Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

Emirati designer Huda Al Nuaimi: ‘if it’s made in the UAE, it’s just as good as if it’s made in Italy’

The Emirati designer's autumn/winter 2015 collection was delicate and whimsical, accented with lace and dragonfly jewellery, while her spring/summer 2016 collection has loose silhouettes, more pigmented colours and safari-inspired accessories.

Emirati designer Huda Al Nuaimi's spring/summer 2016 collection has tribal and military influences. Courtesy Huda Al Nuaimi
Emirati designer Huda Al Nuaimi's spring/summer 2016 collection has tribal and military influences. Courtesy Huda Al Nuaimi

A German shepherd sprawled on the studio floor looks on lethargically as a model with fiery hair dances around, creating strong, angular shapes with her body as she is photographed. She is wearing a beige abaya that could double as a trendy trench coat, and her red hair is worked into striking braids.

Thick gold chokers are fastened around her neck, and a small ring is clipped on the septum of her nose. Her hands, too, are covered in chunky jewellery – emerald stones, metallic coils and intricate beaded stars adorn her wrists and fingers.

This is the set for designer Huda Al Nuaimi’s spring/summer 2016 campaign shoot. Although she’s been in the industry for about seven years, Al Nuaimi took a short break from the limelight before making a commendable comeback with her autumn/winter 2015 collection. She previously designed under the name Malaak, producing ornate abayas and turbans.

“Because my mother, who is also a fashion designer, has a West Indian background, I’ve been raised on Erykah Badu, and I’ve always liked that kind of sense of fashion,” says Al Nuaimi, whose father is Emirati. While she still draws heavily from these silhouettes, her latest designs show a greater sense of focus, with a clearer direction and more refined vision. “I think the collection has matured with me. I’m much more confident as a designer now, and I think that’s reflected in my work,” she says.

Designers are often faced with this crucial task: to edit down their work and focus on key elements in order to shape an aesthetic that will become their signature. Al Nuaimi has done just that, developing her technique and graduating from contrived, bulky shoulders and oblique embellishments to a more minimalist approach that combines luxe textiles in sumptuous shades, with unique, handmade touches. “With me it’s always about experimenting,” she says. “It can take you six months to perfect something, but you get there in the end and that’s when you launch it – it doesn’t have to come out tomorrow.”

Quality work and perseverance are important to the designer, who was raised in London and Dubai. “I think that if it’s made in the UAE, it’s just as good as if it’s made in Italy,” she says. “We have the same calibre as designers there, and it’s important to reflect that.”

While Al Nuaimi’s autumn/winter 2015 collection was delicate and whimsical, characterised by neutrals and pastels, and accented with handmade white lace and beaded dragonfly jewellery (to symbolise transformation and positivity), her upcoming collection makes a more emphatic statement. Colours are more pigmented – deep burgundies, olive greens, blacks, browns and khakis hang on a rail in the studio, near a table full of safari-inspired accessories for styling. Silhouettes are long and loose, with ankle-lengths and lapel collars – a modern take on the abaya. “We’ve taken it much more into an overcoat kind of look. It bridges eastern and western trends and anybody can wear it – they can wear it here or they can wear it while overseas,” she says.

The spring/summer collection has both tribal and military influences, and features fringing, weaving and beaded details. From afar, accents look like ropes and studs, giving off a hard, almost punk-like vibe, but up close, one can see the deep intricacy of the work. Strips of fabric are woven in and out of embroidered holes to create a braided effect, while trios of gold cylinder beads create a shiny, stud-like appearance. Hand-beaded stars also make gallant, patch-like emblems when scattered on the abayas and on a daringly sheer bodysuit. These handmade touches are the details that make Al Nuaimi’s work so distinctive. She plays with the beaded star ring on her own finger while she speaks. “I made it last minute – I always do – this is just a prototype, the others are made professionally.”

Inspired by the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East, as well as the increasingly prominent role of Arab women, Al Nuaimi’s use of stars is quite intentional. “They bring a lot of light and hope, and I think that speaks to where we’re headed as a region.”

She also takes inspiration from her clients. “They’re a very elite clientele and are great personalities,” she says. “They’re achievers, and very fashion-forward – they know their worth.”

Look out for this and similar stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, March 3.