Monday, December 27, 2010

Taher Chemirik

Master of the Unusual Combination

For Fall 2010, Elie Top, the designer behind Lanvin's fantastical runway jewels, sent out techno-tribal inspired cuffs and oversize neck pieces made from everything but the kitchen sink. Yet for the most seasoned editors sitting in the audience that day, Mr. Top’s madcap combinations of unvarnished metals, rough crystals, feathers and leather could have been a homage to Taher Chemirik; arguably one of Paris fashions’ best kept secrets.

The French capital may be home to some of the world’s most famous jewelry brands, such as Van Clef & Arpels and Chaumet; but amongst the big names lining the Place Vendôme, there exists a handful of master jewelers whose identities are closely guarded by a loyal clientele.

Foremost amongst them is Joel Arthur Rosenthal, better known to a privileged few as JAR. Over the last 30 years his colorful pavé signature creations have only been displayed twice in public. His shop in Paris' Place Vendôme has no display windows, no regular hours and does not advertise; opening its doors to only a select few, including couture regular Princess Firyal of Jordan.

Taher Chemirik is another closely guarded secret amongst fashions’ elite cognoscenti. The Algerian-born designer’s entry into the world of jewelry was everything but conventional. He studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Algiers, before sailing off to Paris where he acquired a degree in fine arts at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs.

His first job out of school was designing costumes and accessories for the Paris Opera, which soon landed him a position at Ralph Lauren. Yet not long after, Taher gave up his comfortable career at the established label to pursue his dream of crafting whimsical jewels. To learn the secrets of the trade, he took the unusual step of accepting a paid internship at one of Paris’ traditional jewelry ateliers.

Not long after, Karl Lagerfeld spotted his work and invited him to collaborate on several collections. Since then Chemirik has created exclusive pieces for the likes of Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga; earning his creations a place in the permanent collection of Paris’ Musee National des Arts Decoratifs.

Grafting North African and Ottoman traditions with modern techniques, he’s managed to produce a unique body of work that has attracted a cult following. He is known for the fearless way he combines unusual materials together, such as his ebony pieces studded with diamonds that are all handcrafted at his exclusive Paris atelier.

For years he was a fashion world secret, whispered from one chic ear to another. But in the past year that secret has leaked out, as in-the-know fashion editors have been spotted at the shows sporting his large link necklaces, wide cuffs and diamond-cut wooden rings. Although some of his pieces are sold at 10 Corso Cuomo in Milan; his most loyal clients commission and order unique creations at his by appointment-only store in Paris.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

From the Vogue Archives

Vogue, February 1965

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Cairo Modern

As the Lifestyle Editor of the Daily News Egypt/International Herald Tribune, Heba Elkayal gets to sample Cairo’s chic boutiques, cutting edge art galleries and interview everyone from Christian Louboutin to Rosita Missoni. The stylish editor opens her little black book for The Polyglot to reveal the fabulous side of Cairo life.

How would you describe Cairo’s contemporary design scene?Cairo is currently undergoing a revival in fashion, the arts and culture. In the last few years alone the scene here has been shaping into a dynamic movement to rival anything going on in London or New York. There is a lot of local talent beginning to push notions of fashion and design forward by establishing their own labels, as well as creating retail spaces that defy traditional concepts. It’s an exciting time to be here.

Are there any local designers reinterpreting tradition in unique ways?There’s a new generation of designers tapping into traditional crafts to create modern pieces. Nadia Zarkani, the name behind handbag label NuniZ, designs seductive evening clutches from supple ostrich leather and mother of pearl inlaid clasps. Another label I’ve had my eye on is Amina K. by Amina Khalil, a graduate of the London School of Fashion. She reinterprets traditional kaftan silhouettes for the modern girl, inspired by local textiles and patterns found in traditional Egyptian tents.

Were you surprised when Azza Fahmy selected you as their brand ambassador?More than anything it was a privilege. Fahmy, along with her daughter Amina Ghali, has helped place Egypt on the design map with her line of contemporary jewelry that combines traditional craftsmanship with cutting edge design.

Is there a one-stop shopping experience in Cairo?Amuse in Zamalek is Cairo’s answer to Colette. The brainchild of Viviane Abdel Messih, Dina El Batal and Gailan Fahim, the large loft-like space (occupying a former film studio) boasts a chalkboard with handwritten quotes by Coco Chanel and YSL, as well as a curated selection of fashion, books, and accessories. The upstairs loft is an in-the-city outlet for Articulate Baboon, an art gallery in Designopolis that exhibits urban and street-themed art. There is also a corner dedicated to furniture and products by Karim Mekhtigian, head of design firm Alchemy. My personal favorite is his Soheimi lounge seat with its geometric detailing lacquered in bright white.

