Faissal El Malak, one of the regions most promising talent, is a Palestinian designer who was brought up between Montreal, Canada and Doha, Qatar. He trained as a fashion designer in Paris’ Atelier Chardon Savard and recently moved back to the Gulf, settling in Dubai about three years ago. His contemporary Middle Eastern design identity bridge traditional artisan work with modern design. We met Faissal for a cup of coffee to talk about his last collection, his future projects and his life in Dubai.
You are an individual with an international background. How did it influence your design and your personality?
“Your aesthetic is changed by all of these different places. Travelling helps you to understand what people in Qatar like and wear, and what people in Canada prefer. It’s very interesting to have more global view”.
What inspires you?
“I can be inspired by music. I listen to lots of different things, jazz, or whatever is on the radio. I like contemporary Arab music, not necessarily pop music, more independent singers and bands. Young creative musicians and bands are not on the radio, they are not mainstream. Especially I feel in Dubai you are kind of disconnected from your Arab identity, we live in international western bubble. Here you have to go look for it. For me it’s important to immerse myself, to listen to, to see what is happening today in terms of my identity”.
Who is your ideal client?
“My client is quite international. It is not only people from the Gulf or from Dubai, but also from Europe or those who live here. They like the story, that it is something artisanal, something made in a traditional way, but they see it as a beautiful product they want to buy. It is not about the age, they may be 25 or 50, it is more about creative industry. They might be artists or graphic designers… They are in that industry they want to wear something special, something that tells a story. They also value the fact that it is something of high quality, so they can wear it hundreds of times. I see my clients and they say: “Omg, I wore it a million times, and every time I get compliments!” This is what I want to do. I do not want to do fast fashion, I really want pieces to become part of your wardrobe, that you can mix and match them a million ways. My ideal client is independent and very expressive. Through her clothes, she wants to say who she is. For her it is important to be and to look unique, and she is a very strong person”.
How does your regular day look like?
“A normal day is a lot about running around. I go to the workshop to follow up for the production. I need to go and see if everything is ok. That is like a couple of hours. Then I go to my office and I do some work, emails and things like that. I may go back to the workshop if they have questions. Its lots of time being in my car, running around and following up what needs to be done. You would think that being a designer is very glamorous, but it’s not. It’s a lot about carrying bags sweating in the sun. Sometimes it’s like meeting my driver in the middle of the night in industrial area. People don’t realize how much work and how unglamorous it is”.
Your “Morphology” collection is some kind of exploration in the study of non-gender forms, which we can observe also in other works nowadays. What is your vision, why do design pieces redefine traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity?
Doing research for my collection, I saw a lot of traditional garments that I took and made for women, though it is something that men in Tunisia wear. Moreover, my Yemeni fabric is something regarded as very masculine. Few Yemeni people who saw it, were very surprised: “Wow! Women wear men’s fabrics!”
I have a friend of mine who travels a lot, she went to Morocco and bought a lot of Moroccan jalabiyas, but men. The sales person wondered if she bought them for somebody else, and when my friend said, jalabiyas are for herself, she asked: “Please don’t wear them in Morocco, these are men’s clothes. If you wear them in Dubai its fine, but not here”. If you see it, it is just a cool dress; you wouldn’t know that it’s so masculine from where it came.
So I thought, why do we have to put barriers? Something that is masculine here, if you take it out of context, can be something very feminine. In this collection I made versions of the same clothes for both genders, playing around with this”.
How does the process of producing a design piece look like?
“The first step is travelling which is to find the artisans and to see what they have. Once I’m there, we work together with the artisan to develop a better version of what they are doing. Sometimes what they do is great and sometimes I change it a little, e.g. the color. And it’s about staying in touch. Some of the artisans don’t even have an email, which is a bit challenging. They are not used to scale pieces. E.g. they have 5 pieces, and I want a hundred initial pieces, then it becomes more complicated. At the same time, working with artisans is really what I want to do, I do love it, and it is what my brand is about”.
What did you learn the most in Paris?
“I learnt how to think creatively. I went to quite a creative school where they teach you how to think about the concept, about building a collection, how to see something and translate it into clothing. This is what I feel a lot of people lack here. E.g. sometimes you see young designers and think: “that could be so much more interesting. You stop at the first step; you could have gone so much further”. You see things and there are a few good ideas but you don’t feel that they know how to really push further and develop it. In Paris they teach you to develop the concept.
Paris developed my understanding about what something beautiful is. It’s all relative, I’m not saying that this is the right way, but I feel it did teach me a lot about general style. I think the Parisian woman has a very natural style. It’s about looking chic without making an effort which is something that I love and it’s something I relate to”.
Can you say that the Parisian woman is your muse?
“I can’t say the Parisian woman is my muse, not anymore, but I do keep her in the back of my mind when I design. My muse are people that are around me”.
What kind of people are around you?
“They work in the creative industry and I am lucky to have inspiring stylish women around. That is very valuable to have someone you can think of while you are designing”.
Can a random person inspire you?
“Absolutely! It happens when I go to events: “Wow! This person is really cool! What can I do for them, what do they want to wear?” I don’t talk to them, for me it’s enough just to observe”.
Can you remember the last time somebody impressed you?
“I went to a Ramadan event, and there were two girls. They were also designers and everything they were wearing was interesting”.
Where do you prefer to travel? What are your plans for the summer?
“Being a UAE based designer has its advantages. Now I’m in the mentorship program financed by the Contemporary Craft Council in Sharjah. They started last year and their initiative was the program in a collaboration with London College of Fashion. It started last August and the end of it is two months long pop-up shop on Bond Street in London this summer, it starts July,10. I’m going to London for the opening, and I usually go to London and Paris for summer to see my friends.
Recently I went to Egypt and Tunisia to source fabric. I’d love going back to Tunisia to keep working with a couple of artisans there.
To be honest I would love to do more travelling, but because I do everything on my own, it is quite difficult to take time off to travel. I produce everything locally. Garments are made here, that is why I also have to be here to oversee production”.
What is the one place you would love to visit?
“I am really fascinated by Central Asia; I’d love to go to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan. I don’t know why, I feel like they also have a lot of textile and all these things I’d be curious to see. It’s also on the bridge, between Europe and Asia, and they have all these influences. I think it would be really inspiring”.
What are your plans for the future?
“Now I am working on my Spring/Summer collection, and hopefully I will be doing a showroom in Paris for the next Fashion Week in September.
I see the future in the sense that I need to start selling internationally. I feel this is the only way to go. I need to grow. Dubai is great to be based in, it gives you a lot of advantages, but at some point you also need to show your work globally”.
Is there something you want to say through your work?
“My work is me being passionate about what I do. I’m not trying to teach anyone about my identity. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a politician. My thing is doing fashion and this is what I’m passionate about”.
What is your favorite thing about Dubai?
“My favorite thing about Dubai is that everyone can feel at home here. This is something that is very valuable today. I love the positive spirit of the city. I love that everything is possible, people value entrepreneurship, they value forward thinking. No one would say: “No, this is impossible”. Compared to Europe, there is a sense: “you can do it, go for it, try”, which is very encouraging”.
Do you feel at home here?
“Yes, I do… this is like another version of my childhood”.