Sunday, March 27, 2011

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reem Alasadi’s Extraordinary Journey from London to Tokyo

London-based Iraqi-British designer Reem Alasadi has managed to blow the fashion world’s collective minds since launching her label two decades ago. Her hand-crafted clothing has appeared in the pages of Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and Dazed & Confused, while luring Madonna amongst her many fans. The Polyglot caught up with the Iraqi-born designer to discuss the realities of working in today’s fashion world.
How did you get your start in fashion?
My fascination with fashion began as a teenager in Maidstone, Kent, where I lived with my family after emigrating from Iraq at the age of eight. At 16, I was accepted at both Central St. Martins and the London College of Fashion. I had a year to go before school started so I apprenticed with Karen Millen, who at that time was working out of a small store in Maidstone. When it came time to go to college, I realized I didn’t want to be a student. So I taught myself patternmaking and construction, by taking apart vintage clothing and refashioning them into new garments.

Who were your first clients?
I really began at a grass-roots level, by setting up a stall at the Portobello Market to sell my customized vintage pieces. Portobello is where most designers and stylists come for inspiration and eventually they started to take a keen interest in my work. One day the designer John Richmond asked me to style his show in Milan. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse! This opened the door to other opportunities as a trend forecaster and brand consultant for the likes of Stella McCartney and Robert Carey-Williams. But despite having traveled all over the world, I still maintain my stall at the Portobello Market, which is where my career took off.

How challenging is it to set up an independent fashion label?
It was definitely a challenge, and you learn “what not to do” with time and experience. I was 21 when I set up my label from a 1,000 sqft studio in Maidstone. At 22, I already had a “mini-boutique” at the multi-brand Hyper Hyper store on Kensington High Street in London. It is easy for success to get to ones head, but I also realized how naive I was when it came to setting up a business plan and budgets. I had no concept of “seasons;” if it was cold outside; I would make a coat and sell it the next day. Eventually I had to close my business and start over, but those early experiences helped me grow as a designer and lead to the success I’ve experienced today.

Why do you think your work has such a large following in Japan?Japan has always meant a lot to me because I received a lot of support there early in my career. I first visited Tokyo in 2001, when the Laforet department store in Harajuku created a pop-up boutique to sell my clothes. The next year I became the first non-Japanese designer invited to show during Tokyo Fashion Week. I find that in Japan people tend to appreciate new ideas in fashion, even if they are extreme. You’re more likely to see people on the streets of Tokyo wearing the kind of clothes that would typically only be featured in fashion magazines.

What drove you to create an eco-friendly fashion brand?For me it wasn’t about creating an “Eco Friendly” brand, so much as rethinking the way we do business in order to minimize our carbon footprint. Most consumers don’t realize that the fashion industry is one of the world’s largest polluters. In addition to sourcing organic, naturally hand-dyed fabrics, my clothes are produced in factories that meet ethical and fair-trade standards. A lot of my pieces incorporate recycled and vintage fabrics so that nothing goes to waste. The fur, leather and feathers used in my collections are also the product of ethical farming practices that don’t harm endangered species.

Has this approach also influenced the way you show and sell clothes?
Definitely, I have never met a journalist, buyer or designer that hasn’t complained about the relentlessness pace of the Spring/Summer-Autumn/Winter round of shows. It doesn’t make sense to put time into creating beautiful clothes, which only appear on a runway for a few seconds. For that reason, I decided to combine both my spring and fall collections into one intimate presentation, where people could get close enough to view the clothes and appreciate the work that went into them. It’s not only about respecting the earth’s resources but also our own time, energy and creativity. By showing both seasons together, I can spend more time designing and the buyers can budget in advance.

All images courtesy of Reem Alasadi

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Food for Thought…

Recently, as part of London Fashion Week, Iraqi-British designer Reem Alasadi, was featured in a film high-lighting the country’s multicultural society. Alasadi, who has long been a favorite amongst fashion insiders, is one example of how designers of Middle Eastern heritage are reshaping the London fashion scene while having a global impact.

A Conversation with Brooklyn-based Bahraini photographer Ghada Khunji: Part I

Ghada Khunji creates the kind of visually arresting images that have garnered her critical success in both the United States and Europe. Traveling several months out of the year to develop her body of work, Ghada’s photographs capture the dignity and humanity in her subjects, while transporting viewers to diverse cultures through her camera lens. In 2006, she received photography’s most coveted award, the Lucie, whose mission it is to honor master photographers. The Polyglot sat down with Khunji to discuss her inspiring journey from Bahrain to Brooklyn.

