Meet the Qatari designer who's taking exquisitely reworked takes on traditional Middle Eastern fashion to an international stage.
A passion for doing things just right
Lama El Moatassem has standards. High standards. And, in the politest possible way, she has little patience with anyone who does not live up to them.
The fashion designer is founder of the Qatari label Toujouri, which has been delivering exquisitely reworked takes on traditional Middle Eastern fashion to an international stage for the past five seasons (the sixth during the forthcoming Paris Fashion Week). One of the region's few designers to have solid experience in the wider industry, she is not only critical of the quality of design to be found locally but also uncompromising in the execution of her own work.
Take the launch of her flagship store at Pearl Island, Doha, on Saturday night. Designed by Peter Marino, who designs stores for the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, the shop's opening has been postponed again and again because the standard of construction was not up to par.
"You know what it's like here," she says. "For example, the contractors told us that the floor was natural limestone, and in fact it was a veneer, but everything is textured, so once they started engraving the texture into it, the veneer goes and the stone started to break up. Until the day before we're supposed to open, they're like, 'We'll fix it, we'll fix it!' I really wanted to open before the Tribeca Film Festival."
Luckily, Toujouri (the name comes from the Arabic for "treasure box") is already stocked in the likes of Harrods of London, Harvey Nichols and S*uce in Dubai and Designers' Lounge in Kuwait and, when I met El Moatassem in Paris last season, buyers from Turkey, Malaysia and Singapore had been to see her colourful showroom, which she was sharing with her fellow Middle Eastern designer Sultan Al Darmaki.
The Doha shop is just the tip of a perfectionist iceberg. The pieces presented each season in Paris are delicate, consummately feminine confections of silk chiffon, tulle, organza, custom-made prints and panels of dense embroidery and beading that, with the help of her Qatar-based atelier, are months in the designing.
"We spend at least two months at the beginning of every season just picking out the materials and the stories, each sequin, each bead, each thread," she says. "We really sit there and make things work. It's a lengthy process, because in parallel you develop the shapes, which have to make sense and work in harmony."
Born and raised in Qatar, El Moatassem lived in London for 12 years, where she studied at Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion. After six months of internship at Chloé in Paris (under Phoebe Philo's tenure), she spent three years working for that prince of prints Matthew Williamson - a perfect match, judging by her own print and embellishment-rich work.
That experience has, she says, given her a far more practical approach to design (although the floating kaftans and heavily embroidered dresses she sells offer nothing so mundane as practicality; she is all about eveningwear, or at the very least the sort of chic, silky pieces to be worn on the Avenue Montaigne or the French Riviera in summer). It's a route she would like to see taken by more of her contemporaries in the Middle East. "The experience that you get, the knowledge ... Your mentality changes. You become less selfish, creatively, to be actually able to survive," she emphasises.
"I think it's important for people to be able to get over their egos - especially in this period, when everyone is living in fear. It's sink or swim. If you want to live as a fantasy designer, fair enough, but we're all trying to build a business out of it."
Perhaps that seems harsh, but El Moatassem is passionate about increasing the quality and improving the reputation of fashion coming out of the region - and about sharing the traditional styles, such as Toujouri's trademark kaftan, while bringing them up to date with modern cuts or fabrics.
"I think the lack of education in this field in the Middle East is a problem because it makes it difficult for people who are trying to do things right to actually break through and say, 'Hey, look at me: I'm doing something properly,' you know? I haven't got people in a back room stitching up my garments. We've actually got an infrastructure, we've got a set-up, we've got people who have worked with international designers and we're working on that calibre."
Like it or not, it's an attitude that is paying off for El Moatessem, and with her recent collaboration on a print magazine for the luxury vintage store Atelier-Mayer.com, which is released as a supplement to the February 2012 Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, it looks as if her international profile is about to gather more attention.
So is she ready to be swept off her feet by the fashion world's love? Well, she's certainly not getting carried away by the glamour of it.
"It's not glamorous at all," she laughs. "I understood that when I worked in Paris. You see on the façade that everyone looks so glamorous and so beautiful, and they're strutting down the catwalk, and there are standing ovations - but just a few metres away there are people tearing their hair out and ripping clothes up! That's really the fashion industry."
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