Where can one go to experience Cairo’s past?El Muizz Street in Old Cairo, which was immortalized in Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy “Palace Walk,” has become the must see area to visit. Its winding historic streets and mashrabiya-clad mansions have reemerged from extensive renovations. Recently “+20 Egypt Design,” the Cairo counterpart to the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, was held in three adjoining 17th century monuments; Beit El-Suhaymi, Hamam Inal and Beit Silihdar. Curated by famed Italian designer Paula Navone, the exhibit showcased the work of cutting edge Egyptian furniture designers as well as international names. It was an amazing experience to walk through the spaces, where one felt the past rubbing shoulders with the 21st century.

Do you have any favorite dining spots in the Egyptian capital?I’m a fan of La Bodega’s Bistro and its newer restaurant Aperitivo, which has practically become my second home. Part of La Bodega’s allure, lies in its familiarity and cozy atmosphere. It’s the closest Cairo has to a neighborhood restaurant, where you are never quiet sure who you’ll bump into, from Egyptian movie stars to your old college professor. It’s housed in a 19th century mansion that has interesting architectural features, such as a working wrought iron elevator from the 1930’s. The pasta with black truffles, as well as the leek and potato soup are my current favorites on the menu. When it comes time to burn off those extra calories, I recommend hitting the dance floor at Tamarai, Cairo’s chicest nightspot. The music is fantastic and its outdoor terrace boasts breathtaking views of the Nile.

Any hidden Cairo gems you would like to share with Dia readers?If you want to catch a whiff of Cairo’s Belle Epoque past then head to Bajocchi, arguably Egypt’s oldest jeweler. Located steps away from the site of Cairo’s old Opera House on Abdel Khalek Tharwat St., its historic art deco interiors glitter with the kind of exquisite heirloom jewels one would find in Paris or Rome. It was established in 1900 by an Italian family whose descendants still run the business today. Over the decades the jeweler has catered to the whims of both Egyptian princesses and members of high society, including Empress Farah Diba of Iran and Jehan El Sadat, who selected her wedding ring there in 1953.

Image of Heba ElKayal by Joe Kesrouani

All other images courtesy of Amuse, Karim Mekhtigian, Amina K and Nuniz, La Bodega and Tamarai.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Recapturing Beirut’s Golden Age

Opened in 2002 by Souheil Hanna and his sister Hala, Vingtieme Siecle is the Middle East’s first and only 20th century antiques gallery. A veritable Aladdin’s cave of Mid-Century chic, the sunny two story space showcases mint-condition furniture, lighting and art work from the 1950’s-70’s. Souheil opens the doors to his extraordinary gallery to talk to The Polyglot about his passion for all things retro.

How did the idea behind the XXeme Siecle gallery come about?Ever since I was 14, I’ve had a passion for mid-20th century furniture and art. The first piece I acquired was a console by Jean Royere that belonged to my grandmother. Around the mid-90’s both Hala and I were living in Paris. It was a period when mid-century design was enjoying a revival, particularly in trendsetting cities such as Paris and New York. But the craze hadn’t reached Beirut yet, so we decided to return to Lebanon and open a gallery. We wanted to offer both Lebanese and Arab collectors authentic 20th century furniture and “objets d’art,” particularly from Lebanon’s golden age from the 1950’s-70’s.

Why is that period considered Lebanon’s golden age?Beirut is a great place to collect the works of some of the most celebrated designers of the 50s and 60s. During that time, beautiful furniture was not only being imported from Italy and France, but also made here. In the 1950’s, the iconic French designer Jean Royere ran a thriving studio in Beirut with Lebanese architect Nadim Majdalani. Amongst their projects were designing interiors for the St. George Hotel, the Shah of Iran and King Farouk of Egypt. Pre-war Beirut was a Modernist paradise and west Beirut was the most fashionable neighborhood in the Middle East.

What do you enjoy the most about collecting mid-20th century design?There is a lot of research and detective work that goes into finding new pieces for the gallery. Amongst our rarest finds was a low curvy wooden table and stools designed by Charlotte Perriand in the 60’s for a French ski resort. Perriand, who collaborated with Le Corbusier, is probably one of the most sought after designers today. Another memorable item was a limited-edition rotating chair designed in 1965 by Joe Columbo. It was not only featured in a James Bond movie, but was rare because its original leather was in such good condition. At the same time, we also carry interesting high-quality pieces produced by unidentified craftsmen in Beirut from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

Was it difficult to source pieces for your gallery when you first opened?Surprisingly it wasn’t difficult early on. Beirut in the mid-90’s was busy rebuilding itself after years of civil war. Interiors untouched since 1975 were stripped without a thought and furniture discarded onto dumpsters. People also began coming to us with things to sell once we opened the gallery. We once received a call from a dealer who had originally imported a number of carpets to Beirut in 1968, but never sold them. The carpets, some designed by Victor Vasarely, had been kept in storage for over 30 years, all in pristine condition and still wrapped in plastic. Today, it’s getting harder to find vintage pieces in Beirut because of heightened interest. So for the last seven years we’ve been looking in Europe for specific pieces that we can’t find in Lebanon, such as works representing Scandinavian, French, Italian and Brazilian design.