Your work often explores cultures other than your own. Did you grow up being exposed to diverse cultures as a child?
My fascination with different cultures developed at school in Bahrain. I grew up with people from all over the world, and there were students from 51 countries. Just going to school with such diverse peers taught us all tolerance and true friendship that transcended cultural boundaries. Bahrain is also a very multiethnic country, so I was lucky to always be exposed to people from many countries throughout my childhood.

You’ve lived in places as varied as England, Bahrain, Indiana and now Brooklyn. How have those experiences shaped your own sense of identity?
The fact that I’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to so many places in the world, has had an enormous influence on my thinking, on my work, on my life. These opportunities have shaped who I am today.

You studied fashion photography at Parsons School of design in NY. For many in the fashion industry the school is legendary for producing graduates such as Marc Jacobs, Steven Meisel and Anna Sui. Yet in your own career you’ve distanced yourself from fashion, instead focusing your lens on real people usually living in third world conditions. What pushed you to take that path early on?
I was interested in documenting real life. I was especially drawn to capturing portraits of people. I decided to travel abroad when I had a vacation at University. I started in the Dominican Republic where I documented rural villages. The warmth of the people immediately made me realize that my photographic goal should be to bring awareness to the existence of people and their cultures that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Were there any individuals that influenced you?
I only recently realized that it was my father and mother who were my inspirations. Soon after they married, my father got her a camera. Photography, it seems, was his passion too. My mother spent many hours photographing after that, her family, her friends, her trips, and surroundings. She remembers taking pictures aboard a ship travelling from Dubai to Bahrain soon after she had my eldest sibling. Exposure to the negatives and the photographs during my childhood had a great impact on me. From the time I was eight I had a camera at my side. Photography gave me a voice- it still does.

You take a documentary approach to your work. Did you feel it was the most affective way to tell a story visually?
Yes. Documentary photography is related to photojournalism, but unlike the latter with its emphasis on "frontline" news, I am interested in capturing what happens behind the scenes. For example, in Cuba, I was interested in how the Cuban people are really living, not on the political situation. I would rather show how life goes on, regardless of politics. It's the simple moments that allow a glimpse into unadorned humanity that interests me.

You recently had a sort of home coming with your first exhibit in Bahrain at the La Fontaine Center. How did the exhibit come about and was there a reason why it took a while to stage an exhibit there?
Bahrain is my birthplace, and I’m so honored to have finally exhibited my work there. I was born around the corner from La Fontaine [where the show was held], my brothers actually used to play in the old house when they were kids, which made it even more special to have an exhibit there. I was thrilled when I was asked to showcase my work there. It was actually a fun serendipitous sequence of events that led to the show.

As luck would have it, Ms. Alireza picked up a copy of Clientele Magazine which is distributed on Gulf Air flights and the issue happened to feature a story on my photographs. After reading the article, she became interested in staging an exhibition of my work at La Fontaine and she contacted me. I was thrilled at the prospect and so grateful that Ms. Alireza provided me with the opportunity to show my work in Bahrain for the very first time. Sometimes life works like that. Fate takes over and hands you an amazing gift. When you do what you authentically love and put yourself out there, sometimes the universe helps you along with a small and large gifts.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

