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Made in the Middle East: The Independent Arab Designers Making High-End Urban Fashion Their Own

Pacifism, Talal Hizami, streetwear

Pacifism, founded by London born Saudi designer Talal Hizami

Determined to manifest a new way to create and use streetwear, independent Arab designers are putting a brilliant twist on high-end urban fashion made in the Middle East.

The Middle East and the Maghreb are more reputed for their glamorous take on couture than boundary-pushing streetwear. Yet, independent street labels born and bred in the region are currently disrupting the status quo. In particular, streetwear brands for men are exploring what it means to design a personal product that is anchored in a multifaceted Arab identity.

Oman based urban brand Flaws

“Dubai and the MENA region is a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, and outlooks,” affirms the duo behind Dubai-based Amongst Few. Founded by Mike Taylor and Flo Moser, the brand celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. “We have a unique juxtaposition arguably only found in this part of the world,” Taylor explains, emphasizing that this diversity is embedded into Amongst Few’s DNA. “We have the best of the Western world mixed in with the ideals, culture, and backdrop of the Arab world. This naturally brings a distinctive style that I would say is only found here.” In this context, Amongst Few’s collections offer an Emirati-influenced take on Western casual classics. The brand’s statement pieces include cool and timeless menswear staples – think 80s style T-shirts, hoodies, sweaters, shorts, caps, and dad-hats – that are rooted in urban outerwear with an oriental twist. They feature design details that pay tribute to UAE roots, such as Arabic lettering and screenprint details, ghotra pocket patterns, and “Dubai Tribe” art prints on its garments. Moreover, the designer- duo always makes it a priority to share their brand’s DNA with like-minded creatives from abroad. One notable collaboration included a capsule co-designed with California-based streetwear brand The Hundreds. It paid tribute to the Emirati sartorial philosophy of simplicity and function and merged it with Western-influenced urban outerwear codes in order to showcase the best of both worlds.

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COR, streetwear

COR, founded by Iraqi designer Yesawi

Dubai is not the only hub in the region pushing the boundaries of homegrown streetwear: Riyadh and Muscat are also home to burgeoning streetwear brands. Collaborations in the region are precisely what 2d2c2m is all about. The Riyadh-based, unisex brand founded by Ahmad Alwohaibi nods to the 90s and 2000s subcultures and promotes homegrown talents by working with Saudi-based photographers and directors, such as Hayat Osamah and Taha Baageel. To strengthen its community further, 2d2c2m will launch the Artists Series project this year, a selection of collaborations with regional painters, photographers, and graphic designers.

Hayat Osamah for 2d2c2m

Flaws, an Oman-based urban brand for men and women founded by four anonymous female designers, also uses streetwear to create a cultural dialogue. In Flaws’ debut collection, a traditional Omani ring was used as base inspiration on a pastel blue sweatshirt, implementing traditional fashion into modern design. Its purpose: to remind the wearer to remain true to their values and roots despite embracing the modernization of Middle Eastern fashion. “Middle Eastern representation within the streetwear industry is largely limited. This creates a space for brands to showcase Middle Eastern creativity from an entirely unique angle,” the designer-quatuor states, explaining, “Adapting traditional elements of Middle Eastern clothing and culture with a high-end and street-inspired focus creates a hybrid culture that very much reflects youth and identity within the region today. The birth of this entirely new space within the culture is constantly evolving. It merges the roots of Middle Eastern culture while offering a subversive take on tradition reflective of today’s thinking among young and expressive Arabs.”

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streetwear, Enfant du Cartel

Enfant du Cartel, founded by Tunisian- Lebanese Samy Rizcallah and Iranian- Lebanese Yvan Yaghobzadeh

This subversive take is needed as the majority of streetwear today doesn’t have much to do with urban culture anymore. Many brands claiming to design streetwear apparel do so as luxury brands – with the price-point to match. This phenomenon, however, is not a new one, nor is it a Middle Eastern exception. The streetwear trend has been taking its toll on the global fashion industry for years now, leading major luxury brands to sell urban basics – such as hoodies, tracksuits, and sneakers – at outrageous prices.

To many independent designers, this commercial strategy is essentially distorting the balance between the street and the elite, by breaking down the social hierarchy and cultural codes that maintain this balance, and therefore disconnecting streetwear from urban realities and their communities.

Precious Trust, Algerian designer Wathek, streetwear

Precious Trust, by Algerian designer Wathek

Similar initiatives exist across the Middle East. In Dubai, Sole DXB has built a strong community of streetwear aficionados. The event was founded 10 years ago and has become popular with international artists and brands, who want to discover the best of what the regional urban and streetwear scene has to offer. The luxury industry is also expressing interest in Dubai’s urban and streetwear-dedicated platform: Dior Homme and Burberry were part of Sole DXB’s lineup in 2018 and 2019 respectively. To some young regional urban brands, however, the power of streetwear goes beyond the product itself and is used to spread socio-cultural or even political messages. A strong sense of “regional realness” characterizes the streetwear offering of some Middle Eastern brands. Homegrown labels, such as Shabab International – founded by Dubai-based photographer-duo Chebmoha and Chndy, who hail from Iraq and Oman respectively – share community-driven messages of positivity, courage, and love via prints on their garments. The retro-futuristic brand merges normcore influences from the 90s with athletic cuts and fits and has already been picked up by Tinie Tempah and Dua Lipa.

Amongst Few

Amongst Few

The itinerant brand COR-Project (Children of Revolution), for its part, uses urban wear to bring attention to ongoing sociopolitical crises throughout the region by designing military influenced silhouettes that are handcrafted together with local artisans. Founded by Iraqi designer Yesawi, COR-Project’s influences stem from his childhood memories of war, his family’s exile from Syria and Lebanon, to settling in London. “Since the beginning of time, Arabs have been made up of nomadic tribes, moving from place to place, tracking sources of life to sustain them and their people,” he states. “Similarly, Arab designers of today are well-traveled, enriching themselves with different cultures, extracting the beauty and wonder of what they have to offer, bringing it back home, and merging them with their own imagination and creativity. They produce collections that not only speak to fellow tribesmen, but also to the world, and portray a clear image of where they have been and where they are going.” And therein lies the power of streetwear made in the region. More than simple garments designed purely as disposable and fashionable products, local street- and urbanwear brands express the identity of the Middle Eastern world in all its diversity and with all its cultural, traditional, emotional – and sometimes even political – charge. And this is precisely what makes Middle Eastern streetwear a unique means of self-expression.

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia 

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