Who are your clients?We tend to attract a younger clientele, who want to discover the furniture and memorabilia of their parents’ generation. To individuals in their 50’s and 60’s, this kind of furniture may appear démodé, because they lived with it the first time around. My greatest satisfaction is sharing my knowledge of mid-20th century design with my younger clients. The gallery also has a well-stocked bookshelf to encourage visitors to linger, and even if people don’t buy right away, I want them to leave feeling they have learnt something new.

All images courtesy of XXeme Siecle Gallery and Joe Kesrouani© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Gn’s Secret World

Iranian artist Roshanak Varasteh concocts a whimsical mural for the Paris designer’s exclusive Salon

Andrew Gn is known for the kind of sumptuous evening gowns that come embellished with embroideries and buttons, all developed within his Paris atelier. So it comes as no surprise that he is just as meticulous a collector; traveling the globe in search of the unique and rare. Those two worlds recently came together with the opening of his private by-appointment salon in the Marais. Inspired by Paul Poiret’s “Ateliers de Martine,” Gn went about decorating the interiors of the hôtel particuliers with 19th and early 20th century antiques.
Amongst the salon’s highlights are floor to ceiling lacquered paneling and a glittering 18th century Murano glass chandelier; so large it had to be cut in two to fit within the space. As a nod to his well-heeled Middle Eastern clientele, Gn also commissioned Iranian artist Roshanak Varasteh to paint a whimsical mural depicting a tree of life ripe with pomegranates, prancing gazelles and mythical birds.

An art-world favorite, Varasteh was an assistant editor at Harper’s Bazaar Paris in the 1980’s, before launching a career as a painter. Beyond the artist’s mural lies an intimate salon, where clients can nibble on macarons while selecting from Gn’s couture-worthy designs. Just as lavishly appointed as his clothes, the designer’s latest creation is sure to have his most loyal clients coming back for more.

Images courtesy of Andrew Gn

© THE POLYGLOT(all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Chic Maryam’s Visual Diary

Since launching her blog, Qatar-based Maryam Al-Malki, has used her site to forge new experiences in the fashion industry and build her career as a stylist. In an interview with The Polyglot, Maryam opens her scrapbook to reveal a year in fashion, while sharing her thoughts on blogging, promoting Qatari designers, and why it’s high time the Middle East had its own Vogue.

Have blogs made the fashion world more accessible to a wider audience?From my perspective, as a Qatari fashion blogger and stylist, I’ve always believed that fashion should be available to everyone. There is no reason to try so hard in order to access that world; everyone has a right to it.How important is fashion in our everyday lives, especially with everything that’s going on in the world?Some individuals may think of fashion as a shallow industry. Yet so much of our visual culture and what we wear, (even if you don’t consider yourself a fashion person), is driven by this multi-billion dollar industry. I always quote Diane von Furstenberg when she said: "We are living in such a troubled world that fashion seems completely irrelevant. Yet ... it's a very, very mysterious thing. Why all of a sudden do people like yellow? Why all of a sudden do people wear combat boots?"Any Qatari designers or talent we should know about?It’s been interesting to observe the fashion scene as it’s developed in Qatar over the last few years. People are now more aware of fashion, and it’s definitely become a lifestyle. There has also been a surge in talented fashion journalists, photographers and illustrators. On the design end, two labels that stand out are Toujouri by Lama El-Moatassem, who combines beautiful hand embroidery with modern designs, as well as Darz, Qatar's first luxury abaya house.
Do you think we are ready for a Vogue Middle East?Absolutely! Condé Nast rejected Vogue Arabia in 2007, but in the past three years the Middle East has experienced some major, major changes (fashion-wise). In this current context, it’s not hard to envision a Vogue for the region. We have the talent, the resources, the retailers, the designs, the photographers, the writers and stylists. In short the infrastructure is there, so why not?

How would you describe your own sense of style?As a stylist I tend to change and experiment a lot. Personally I love it when clothes have a Rock n Roll attitude to them, but with a twist. One of my favorite purchases of the year, were a pair of Yves Saint Laurent Mohawk Suede Pumps. I also like playing with accessories and oversized jewelry, which is something people notice about my look.

How diverse is the fashion scene in the Middle East?Every country in the Middle East has its special vibe when it comes to fashion. In Dubai, for example, you literally can find every brand, specially limited editions and products that are hard to come by in other parts of the region. Beirut, in contrast, is all about experiencing its vibrant street style and local designers. That’s what's so exciting about working in fashion in the Middle East, is that you have so much diversity.