A Conversation with Brooklyn-based Bahraini photographer Ghada Khunji: Part II

Did you feel any slight nervousness showing in Bahrain for the first time, and what was the reaction to your work? I had butterflies in my stomach thinking about showing my work at home in Bahrain. I have been living abroad for 25 years. Bringing home my experiences, and anticipating the reactions people might have, was daunting, but the experience was extraordinary and positive. It was a homecoming of sorts. I finally got to bring my work home with me and my family and friends, who taught me to respect and accept people of all cultures and religions; giving them the opportunity to see what I've been working on and the images that I've captured while I've been traveling so far away from them. For anyone wanting to pursue their dreams, do you think there is a certain amount of risk that needs to be taken to achieve their goals? I believe that any dream can be accomplished if one is willing to take risks and persist, no matter how long it takes, and how bumpy the road often is. I spent many years printing at Photo Labs, and yes, the onset of digital photography eventually put me out of a job. At the same time, I worked for some of the top labs in New York, and got to handle the negatives of some of the most important names in Fashion. Through that experience I learned to really develop my printing skills. That work really helped now that I’ve switched to using Photoshop- I know exactly what to do with the photo- it’s what I would have done in the darkroom. Losing my job also had a positive affect, it helped me to center myself and I decided to put my work out there for people to see. I have felt very rewarded by this. As long as negatives exist I will work with them gladly. I love to shoot with my old, reliable friends: my 17 year old camera and flash. It’s very different from looking at a digital file that can vanish in a second. You’ve captured the lives of people in places as diverse as the Dominican Republic, India, the American south and Cuba. Is there a certain thread that links all these places together? How do you choose your next destination? People are the thread. The next destination chooses me; whether it is an encounter with a person, a random conversation, a premeditated urge, I just go with it. Once I figure out where I will go, I make very minimal plans. I love not knowing where I will end up on that trip. One thing leads to another, and that's the beauty, the element of surprise. Have you considered exploring Bahrain and the Middle East as a subject for future projects? Or is it easier to be culturally detached from the subjects that you are photographed? Yes, I would love to capture my region. When I had first left Bahrain, it was hard to come back and ‘see’ it photographically. Perhaps it is because I was so at home there that I couldn’t see the mystery, the allure. But now, having been abroad for almost 25 years, Bahrain is somehow undiscovered by my eyes and I am ready to document. I will never be culturally detached from Bahrain and the region. That's where I was born, where my family lives. It is where all of my first experiences and influences were. When I moved abroad, I gained other layers of experience- the two together make me who I am today. You have the rare honor of being the first (and only) Bahraini to be crowned Home Coming Queen at Indiana’s University of Evansville. What are some of your memories of living in Indiana? I think everyone was shocked that I won! My first time in America was quite fascinating- it was such a different world. I knew little about fraternities and sororities, and didn’t feel comfortable in that scene, so I joined the International Students Club- and ended up the first International Homecoming Queen! I am very grateful for those years in Evansville, Indiana, they gave me a glimpse of middle America. What kind of influence did going to International Center of Photography’s documentary program have on your work? It was a one year program and an absolute privilege to have done it- only 15 students are chosen to attend each year. Many of my teachers were esteemed photographers, some were my idols. They inspired me and shaped my photography. It was like flipping through your favorite photographers’ books but there they were in class sharing their stories. © THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

A Conversation with Brooklyn-based Bahraini photographer Ghada Khunji: Part III

You live in Brooklyn, an area of the city that is home to artists and designers alike. What is it about living there that attracted you to the area?
After living in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for 10 years, Brooklyn was perfect - much more relaxed and serene, with its own unique flavor. It feels more like home here and its wonderful interacting with the people who have lived here most of their lives, I've heard many inspirational stories.

It’s interesting that you don’t see that many women from the Gulf let alone Bahrain emerging on the contemporary art scene. Do you think there is a lack of appreciation or understanding in general for contemporary art?
In the past decade the art scene in the Gulf has boomed, which is wonderful for the region, though I feel that contemporary art is still not as appreciated or understood as it could be. Recently I've seen quite a few women artists emerge from the Gulf, very talented ones. But that's just a fraction of the women in these societies, there is a lot more hidden talent, and I would urge women to express themselves and step out into the public with their work.

It’s often said that Arab parents would much rather see their children become doctors or lawyers rather than artists. Do you think that’s one of the challenges facing Arab women who want to go into photography? For a lot of these individuals is there a pressure to make it big outside their own countries before they gain recognition from them?
I think it was definitely much harder when I was growing up for parents to accept the choice to study photography as opposed to becoming a lawyer, doctor, etc. In general, they did not comprehend how such a skill would be useful in our society. I was fortunate enough to have had a family that accepted my choice. It's easier now for parents in our region to accept art as a profession, yet, it's still a small market of people that chose to be artist. It's still harder as a woman for the mere fact that a lot are not given the opportunity to study abroad and experience what the rest of the world has to offer for inspiration.

The West usually tends to portray women from the Gulf as living these very sheltered lives, but one of the untold stories is that for decades there have been generations of Gulf women who have studied, worked and lived abroad. Yet you don’t hear that much about their lives, straddling two worlds and this tug of war between tradition and modernity. In the last couple of years we’ve begun to see film makers, writers and artists exploring the Arab Diaspora. As a photographer is this the kind of subject you would consider exploring?

Yes, absolutely. And the fact that there are women from the region becoming recognized for their talents is extremely positive and long overdue. I would say that the climate in the region in general does not foster women to publicly express their creativity, and it is wonderful to see that this is changing.

You recently returned from a trip to Africa. Can you talk about your most memorable experience there and some of your future shows and projects?
Surviving tick bites, a nasty spider bite, and mosquitoes was one experience that I could have done without but it was all worth it. One of my most memorable moments was being at a Sangoma [African Shaman] village in South Africa. I did not realize what that trip entailed until we got there. We had to climb down a mountain to get to this isolated place, and I have an extreme fear of heights! Somehow I managed- I had to, but once we got there, it was magical. They were having an initiation ceremony and it was mesmerizing: the drumming, the chanting, the ones being initiated in a frenzy of non stop dancing until they almost fainted! The next day we had to return the same way, but up this time, and it was just unbearable for me. But that same evening, the head Sangoma came over to me and placed a special belt around my waist and said: "This is for conquering your fear". Somehow he knew.

