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"Find your style and express yourself," says the designer Hatem Alakeel.
'Find your style and express yourself,' says the designer Hatem Alakeel.

'We demonstrate how elegant traditional can be'

Retail therapy Hatem Alakeel, who designs thobes (or khandouras) for his label Toby, explains his approach to fashion.

I've had a passion for fashion since I was a kid. I always wanted to dress in a certain way. I always had something very specific in my head about how I should be dressed and how men should be dressed. My style is simple, but with a bit of an edge. Toby started about a year ago. Before that I was designing traditional wear, just for fun, for myself. Friends started asking, "Can I get one too?" and before long I said, "Why not turn this into a business?"

I worked in marketing for six years before that and saw that there was a need in the Middle Eastern market for something that was modernised. We're not breaking tradition - we still provide the regular khandoura, dishdasha or thobe, but we give it a different touch, so the customer has options. My whole concept is being able to give the Middle Easterner who wears dishdasha or thobes the option of expressing themselves in their attire.

We have four lines. The Bohemian line focuses on trends in embroidery - we have one that has Andy Warhol embroidery on it, which attracted a lot of expatriates (I get quite a lot of expatriate Europeans buying online, and the Muslim community like to wear the more fashionable kandura on Friday). Then I have the Trend line, which is basically a way to satisfy the fashionisto cravings. I see what's interesting in fashion, then incorporate it into a thobe.

Then there is a sport line. Sportswear is very comfortable, attractive, fun - the kids love it. We have one with a number seven on the back, which is our lucky number.The fourth line is the classic look: readapting the shirt into a thobe. You could wear this in the office. It's wearable, it's classic, it's West meets East. This is what I'm all about. I'm Saudi Arabian, but I grew up in Europe and the States, so I am both Middle Eastern and western in my mentality.

I sketch a design, and then I do a three-dimensional version. I love taking fabric and playing with it on the mannequin. I pin it or play with it. Sketching is good, but when you see it live, it's different.I have a weakness for luxurious fabrics. They're expensive, but my customers notice that I have the best quality fabrics. I bring 80 per cent out from Italy, and I don't compromise on that. At first, people said, "OK, what are you wearing?" But eventually they really started to appreciate it. I opened my boutique in Jeddah over a year and a half ago now. For the first five months, I was in the boutique to get first-hand feedback from the customer. To be honest, it was really quite positive. There were a couple of pessimists or people who were more traditional - they'd say, "I might not wear them myself but I'd bring my kids."

What we're doing is embracing tradition. If anything, we are trying to demonstrate to the rest of the world how elegant and cool traditional can be. It's a way for us to demonstrate our culture to the world. In Saudi, we are very much a conformist society. But 50 per cent of the population is between 15 and 35. They are kids who want to see change, want involvement. They watch satellite and know what's happening in the rest of the world. It's not about dictating to them: we have four lines; find your style and express yourself.

I always found the whole English duke thing very elegant, with the cravat, the polo players. They have a certain air about them, very refined and sophisticated. So I wanted to combine that with the khandoura, and give it an extra touch. Today I'm wearing a classic shirting with a scarf that goes with the fabric. It went very well in the boutique. It's Italian cotton. You can wash it five, six, seven times and it will stay the same.

I have them made in my own workshop. I recruit my own tailors. I'm very hands on. Getting the tailors is a question of training - having a systematic programme, where everyone learns what they're doing, and then you're fine. I took a couple of fashion courses and I read a lot on stitching - how a shirt should fall, what the quality is like. I like my shirts not to be too tight, which detracts from the look of the thobe, or too loose, where you don't see the cut at all. At the same time, it's important that the stitching is done in a certain way. You really notice the difference. Attention to detail is vital.

With my thobe, I wear anything from trainers to classic shoes to loafers, depending on the mood and what style I want to communicate that day. I love Puma, Gucci, Prada, Skechers - right across the board. I also wear the madas sandals, a traditional sandal from back home, made out of leather. There are local brands, but I think there are quite a few international designers starting to catch on, too.

My watch is Cartier. I have other watches, but I'm a Cartier man. It has a French sensibility and is very classic but it has a bit of an edge to it. I like the French style of watchmaking. Toby thobes and accessories are available at www.urtoby.com and will be sold in Villa Moda menswear when it launches at DIFC.

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