Your most memorable fashion encounter?It was probably Diane von Furstenberg, whose store opening I attended in Dubai a few months ago. She’s a very inspiring person to talk too and luckily I got her to sign a copy of her book for me, which takes pride of place in my vast fashion library. She even mentioned meeting me in her online diary. I was very flattered and it was definitely a big fashion moment for me.What was your experience attending the Spring 2011 shows in Paris?What happens off the runway is just as interesting as the shows themselves. I remember waiting in line outside the Pavillion Alexandre III, to get into the Sonia Rykiel show, and just being amazed by the fashion circus around me. I snapped so many incredible pictures that day of people I’ve always admired, like Italian Vogue Editor Anna Piaggi and the stylist Catherine Baba. I even saw fellow Middle-Eastern blogger Tala Samman waiting in line. It goes to show that we do have a presence in the industry.

All Images Courtesy of Maryam Al-Malki

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Food for Thought...

From the Vogue Archives

Lauren Hutton at Tehran’s Golestan Palace, Iran
Vogue 1969

When Afghanistan was in Vogue

How one American woman brought about social change in Kabul with a little help from Vogue

Pattie Boyd on the cover of Vogue’s December 1969 issue; A Vogue Pattern from the 1960’s.
Given the amount of images and headlines devoted to Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, one would be forgiven for concluding that a rich culture and civilization had never existed there; let alone a long history of cultural exchange with the West.

Yet back in 1969 Afghanistan was part of the hippy trail, an exotic destination for both the world’s fashion elite and young Americans and Europeans looking for adventure. What they found was a vibrant, modern Kabul teaming with traffic and stores selling the latest furniture and fashions. But there was also the centuries-old bazaars, a stately museum and Mughal gardens waiting to be discovered. A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine, men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul and factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods.

This was the Afghanistan that the Vogue team encountered upon landing at Kabul’s International Airport in 1969. The result was a fashion story titled “Afghan Adventure,” which appeared in Vogue’s December issue that year. In addition to photographing models amongst ancient ruins and colorful bazaars, the accompanying article also featured the Capital’s bright young things; amongst them a young fashion designer named Safia Tarzi.

Fashion designer Safia Tarzi in her Kabul studio, 1969.

Yet women in Afghanistan had cultivated a taste for Western fashions and Vogue long before the publication came to town. By 1961 over a third of women living in Kabul were wearing Western dress, thanks in part to the enterprising efforts of one American woman named Jeanne Beecher; the wife of an airline executive who had lived in the country for three years.

During that time she began to sense a desire amongst Afghan women for greater access to Western fashions. Beecher devised a plan to establish a dressmaking school in Kabul that would teach women how to sew the latest Western clothes. At the time Pan Am Airlines was running a Technical Assistance Program that provided assistance to organizations bettering the lives of others. Beecher thus approached the airline company about providing sewing supplies and patterns to make the school a reality.

Pan Am sent out a request for patterns, to which Vogue Pattern Services responded by donating 200 patterns for the school. For Beecher it was a great coup, as Vogue Patterns at the time was considered the leading source of fashionable designs. At the turn of the last century, it was still not uncommon for women to sew their own clothes at home. When Vogue magazine launched its Vogue Patterns in 1899 it was a weekly feature that allowed women to copy the latest styles. By 1950 Vogue Patterns became one of the few companies authorized to duplicate the designs of leading houses in Paris, Rome and New York.

Two Afghan students from Mrs. Beecher’s sewing school modeling their designs; An example of a Vogue pattern used at the school, 1960.

With the help of the Woman’s Welfare Society, sponsored by the Royal family, Mrs. Beecher was able to open her dressmaking school, which she ran with the assistance of eight volunteer teachers, many of them the American wives of Pan Am employees.

In the Fall of 1959, 32 Afghan women enrolled at the school. They met in classes of eight under the guidance of two American instructors, and worked for an hour and half each week for several months. The women who attended those first classes, represented the city’s middle and upper classes, and had been in purdah, only appearing veiled in public, up until that point.

Two women at a record store in 1960’s Kabul, Afghanistan

Using both local and imported fabrics, the women had cut and fitted their patterns at the school, under the supervision of the American instructors, and then sewed them together at their homes. By June 15, 1960, 15 of the students were ready to model their completed garments in a fashion show, a practice that was unheard of in the past.

Yet by the time Jeanne Beecher had left Afghanistan, a second fashion show had not only taken place, but Pan Am had sent additional patterns donated by Vogue and more sewing supplies, thus setting down the foundation for a local fashion industry that would provide new opportunities for Afghan women.

Queen Soraya Tarzi of Afghanistan was one of the most powerful female Muslim activists of her time. Born in Damascus, Syria to an Afghan intellectual, she was known for instigating social, economic and educational improvements that would better the life of her countrywomen. She was the first Muslim consort to appear in public together with her husband unveiled; accompanying him during hunting parties on horse back or attending Cabinet meetings.