This past year I have been focusing more on creating work, rather than on shows. With the New Year coming, I'll be ready to showcase some new work. I would love to have more shows in Bahrain and in that region. Also, in the next year I will be travelling to Central and Eastern Europe. There is a major problem there with institutionalizing people who have disabilities, and I have the opportunity to work there- but not to show the horror, to show the humanity and how people with disabilities can live in their local communities when they get the support they need.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

A Candid Conversation with Krikor Jabotian

At 24, Lebanese-Armenian designer Krikor Jabotian is something of a wunderkind on the Beirut fashion scene. The talented designer opens the doors to his atelier for The Polyglot, to discuss fashion mentors and the problem with the business of fashion today.

What was your experience working briefly for Elie Saab?I first met Elie Saab in 2007, when he was the jury president at my final graduation presentation for ESMOD Beirut. After he saw my work, I was offered a job as a designer on his creative team. Working at Elie Saab was a transitional period for me, evolving from a student to a greater professional level. That said I also knew it wouldn’t last forever, since I enjoy the freedom and liberty of creating as an independent designer.

Is there anyone in particular who has supported your career from the beginning?I’ve been very lucky over the years to be supported by family and friends, especially my mother. Another great mentor is the Lebanese couturier Rabih Keyrouz, who has made it his mission to support young Lebanese talent. He invited me to showcase my very first collection at Starch, his boutique in Beirut’s chic Saifi village. From there I met my first client Mariana Wehbe, who is my business partner today.

Why did you decide to establish your own atelier/showroom in Ashrafieh last year?Establishing my own atelier was a natural evolution in my career as a designer. Early on I had a vision of creating my own private space, where I could build and develop my inspirations. When I first came across the old Ottoman-era house on Abdel Wahab el Inglizi Street, I immediately fell in love with its colonnaded arches, tiled floors and hidden garden. It’s a place that resonates with Beirut’s unique history and mix of cultures, and the perfect venue for my showroom and the concept behind my brand.

What do you think is wrong with fashion today?When I study the work of great designers such as Madame Grès, Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne Lanvin, you notice that a lot of time and passion went into the making of their clothes. Every piece is an artwork coupled with perfection and authenticity. Today’s fashion industry seems to be driven by mass production and standardized collections. So much so that the true concept of luxury is fading, uniqueness seems obsolete and it is all about bling!

Is that what your clients are looking for?My clients definitely don’t come to me for bling. They are searching for something unique with a quite sense of luxury. Although I stay loyal to my design philosophy, I also enjoy working with clients to tailor a design to fit them perfectly. At the end of the day I want them to feel confident and beautiful when wearing my clothes.

Is it easy for you to put a collection together?It is a challenging process in terms of seeing myself evolve from one season to another. Designing for me is fun, it is what I like to do best – it is feeling, experimenting, testing, constructing and deconstructing. Moreover, it is emotional, exciting, stressful, draining and above all satisfying.

Images courtesy of Krikor Jabotian and Tanya Traboulsi© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From the Vogue Archives: Moroccan Rendezvous

French Vogue, February 2010

Dree Hemingway, Lara Stone, Freja Beha Erichsen styled by Carine Roitfeld, photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin

Meet Zena el Khalil

Zena el Khalil is an installation artist, painter, curator, author and cultural activist. She first attracted the world’s attention with her blog Beirutupdate, which provided a personal account of the 2006 attacks on Lebanon. Born in England, she has lived in Nigeria, London and New York City before calling Beirut home. The Polyglot caught up with el-Khalil to see how her life has changed since publishing her thought-provoking 2009 memoir, Beirut I Love You.

This past summer marked your first solo exhibit in Lebanon in 4 years. Why the long period?I try to embrace all aspects of Lebanese society and culture in my art work. It’s a small country with a complex history and many layers, and sometimes my art can be quiet intense or provocative because of the way I tackle subjects. As a result I often show my work abroad. I would love to exhibit in Beirut all year long, but unfortunately there are limits to artistic expression which all artists must learn to navigate. It’s also extremely difficult to find support, both financial and emotional, for the arts in Lebanon. There are virtually no public spaces or funds, almost zero government support, and a very small audience.

