Nestled in an unassuming villa off Dubai’s Wasl Road lies the atelier of one of the Emirates’ most promising couturiers, Rami Al Ali. Syrian-born Al Ali has been presenting his couture collections at Paris Couture Week for a number of seasons, and I decided to pay him a visit ahead of his show, which incidentally took place today in Paris’ Le Meurice Hotel.
Slightly ahead of time, I arrived at the atelier and was escorted into a plush, cream-colored living room filled with lilies. All around me, creations from previous collections hung from silver racks, begging to be touched – and so I obliged. As I ran my hands along the floor-length gowns, some embroidered with crystals and geometric appliqués and others with paillettes made to look like houndstooth, I was reminded of the sheer amount of work, craftsmanship, and savoir faire that go into the making of a couture collection. I didn’t notice him walk in at first, but when I turned around the eternally dapper Rami Al Ali was standing in the middle of the living room, clad in pinstriped pants, shirt collar peeking out from under a dusty rose sweater. With his charming smile, he invited me to sit next to him on one of the room’s satin couches and, answering my question about how the couture preparations were going, he said, “The week before the show is when everything happens. It’s when drawings come to life on mannequins, so everything is a little bit hectic at the moment.”
Before we start talking about your couture collection, I wanted to ask you what were, in your opinion, the three things our readers should know about you?
Bad things or good things? [Laughs]
Oh God, I’m very good at talking about my work, but when I’m talking about myself I usually stumble. [Takes a deep breath] Okay, firstly, the reason I do what I do is because it’s what gives me the most joy. It doesn’t feel like a job; it feels like a hobby that I have the privilege to practice all day. The second thing your readers should know about me is that I’m a workaholic. I don’t know what to do with the weekends; I think they’re a waste. The third thing is that I’m very stubborn, which sometimes is good and sometimes is bad. I don’t stop at obstacles. I always make sure that there is another way, another gate, another exit that I can take, and it has opened many, many possibilities for new experiences, new techniques, new people.
I’m a workaholic. I don’t know what to do with the weekends; I think they’re a waste.
You’re working on your Spring 2014 Couture collection right now. How many couture collections have you created so far?
Oh, are we counting? I would say 17 or 18.
What was the inspiration behind this particular collection?
The collection started with a character from one of Shakespeare‘s plays, Ophelia. I love the whole romantic, dramatic character of Ophelia, and I started to build the base of the collection around her. When I was researching the characters and the visuals – you see for me visuals are more inspiring than words – I found a beautiful painting that was done by Sir John Everett Millais. He was an English painter, and one of his most famous paintings was the death scene of Ophelia. It’s beautiful, dramatic, and sad. It’s deep and theatrical. It’s melancholic, naive, organic – those were the main words that felt like inspiration to the collection.
How did that translate into garments?
Some of it was straightforward, so you’ll find certain elements of the painting in the garments, and some of it was derived from the feeling of the painting, the feeling you get when you look at it. I work more on textures and structure than just ornaments or the detail of design, so I was trying to build a texture that translated the feeling of the painting and all the organic elements like plants and flowers that surround Ophelia’s body. I wanted to create this natural richness by layering, by adding texture and embroidery, but at the same time I didn’t want it to be too floral, too classical, or too feminine.
Does it still have the darkness of the death scene?
Yes, but in a nice way. There’s nothing gothic in this collection.
How many of your 18 collections did you present during Paris Couture Week?
In Paris, this is our fifth. Before that I showed six times during Alta Moda in Rome.
How have your clothes been received in Paris so far?
Very well. At the beginning, there was a certain stereotype about the Middle Eastern designer coming to Paris, because of the Middle Eastern designers that have shown in Paris for years. Their collections were always very embellished, very sparkly, very much for the red carpet. So with my first show, the expectation was that editors and buyers were going to see something similar to what they’d seen before, but what we showed was all about the structure, and some pieces really looked like art installations. With the following collections, we started building the message of our global concept, which is that we come from the Middle East but we have a different aesthetic than what people have seen before.
The majority of your clientele is from the Middle East. Do you find that you have to wear two hats when you’re designing – one for your clientele here and one for how you would like the rest of the world to see the Rami Al Ali brand, which is maybe a more international aesthetic?
First of all, producing a collection is a big investment. So to do this big investment and not to benefit commercially from it doesn’t make sense. For that reason, the majority of the collection targets the client for sales. Clients in the Middle East are from two very separate generations. There is the older generation that got used to the classics and to which some of the international designers still cater with romantic gowns and embellishments like Valentino and Armani. Then you have the new generation of couture clients who are looking for something like Givenchy; it is about structure and more graphic. They both come from the Middle East, but have different tastes. In a way, you’ll find the same two tastes in the international clientele – the ones looking for something classic and the ones looking for some edge. Luckily, we cater to both. I think of both when I create. You have to.
What do you think of the presence of Middle Eastern designers at Couture Week?
Couture is a really big deal for Middle Eastern designers. This industry is huge. Forty percent of the world’s couture clients are in the Middle East. That’s a big percentage for such a small part of the world. So, when you have this big demand, you naturally have a big supply as well. The reason there are more and more Middle Eastern designers producing couture and showing in Paris is because the market needs that much product.
You currently show off calendar in Paris. A very limited, exclusive number of designers are invited to show on calendar by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Do you ever see a day when Middle Eastern designers will have real presence on the calendar as members of the syndication and not just as guests?
I don’t think so. The criteria to become a member are less strict than before, but there are still some rules. One of the most important things the committee looks at when making a decision is whether or not some of the designer’s operations are based in France. That is the main thing that they ask for now.
And do you agree with the criteria?
To be honest, I do. ‘Haute Couture’ is a protected name and it should stay that way. If you open it up to everyone, it would be the same thing as Alta Moda, which is not as exclusive or interesting as it was before. The ‘Haute Couture’ label is copyrighted, despite the fact that the whole world is using it loosely. They want to make sure that this kind of craftsmanship is still done in a right way. I respect that.
‘Haute Couture’ is a protected name and it should stay that way.
Zuhair Murad has been invited to show on calendar for a few seasons now. Perhaps your turn will come soon?
It would definitely be a great privilege and honor to be invited to the calendar and for my work to be recognized in such a way, but we are still showing off calendar and I am happy with the result that we are getting. Whether you are on calendar or not, your work is still your work. The calendar shouldn’t affect the way people see your work.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in showing your collections in Paris?
Oh, there are many!
I’m guessing cost is a big obstacle.
Cost? Actually, it’s something you can control. You can still do a small, beautiful presentation, like we do, that is within your budget, as opposed to a big full-on show with 20 models. It’s about how you do it rather than how much you spend on it. Small doesn’t have to mean cheap, it can be beautiful and intimate.
Is there at all a fear that Paris Couture Week will one day will be overwhelmed with regional designers who perhaps have the money but not the talent and will distract from other Middle Eastern designers there?
No, because the client is well educated and well informed. You can sometimes create noise by creating beautiful elements for a show or a big PR campaign, but at the end of the day the product will speak for itself. When you try it, when you buy it, when you see it, when you have the experience, you’ll know. I’m not really concerned about that. If you’re competent and know what you’re doing, you’ll stand out.