Her Husband, King Amanullah Khan, not only publicly campaigned against the veil and polygamy, but encouraged education for girls in Kabul as well as the countryside. With the help of Queen Soraya, 15 young women were sent to Turkey to further their higher education in 1928. In 1929 the King abdicated in order to prevent a civil war and went into exile. Queen Soraya lived in Rome, Italy, where she died on the 20th of April, 1968.

A group of young Afghan women standing outside Kabul’s International Airport in the latest Western fashions, 1967.

A model in an Afghan jacket, 1968. During the late 60’s authentic goat-skin coats became Afghanistan’s greatest fashion export, appearing within the pages of Vogue and reinterpreted by a number of Western designers.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Meet Confashions From Kuwait

One of the first fashion blogs to emerge from the Gulf, this undercover Kuwaiti fashionista not only reports on all that is chic, hip and trendy in Kuwait, but manages to hop on a plane and send back fashion savvy reports from New York, Bahrain, Beirut and London. She has corresponded with industry heavyweights such as Alice Temperely and has been given an exclusive tour of Net-a-Porter head quarters. In a continuing series on the region’s most influential bloggers, The Polyglot interviews the Kuwaiti tastemaker.
How did the idea for your blog come about?The idea of “Confashions From Kuwait” came about in early 2007 when I realized that no Kuwaiti fashion blog existed, although women’s fashion plays a major part of the Kuwaiti society. Given my passion for fashion, I decided to start a blog that offers a Kuwaiti perspective on fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. As for my alias, “Confashion,” the word is a combination of “confession” and “fashion.”Did you ever imagine that Confashions would grow to what it is today?Never! I just started the blog as a personal quest to showcase the local fashion scene and as an outlet for my passion for fashion. I never imagined it would grow to the extent it has, and be recognized and appreciated both regionally and internationally. When I started getting press releases from international and regional fashion houses and boutiques to be posted on my blog and requests to advertise on it, I was flabbergasted! I realized that I do own, if I may say, an influential blog.

Can fashion blogs in the Middle East serve as a powerful tool to change perceptions about the Arab World?If blogging is done correctly in the Middle East region, it would make wonders. Readers normally gravitate towards sassy and smart sites which they can relate to. In other words, bloggers in the Middle East need to be committed to their blogs, provide new and relevant material to their local or regional scene, post frequently, and most importantly, post objectively with a sense of social responsibility.

I honestly believe that blogs in the Middle East can serve as a powerful political, cultural, and social tool; especially when you can express yourselves unconditionally without restrictions, censorship, or limitations. They also become a source of information for people outside the region.

Is the fashion scene in the Middle East a match for Europe or the US?I would say that the fashion scene in the United States and Europe is very competitive, and we are slowly and steadily trying to catch up.

Is the purpose of your blog to also encourage local and Arab talent by exposing them to a larger audience?Confashions from Kuwait signaled a new approach to the fashion scene in Kuwait. What began as my personal quest to express my thoughts on the local fashion scene and worldwide soon blossomed into a trusted insider’s guide. So it is important for me to showcase the hidden talents of our region.
Do you see more international designers dipping into the Middle East for Inspiration?I think that international designers realize now they need to cater to a larger audience. To achieve that, they need to be flexible and inoffensive to any culture for that matter, as well as being receptive when it comes to addressing the specific needs of potential consumers in the Middle East.

What do you think is the most frustrating thing about fashion at the moment?How fast trends change and how factories are unable to keep up with the designers' and consumer's demands. It's crazy! By the time you buy something from a certain season, a few weeks later it's already on sale.

Do you think we’ve reached a point where fashion bloggers in the region have become identifiable personalities?I hope so! Especially that a lot of readers check the blogs they are interested in on a daily basis and so many efforts are put into some of the regional blogs. So it is rewarding to identify and appreciate the role of such bloggers.

Images courtesy of Confashions From Kuwait© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Friday, December 24, 2010

Parveen Shaath: The Legacy of a Saudi Fashion Icon, Part I

Three sisters are on a mission to preserve their aunt’s extraordinary legacy, one that not only represents the Gulf’s earliest links to the fashion world, but also chronicles the region’s evolving tastes. The Polyglot investigates in a two part series.
Parveen Shaath at her Riyadh home in the early 60’s; A sampling of the 40 vintage couture gowns from Shaath’s collection which went on sale at Villa Moda Kuwait.

Back in March of 2010, Villa Moda Kuwait invited its V.I.P. customers to a special fashion event called “So Passé.” But this was no end of season sale, nor an opportunity for clients to open boxes of just delivered merchandise. Instead, that day the multi-brand store offered a rare glimpse into a vintage haute couture collection purchased over the span of 60 years by Parveen Shaath.

Although long considered a badge of fashion connoisseurship in Western capitals, collecting vintage clothes has been a hard sell in the Arabian Gulf region until recently. From fashionable private gatherings in Riyadh to art openings in Dubai, there is an almost competitive desire by the region’s well dressed to appear in the latest and most exclusive items from a designer’s collection. Vintage, long considered “dead people’s clothes,” held little attraction except to the region’s most fashion forward and daring.

Yet the forty gowns on display (and for purchase) at Villa Moda that day could hardly be described as “second-hand,” considering they had never been worn and were still in mint condition. If there was ever a way to convince potential Gulf collectors of the merits of vintage couture, this was it. The event generated so much positive attention that it was held the following month at Villa Moda’s Bahrain outpost.
Two vintage gowns on display at Villa Moda Bahrain, April 2010; A Sorelle Fontana fashion show at the Pitti Palace, Florence, 1950’s. It was typical of the shows Shaath would have attended during her early buying trips to Italy.

It was all part of a clever marketing campaign orchestrated by Shaath’s nieces Reem, Rasha and Haya, as well as their friend Abeer Seikaly, to reacquaint a new generation of fashion lovers with their aunt’s extraordinary legacy. Despite her achievements in the fashion world Parveen Shaath, who worked quietly for most of her life with little fanfare, never considered sharing her story.

"I wasn't seeking to be known neither was I concerned about what others thought. In all honesty, I was too busy living this opportunity that God gave me - one that wasn't available to everybody. I wouldn't say that my work had an impact on the region, but there was definitely a segment of society in Riyadh that learnt how to dress from the clothes I offered," said Shaath.

Parveen Shaath’s extraordinary journey began 81 years ago, when she was born in Tehran to a Palestinian father and Iranian mother. She would spend her early years in Gaza, before moving with her family to Syria and then Saudi Arabia. Being the eldest, she helped raise her siblings. Part of this responsibly included making sure each one of her brothers and sisters was well dressed. She taught herself how to sew by taking apart clothes and sewing them back together. She would go on to sew a wedding dress for one of her sisters, a skill that would serve her well in later years.

"I had finished my responsibility towards my eleven brothers and eight sisters, and I had also been married for a year and a half in my early twenties. So I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?' I wanted to do something that fulfils me. I used to read books and magazines and had an affinity for fashion. I toyed with the concept of a boutique and stocking it with clothes bought from foreign countries. I had heard that there is a certain time when Italy, France and England hold fashion shows," remembered Shaath of her early beginnings.

A Villa Moda Kuwait customer trying on one of Shaath’s vintage couture gowns; Shaath (in white coat) having ice cream with friends seated in front of Rome’s Trevi Fountain, early 1960’s, A display from Shaath’s vintage collection at Villa Moda Bahrain.

That opportunity presented itself while vacationing in London in the late 50’s. One day while having tea with a friend at the Dochester Hotel, Shaath overheard a group of designers milling about, that their clothes were being sold in one of the hotel’s suites. "Despite not having an invitation, I walked into the suite. It was stocked with designer clothes, and women taking orders. I had never seen anything like it. I asked for an appointment and on a whim decided to make an order. I chose from two fashion houses. I had nothing to lose."

In addition to her love of fashion, financial independence has been a key motivator in her life. "I never wanted to need anybody. I wanted to work to be able to live comfortably and support myself. It was easy because fashion is a wonderful industry."

Upon placing her orders, Shaath was informed that she would have to cover the shipping costs and that the delivery would take place two months later. During that time, she hatched a plan to create a profitable business. It would be a straight forward enterprise: double the price of the dress to cover cost and factor enough for a re-order. "Initially the plan wasn't about making profit. What was exciting was that ready-to-wear was unheard of in Saudi Arabia," she recalled.

Most of the 40 dresses which debuted at Villa Moda Kuwait and Bahrain sold in days, pointing to an untapped market for vintage couture in the region.

A year later, she began what would become regular trips to London, Paris, Rome and Milan, building relationships with designers who invited her to their exclusive presentations. "I would meet the same people year after year. There was camaraderie among buyers from all over. Back then, the buyers were mostly women," she says.

For the haute couture pieces, she would take her clients measurements ahead of time, while for prêt-à-porter she learnt to become conversant with client sizes and tastes. "A particular dress would look as though it belonged to a certain client; I would order it because she would trust me to make the right choice," said Shaath.

During her first trip to Italy she attended the winter collections, traveling alone from Rome to Milan and Florence to see the shows. "I was never afraid of travelling by myself. I could do anything provided it was within the boundaries I set for myself and those set by my father. It was a challenge because I'm from a conservative society having divided my childhood and youth among places like Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia. So you can imagine what a different world these new places were. After my first time in Rome, I decided I would do this for the rest of my life," said Shaath

Back in Saudi Arabia, Parveen initially began selling her dresses at women-only gatherings and clubs before establishing her own boutique in a sumptuous Riyadh villa in the early 60’s. Naming it “Azizati,” she created an atmosphere where her clients could both socialize and shop.

