This Arab Designer’s Business Model Could Fix the Fashion Industry

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The Jameel Prize, an international award given by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition, has elevated the profiles of many designers from the Middle East and beyond. It is also the medium through which we discovered our newest obsession: Bahraini designer Hala Kaiksow.

Her designs, on their own and sans context, are astonishing enough to stop you in your tracks. Through unusual volumes, fantastic structural engineering, multi-layered textures, and thoughtful details, Kaiksow expresses a contemporary perspective on fashion. What makes her designs even more special is that her textiles are handmade by herself and a group of Bahraini artisans in an attempt to salvage the art of weaving. With sustainability and artistic preservation as dual cornerstones of her eponymous brand, Kaiksow also ensures that her textiles are dyed naturally, and that the details (like buttons and fasteners) are also handmade. Oh, and did we mention that she does this all without creating any residual waste?

Kaiksow, who was recently shortlisted for the Jameel Prize, represents the standard to which all fashion brands should aspire. Given the frenzied pace of production, maze-like supply “chain”, designer fatigue causing creatives to collapse after short tenures at their respective brands, and the rapidly revolving fashion calendar, Hala Kaiksow’s self-contained and self-sufficient business model is an ideal blueprint for sustainable fashion. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Kaiksow shares her background, design philosophy, and the passions that drive her brilliant brand.

Hala Kaiksow Interview -Wandress - Shepherd's Coat 2015, wool and denim
Photo: Courtesy of Hala Kaiksow

What went through your mind when you were shortlisted for the coveted Jameel Prize?
I was absolutely elated. It was a community I really wanted to be a part of, and it allowed me to feel like a part of the art world once again – a world I grew up in. I am honored to be a part of this group of talented individuals and show my work amongst theirs.

It seems like everything you come across – from the texture of a door in Gujarat to the robes of the Edo period in Japan – influences your work. Where did you train your eagle eye?
Having been trained as a fine artist through my education at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, I approach different cultures and traditions as an opportunity to research further and expand my knowledge. I love learning, so I approach it with the same kind of curiosity as I would an art project. Once I’ve developed my research, I begin compiling my ideas together and developing them into garments.

I think mindful consumption is very important at the moment. I think consumers need to question and be more aware of what they are buying, who created their clothes, and what the ramifications of our consumerism are.

The East and West have clear influence on your designs. How do you contextualize these influences in a contemporary way?
Having grown up in the East, then living most of my adult life in the West, I really feel as though the two are merged within me and heavily influence my aesthetic. I take from the history of both cultures and traditions, and give them a modernity that is relevant to a consumer today.

Your impressive textiles are handmade by you and a group of Bahraini artisans. How do you plan to scale this effort as your business grows?
I think our work is very different in terms of the ideals it presents. The garments are carefully crafted all the way through – from fabric to dyeing and the hand-finishing – so there is only so much it can grow before it loses its essence. For that reason, I like to keep it quite small and selective. I think of the very special pieces in limited editions because it is not humanly possible to produce them on a massive scale. As the brand grows organically, I think we will need to have more weavers and artisans on board, but we will always be relatively small in comparison to most brands.

Where did you learn your skills at the loom? Is weaving becoming a lost art?
I am really inspired by Berber women and the way with which they sustain their lives by weaving tapestries – this led me to buying a small loom and watching tutorials on YouTube on how to weave. Gradually, I learned the technique and began to weave with different fibers and experiment with patterns and textures. In terms of weaving becoming a lost art, it definitely is, as most people no longer take the time to work with their hands. They are too impatient for tedious tasks. I was speaking to a local weaver who I work with and he was telling me that, at one point, there were 60 weavers in his area alone – we only have three in all of Bahrain now!

You are an eco-conscious designer who has partnered with organizations such as Noma Blue, which focuses on the intersection between creativity and nature conservation. What is the message you want your clothing line to convey?
More than anything, we aim to bring integrity back to the creation of garments, to give them the soul they lost with the introduction of mass production. I want clothing to make the wearer feel a certain way, and for it to live with them their entire life.

I think the expectations of the industry today are entirely unrealistic. Eight cycles a year only creates regurgitated and unoriginal ideas and doesn’t allow for creativity to flourish.

What are some important and overlooked factors in creating an eco-conscious line that you want our readers to know about?
I think mindful consumption is very important at the moment. I think consumers need to question and be more aware of what they are buying, who created their clothes, and what the ramifications of our consumerism are. That, in turn, will change our behaviors and conciseness in my opinion.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in creating a holistic, artisan-driven brand that produces no residual waste?
For us, finding suppliers and mills with the same ideals was a struggle, as most mills produce in such large quantities, so we are continuously trying to find and work with more concentrated conscious suppliers.

What do you think about the fashion cycle as it exists today? What are some solutions that the fashion industry at large should adopt to end harmful practices?
I think the expectations of the industry today are entirely unrealistic. Eight cycles a year only creates regurgitated and unoriginal ideas and doesn’t allow for creativity to flourish. Concepts need time to grow and develop to fruition. I think we generally need to slow down and reassess where we are going and what we are doing to the environment and the fashion industry because, at this rate, no proper reflection is being made.

Where do you see yourself and your brand in five years?
I hope that, in five years, we would have grown even more and taken part in interesting collaborations and projects that push our vision forward, whilst continuously making a positive impact on the fashion industry!

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