You’ve run down the streets of Beirut in a wedding dress. What was the message you were trying to convey and what sort of reactions did you get?When I began this performance piece in 2003, it was as a social experiment. I was at that age that people in this part of the world deem “marriage material.” Mothers started passing by our home to sort of “check out the goods” and see if I was fit for their sons. At first I was horrified, but then decided to go with the flow and see what I could make out of it. I created a performance piece called Wahad Areese Please! (A Husband Please!) I chose the Beirut International Marathon as a venue because it is the only event in Lebanon where you have people from so many different backgrounds in a common space. For me, that meant more men to chose from! I bought a wedding dress; spray painted it pink, and walked the 10km course in the dress. I asked people questions about their concept and expectations of marriage. About stereotypes that they held. About their dreams. Most of the discussions were about material wealth and property. Very little spoke about love. I surprisingly received several proposals too! Since the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, I run to spread and promote love and peace.

Cultural activism seems to be a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East. Do you see part of the artist’s responsibility to push people’s buttons?Definitely, I don’t see a separation between art and activism. As human beings we have a responsibility towards each other. I am someone’s sister as well as neighbor. In May 2008, I was invited to speak at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. I believe that if enough people are working towards peace (through art, education, music, literature, meditation, action, events, and dialogue), it will eventually happen. We were born to be peaceful... it’s now a quest to return to our roots.

How has growing up in different countries and cultures shaped your own identity?

When I was younger, not being able to fit in was depressing. But as I grew older, I began to realize that the real problem I had was my concept of “fitting in.” When I let go of how different I felt, I began to embrace the similarities I found and the beauty in our differences. I also realized how connected we all are.

Has your life changed since you published your memoir in 2009?I began to write the book after my best friend Maya passed away. As if the war wasn’t enough, losing Maya a few months later sent me into a severe state of depression. I was in a very dark place and the book was the only thing that kept me going. The process of writing helped me heal. It was a catharsis and pushed all the negativity out of my life. I felt a lot better upon completing the book and regained my sense of purpose. Now every time my book is translated into a new language, I get to travel and tell the world about Maya and Beirut. It has made me feel alive again and closer to Maya than ever before. She has been with me on every plane ride and every presentation. We live in a world now that is more open to dialogue. I am taking advantage of this time in hopes that women around me will also join to tell their wonderful stories. Now is the time to do it, for us and for our future daughters. And I can’t tell you how ready we are.

Images courtesy of Zena el Khalil© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

A Study in Portraiture: Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian & Palestinian Women 1930-1949

Intellectual Chic: Rula Jebreal’s Alaïa Obsession

Attending the Miral premier at the 67th Venice Film Festival, September 2, 2010.

This month marked the United States premier of Julian Schnabel’s film Miral, based on an autobiographical novel by Palestinian author and journalist Rula Jebreal. The film, named after Jebreal’s daughter, revolves around the author’s childhood in East Jerusalem and has attracted considerable praise (and equal criticism) for its personal portrayal of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Yet looking closely at the movies’ credits reveals a cosmopolitan cast of characters representing diverse faiths, nationalities and backgrounds. With its Jewish director, Muslim script writer and Indian leading actress, Miral is less about pushing ideology as it is about creating a platform for dialogue through one young woman’s experiences. That the United Nations General Assembly served as the venue for the US premier, (attracting an international crowd of cultural luminaries), is one indication that this is no ordinary film.

For the past year Jebreal has found herself attending film festivals around the globe to promote Miral; grabbing the fashion world’s attention for regularly showing up at events wearing her favorite designer, Azzedine Alaïa. The Tunisian Paris-based designer has long enjoyed a cult-like following amongst fashion insiders, for his expert way of cutting a dress to flatter a woman’s curves. “If I could buy a company, I would buy Alaïa,” admitted Jebreal during a recent interview. Fitting praise for a designer, who is known for enhancing a woman’s confidence and allure the moment she dons his clothes.

Left: With Miral’s director Julian Schnabel at MOMA New York, April 13, 2010; Right: Rula Jebreal captured by Annie Leibovitz in Vogue, November 2010.

Left: Attending the “Desert Flower” New York Screening at MOMA, September 9, 2010; Right: Arriving at the Miral premiere held at the United Nations Headquarters, March 14, 2011.

Left: Miral Star Frieda Pinto and Rula Jebreal during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival; Right: Rula Jebreal, Julien Schnable and actress Freida Pinto attending the 18th Annual Hamptons International Film Festival, October 9, 2010.

Rula Jebreal during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival; Right: at the 67th Venice Film Festival, September 3, 2010.

Left: With Miral star Hiam Abbass arriving at the Excelsior Hotel during the 67th Venice Film Festival; Right: Rula Jebreal & daughter Miral attending the screening of "Miral" during the 18th Annual Hamptons Film Festival on October 8, 2010.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS