I’d wear his designs IRL: I’d pair a crisp button-down with one of his printed woven cotton pants, or I’d add a blazer over one of his coordinated looks featuring a kurta and straight-leg pants, like I did here.
Who: Founder Faiza Bouguessa was born and raised in the South of France to two Algerian parents. Today, she calls Dubai her home.
Bouguessa explained to me over email that she created her eponymous line “with the intention to help women feel confident and be able to fully express themselves via their personal style.” Her collections are inspired by art, architecture and global culture, and she’s all about clean lines and sharp tailoring.
Why I’m into this label: Because of how structured and elegant her brand is. Faiza took a traditional garment (the abaya) and totally reinvigorated it. She’s merged her classic French style with the modest parameters of the region to create something extremely fresh, desirable and wearable.
How I’d wear her designs IRL: Bouguessa, which basically reinvented the abaya, is regarded as a “modest brand.” (In the Middle East, modest dressing is linked to tradition, religion and culture.) But clothes that cover don’t have to be about modesty if that’s not the consumer’s goal; they can be a stylistic choice. They can also be styled in a way that allows the wearer to express and show whatever she chooses, which is why I paired Bouguessa’s billowing linen blazer with vintage denim cutoffs. I wanted to make it warm-weather-friendly and fun, but stay true to the elegance of her brand. I’d not only wear this around NYC, but Dubai, too.
How does where you’re from affect the way you dress? How does it affect your approach to fashion?
Photos by Waqas Farid.