Fashion is political and always has been. But, perhaps since the Vietnam War era, it’s rarely been as political as it is now, with New York Fashion Week being its most bold to date.
Designers as diverse as Diane von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein and Eckhaus Latta made their positions clear. And naturally, Syria and Syrian refugees are a big part of the statements designers are making.
So, with Rami’s background in mind, I want to conduct our interview sensitively. I ask him whether the “Syrian question” is off the table: I don’t want to push him into making statements for or against any political position.
It must be exhausting having people ask (as we all do in the land of expats) where he’s from and getting the awkward half beat of silence before people either change the subject or launch into condescending pity or worse – tiresome political tirades.
And, after all, I don’t want to interview Rami because he’s Syrian, but because he’s a brilliant artist who creates wonderful things. Asked whether being Syria’s most famous designer has changed since the onset of the war, he responds, “My work is still the same, but what has changed is that I try as much as possible to do things in a way, not necessarily to portray my nationality, but to portray my work to create a successful story that young Syrian designers can look up to.”
This diplomatic approach probably works best in such a politically charged world. And perhaps the most controversial statements toward Rami’s people has come from my country’s president, Donald Trump, whose rather, er, off-the-cuff comments have caused international controversy.
But in a deliciously fun twist, Rami has actually dressed Trump’s infamous ex-wife – so powerful that she’s now an icon in her own right – who famously said after her divorce from the oddly coiffed businessman, “Don’t get mad – get everything!”
“I met Ivana in 2010,” Rami recalls. “We were approached by a production company in London who was doing a shoot for her. They asked us if we were interested; of course, we wanted to add Ivana to our profile. Not just because she’s Ivana, but also because she’s a known client of couture.”
At the time, Ivana was featuring in the UK’s reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother, and was the talk of all the tabloids and celebrity gossip rags.
“It was the first time I met her in person,” he says. “She’s a large personality, very much a strong character; ageless, a typical diva when you meet her in person – divas have such a strong presence, you know?” he explains.
Not only did Rami dress Ivana for the shoot, which featured in several British and European magazines, but she also came back a second time to the shop in Dubai to order a dress from the couture collection for Elton John’s famous White Tiara Ball, as well as other evening events.
And it’s no coincidence that a London company specifically sought out the Dubai-based designer – 2009 was the year Rami counts as the Big One. “That’s when we went international!” he shares.
But wait. Wasn’t the entire world in the worst recession since the Second World War? But Rami counts the recession as an unexpected boon for his then small company.
“Honestly, the recession was a plus for us. Because of it, you could actually get really good deals in terms of production, and costs were a lot lower than other seasons.
“Because of the economy, many designers didn’t do a collection, meaning there was less competition. So, we stood out. At the time, there were a lot of new voices in the fashion scene. But in 2009, the noise faded away, allowing my voice as a designer to be heard more clearly. And people, thankfully, listened.”
So while everyone else was filing for bankruptcy, the Rami Al Ali brand rocked it: “It started to become more of a corporation rather than just a fashion label,” he elaborates. “That was the year we launched the pret line, we began to look seriously at showing in Paris and not just [Alta Roma in] Rome. We started to separate the bridal line as its own collection.”
Rami began the business back in 2000, with just two employees (“it was a tailor, a beader and me!” he laughs), and now has a team of more than 70 people. But he doesn’t blink an eye at his brand’s humble beginnings.
“Most creative careers start as a hobby,” he says, cutting to the crux of the matter. “It’s rare that it’s clear to you that it could be a lucrative career or something that you could pursue seriously; especially in the Middle East. You know, when I was in school, there wasn’t much in the way of local examples of fashion to look up to. For us, it was always a Western industry.
“But when I was in college, it was the beginning of the evolution of the fashion scene in the Middle East,” he explains. “Some Lebanese designers had made it international and a lot of things began to be exchanged between east and west. It started the idea inside me that maybe this could be the career I could seriously pursue.”
As for many expats here, Dubai was meant to be a quick stop off after graduation on his way to the US to study fashion.
“I wanted to go to New York to study and I stopped by Dubai, because it was easier with the paperwork and visa to come via the UAE. And that all took a while, so while it was happening, I wanted to do an internship with a couple of fashion houses here to gain some experience before I travelled,” he explains.
One thing, as the saying goes, led to another: one thing being an internship leading to a temp position, then a permanent position, then a bigger job with another fashion house, then, because he knew he’d landed right where he needed to be, to the launch of the Rami Al Ali brand.
“And that,” he says with a smile, “led to the cancellation of my plans to study further.”
The designer now has six seasons worth of shows at Alta Roma and five years at Paris Fashion Week, showing for 10 seasons. Rami Al Ali, ladies and gentleman, has arrived.
But, despite his artistic passion, which shines through in everything he says, Rami is clearly a businessman, and a sharp one at that – so next steps are always in motion.
“We’re collaborating on something, to be released during Ramadan. It’s going to be announced very soon. It’s something not in the fashion business, but it has the same clients and it’s high end and luxurious.”
And of course, he continues to work on his collections, with AW17 well under way. Rami’s SS17 couture collection was inspired by a trip to Japan – this influence came out first in SS15, with kimonos and obi belt influences present in both prêt and couture lines.
But the specific influence for SS17 is the cherry blossom season. The designer has created the feel of cascading petals on the fabric from waist to floor, but reimagined in a geometric, rather than an organic way. Most of the patterns on the cherry blossom dresses of the collection employ laser cutting and 3D printing. Fabric is then elaborately folded in geisha style, but in a modern and more Westernised shape reminiscent of bows.
The SS17 collection features one dress that’s so cleverly done it’s literally hard to imagine how the designer conceived getting a human body into it. It’s pure virtuosity: Rami’s designs transcend dressing – they’re objets d’art – and of envy.