Images courtesy of Confashions from Kuwait Blog and the Empty Quarter Gallery

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Parveen Shaath: The Legacy of a Saudi Fashion Icon, Part II

Parveen Shaath, seated left on couch, with friends in Riyadh, 1960’s

Shaath not only cultivated an appreciation for glamorous prêt-a-porter and European haute couture in Saudi Arabia, but was also instrumental in shaping the tastes of generations of Saudi women. "Part of my job was to educate women about the upcoming styles and collections,” she said. Prior to that, members of the royal family and upper class either had live-in-tailors capable of copying styles from fashion magazines, or they traveled to Beirut to purchase gowns.

Shaath was in constant search of “beautiful things,” and what she deemed “beautiful” was what she brought back to her Saudi clientele. “I’ve found that if you have an idea, a passion that occupies your mind, then nothing can stop you from doing it and that is how I built my business. I relied on my taste and on learning what styles would suit my clients when making orders,” she recalled in an interview.

"My aunt is soft-spoken yet feisty. She is a force to be reckoned with," said Rasha Shaath, about Parveen who started a business in fashion at a time when a single woman wasn’t expected to make it on her own.

To be sure there were other women in the Middle East at the time who also cultivated an appreciation for European fashion, by bringing back selected garments for the women in their own circles. Yet these women, like Shaath, became pivotal figures in establishing a sense of what was “fashionable” or stylish for their times.

A gown from Shaath’s vintage collection on display at Villa Moda Bahrain, April 2010; The early shows Parveen attended in the 1950’s and 60’s were much smaller affairs restricted to editors and buyers. Here, an Yves Saint Laurent show in 1958.

One important lesson Parveen learnt early on when dealing with clients was to tell the truth. “Sales people would always tell me I looked amazing every time I tried something on, even though I could see it wasn't true," she said, "I’ve always made it a point to be honest with my clients, and tell them not to be ashamed of their body shape and opt for what suits them best."

Nevertheless, Parveen readily admits she was the kind of woman who suffered for fashion. "I never hesitated to wear corsets; constricting innerwear and anything that would make a woman's body look shapelier. Now I dress for convenience and comfort,” explained Shaath who prefers to wear billowy kaftans these days.

Shaath fell in love with each one of the pieces she bought over the years, and could not find it in her heart to sell any of them at a discount, no matter how many season’s old they were. After health reasons forced her to shutter her boutique in the late 1990’s, Shaath carefully stored her entire collection of unsold gowns in five rooms at her two-storey villa in Riyadh. By hanging each garment up, carefully wrapped in plastic, she unwittingly preserved an extraordinary collection that chronicles over 60 years of fashion history. There they remained untouched for over a decade until her nieces discovered them while on a visit.

An evening gown by Nettie Vogues, who designed Princess Diana’s formal engagement dress. Shaath purchased several pieces from her collection each season; A vintage couture dress on display at Villa Moda Bahrain, April 2010.
"It was a shame to see those dresses gathering dust," recalled Rasha, who, along with her sisters and friend Abeer Seikaly, decided to give her aunt and her rare collection their rightful place in fashion history.

Last year, the sisters moved a few vintage dresses from Parveen's villa to their home in an attempt to label and categorize the collection, with the intention of creating an archive that could be used for retail and exhibit purposes.

The So Passé events were their first attempt at introducing the archive to a wider audience; selling two vintage evening wear collections of 40 gowns through Villa Moda in Kuwait and Bahrain. Despite this, their long term goal is not to sell off the collection but retain the most important pieces in order to create a solid archive that’s representative of their aunt’s legacy.

A vintage dress on display at Villa Moda Bahrain; A Dior show from the 1950’s, was the kind of intimate presentation Shaath would have experienced on her early visits to Paris as a buyer.
They next went about in search of a project that could place the collection in the context of an art exhibition, to demonstrate how fashion is a reflection of culture and history. While working in the media industry, Rasha had become acquainted with Elie Domit, the creative director of Dubai’s Empty Quarter Fine Art Photography gallery; founded by Saudi photographer Princess Reem Al Faisal. Together with Seikaly, Rasha approached Dormit with a concept for an exhibit that was a story waiting to be told; one that up until then was only known by members of the royal family and a certain generation of women in Saudi Arabia.

The result was “Fashion: The Story of a Lifetime,” an exhibition which combined nine vintage dresses and photographs from Shaath’s private collection, with the work of some of the most notable fashion photographers of the last century. When it opened on September 14th, it was the most talked about show of Dubai’s cultural season. Although Parveen Shaath herself was unable to travel for the opening, her niece took care of every detail. “I brought the gowns personally. Each one was selected to reflect the different periods that exist in the collection and show distinct elements of fashion, craftsmanship and design."

Baalbek, Lebanon, 1963… 'Summer furs', one of 70 portrait’s on display at “Fashion: the Story of a Lifetime,” at Dubai’s Empty Quarter Gallery; Two pieces from Shaath’s vintage collection on display at the gallery; A Villa Moda client tries on a vintage couture dress from Shaath’s collection, Kuwait, March 2010.

"We wanted to feature Parveen's story, because she has been involved with several iconic designer brands like Belville Sassoon, who dressed high-profile clientele for more than four decades, and Nettie Vogues that supplied Princess Diana's formal engagement dress. The result is a museum quality exhibition that offers a rare opportunity to experience the power of fashion," added Domit.

Parveen herself echoes that same thought, "I think any item of clothing sends a powerful message. You can walk into a room and demand attention. There are women who through their choice of clothes can make a roomful of people gasp and stare. Isn't that power?"

Images courtesy of Confashions from Kuwait Blog and the Empty Quarter Gallery
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Shezshe in Beirut & Everywhere

Describing herself as an “apprentice blogger, photographer and shellfish finder,” Shezshe is quite possibly the Middle East’s version of the Sartorialist. She regularly prowls Beirut’s streets, snapping this cosmopolitan city’s personalities and fashionable set. The Polyglot caught up with the allusive shutterbug to talk about Middle East street style, and what’s wrong with fashion in the region today.
How would you describe your approach to blogging?I wouldn’t describe myself as a fashion addict or someone who attaches value to trends or labels. What I find more interesting is an individual’s personality or the way they pull looks together. When I created my blog, I set out to capture characters, or people who use clothing as a form of self expression. At the end of the day I see my role as that of a director casting interesting characters in a movie.

Do you have any childhood memories that sparked your interest in clothing?I always grew up around fabrics and textiles. As a child my hair was always short, so I would fashion strips of different fabrics into long hair. I felt like a different princess each day and it was definitely a unique fashion moment for me.

What can’t you live without?I think my eyesight and memory are probably the two most precious things one can own. Although I’m attached to my camera, there were many instances where I couldn’t take someone’s picture, yet the memory of them still inspires me today.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?If I could live anywhere in the world it would be literally everywhere.

Which decade would you have loved to experience?The beauty of every decade is that it had its own personality and new innovations. If I had to choose a moment in time, it would have most likely been the beginning of the 20th century when women who wanted to affirm themselves adopted a certain masculine and relaxed style of dressing. At the time, clothing served as an expression of their hopes and dreams. The fact that some women were brave enough to shun the corset and wear pants was both a revolutionary and sexy moment in time!

What do you think is wrong with fashion in the Middle East today?The most innovative fashion ideas aren’t necessarily coming from the usual suspects. In this day an age to follow fashion means to fit in, and it can be pretty dictatorial at times. A lot of people in the Middle East are afraid to express themselves differently and won’t trust new points of view until it is accepted by broader society.

Here people tend to point out the odd one; where as belonging to the main stream is comforting. Personally I LOVE odd styles! The more I take pictures the more I realize that I don’t want to show how our society is a “good student” because it knows all the fashionable trends. That’s why I like to be in places where people don’t always follow current trends, because it brings about interesting surprises. I get to meet individuals that develop their own sense of style, and adapt fashion to their unique personalities. But it’s not easy to find.

Does that mentality translate to fashion retailers as well?There is definitely a domino effect that happens because retailers are essentially meeting consumers’ needs. Personally I don’t feel there are enough stores catering to individuals looking for alternative and affordable clothing. Instead you find a lot of high end retailers essentially selling the same styles and brands, leaving the more affordable stores to come up with pale replicas of current trends.

How does that environment affect Middle Eastern designers?Although we have some great talent in the region really pushing boundaries, fashion designers in the Middle East still have a tendency to reinterpret trends as apposed to creating new ones or proposing new possibilities. Today being a designer seems to have become THE trendy job, and anyone seems to think they have what it takes to become one.

Fashion is more than just combining colors, slapping on embellishment and overusing the word “vintage” in the wrong context. The best fashion designers took time to learn their craft, and very few people have the time or resources to do that today. When you have the technical background, you can then innovate. To be a designer doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to follow fashion.

All images courtesy of Shezshe
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

An Online Presence: Meet the Middle East’s most influential bloggers

They’re sharp, witty and so influential that they get to sit in the front row at runway shows. They are the Middle East’s fashion bloggers, and some aren’t just breaking news, they’re making it. In a new series for The Polyglot, Alex Aubry sits down with the regions most influential bloggers to talk about how their unique take on fashion is changing perceptions about the Middle East and its Diaspora.

© THE POLYGLOT(all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Thursday, December 23, 2010