x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Dreams on design

A year-long course for a group of special needs students has culminated in an impressive catwalk show of their creative wares.

A model shows off a dress designed with special needs at Raffles Hotel Dubai.
A model shows off a dress designed with special needs at Raffles Hotel Dubai.

A tear trickles down the fashion designer Marwan Harzallah's cheek. "I'm sorry," he says. "Excuse me. I'm so happy for the girls, you know? So happy." He takes some deep breaths and rubs his eyes. The girls who have had such a strong effect on Harzallah are a group of women aged between 19 and 37, whose special needs have until now limited their contact with the world beyond their families, curtailed their life ambitions and hampered their interaction with people. Over the course of two years - one year of preparation, one year of working closely with the girls at the Rashid Pediatric Therapy Centre in Dubai's Al Qusais - Harzallah has changed everything for them and their families, nurturing their artistic tendencies and turning them into fully trained fashion designers. From a field of 80 applicants in the Emirates, the designer chose the 19 - of whom 17 are deaf and mute, the other two are wheelchair-bound with varying levels of limb impairment - based on his own sense of their nascent artistic ability, to take part in the newly established Development Program for Talented Special Needs Fashion Designers.

"Four years ago I met some of them here in the Emirates and they showed me their drawings. Some drawings were very simple, but I can feel that they are talented but they couldn't show me what they wanted. I chose the people who cannot hear, cannot talk. These people are really clever because when they see you they don't hear you: they look at you, so they start thinking more than other people." Last Wednesday, the graduates of Harzallah's course put on a catwalk show at Raffles Hotel in Dubai, with the support of a number of fashion sponsors and under the patronage of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and The Events Agency. An array of colourful evening wear, in chiffons, silks and embroidery, was displayed in a lavish show themed "Dubai Makes Dreams Come True" in front of an audience of ambassadors, designers, entrepreneurs and government ministers.

"Now they can draw, they can choose a good design, they know how to take measurements, they know how to cut the pieces," said Harzallah a few days before the show, as I took a sneak preview of the collection. "Their collection, when you see it in the fashion show, it's the same as international fashion designers," he insisted. "I'm not saying this because I am their teacher. Really, everyone who has seen the collection says the same." Looking at the girls' meticulously executed sketches, the true point of the event was rammed home: these are genuine fashion designers who merely happen to have special needs.

"These people are as talented as other people, but they cannot talk and no one believes in them," says Harzallah. "People see special needs people and think they are unfortunate, they are babies, so just give them a gift and let them stay in the house. But my students and talented people like them don't want people to look at them as if they are poor or sick. No, they can do more than other people, really."

Saeed al Nabouda, the chief projects officer at Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, who has been involved in the project throughout the last year, is also careful to emphasise that this is about bringing untapped talents to bear in the UAE's cultural scene, not making token gestures. "We're looking at a fashion industry here, and we're just giving them the right platform to showcase their talent. It's not just a fashion show. For me it's very important as it really got them into the studies of design. By them graduating they are not just amateur fashion designers: it's very much at a higher level, so we are really proud of the 19 who'll be graduating tomorrow. We're not going to touch much on the trading aspect or the commercial aspect as they're determined themselves to make it on their own. So we're going to be there as support but we very much want them to act as normal designers who have to go and make their mark, with a go-getting attitude."

But go-getting or not, painful family issues are never easy to tackle, and Harzallah had to fight tooth and claw to persuade some of the girls' guardians that this was a worthwhile project. When some parents saw no benefit to the scheme, he refused to give up on his dream for them. "Firstly some of their families said: 'My daughter, she uses a wheelchair or she cannot talk. I am scared for my daughter, please keep this in my house.' But I knew that these girls were talented and I had very strong talks with their parents. One man, he said: 'Don't take my daughter; she will not answer your phone calls.' I went to his house and knocked, knocked, knocked on the door. I said: 'Your daughter has a gift, so please let the gift grow.' And now he is very happy and he is the one who brings his daughter to me."

For Harzallah, this project has turned from a mission to a vocation: "It's not just my dream; it's a dream for all of the world, really. They are very happy. In the beginning I was thinking to prove myself. Now I don't go to my own house, sometimes - I sleep in here at the centre. All night I am with the students on videophone if they have any problems." This, of course, is a reminder that the course was never going to be easy, as Harzallah tried to find ways to communicate with girls who, on top of their hearing and speaking problems, do not, in most cases, read or write. A mixture of teaching methods, discovered by trial and error, included translation, sign language, visual methods and short gestural narratives. "I had problems with them at first," admits Harzallah. "Then we started teaching as if we were creating small movies; we took them to so many places - tailors, fabric shops - and we made them feel they are already famous by surrounding them with a police escort when we travelled, from Dubai Police. And we'd record what was happening with TV cameras."

It was a hard-won battle, but Harzallah has succeeded in earning the trust of the girls and their families. "In the beginning they didn't trust anyone, especially the people who cannot talk or hear. But later on they trusted me. And their families were difficult too, but now everyone is so happy; they trust me so much." So what now for the graduates of Harzallah's course? Armed with sewing, pattern-cutting, drawing and measuring skills - not to mention the ability to communicate with tailors, to buy exactly the right fabrics at a good price and to oversee garment production - both their teacher and their sponsors are keen to see the designers continue in their careers, and the course to continue to produce and encourage new designers.

"It's just the beginning," says al Nabouda. "When this event's finished we will have a full report on it and then we sit and we take the next steps. I'm sure we can look at brighter horizons once we gauge the response to the fashion show and then we can look at how further to take this. But this programme can be universal, it can go from the UAE to the Gulf to the Arab world - there is no limitation."

Indeed when the project was first announced a year ago, Harzallah received requests for his services from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Tunis and Egypt, so while he plans to stay in Dubai for the next few years he sees no geographical limits for the idea itself. Continuing to act as mentor for this year's graduates, he has also seen a surge in interest in their designs from commercial entities. "The girls will continue to design. I have already had calls from fashion houses here inside the Emirates who want them, and I promised them to stay with them for two years as a manager for them. And we're going to open a tailoring shop here inside the club, so people can come and choose their design and they will make it for them. And also some people here in Dubai have called me, who want to open a fashion house or tailoring house."

For al Nabouda, the fashion show is just the start of a campaign to ensure that the private sector start to understand the talents that are on offer throughout society rather than only among the able-bodied. "These special needs girls have just been, I believe, overlooked - I won't say neglected, but I think it was from both ends, they were just waiting for an opportunity. To my surprise, within one year they have mastered this craft, and credit goes to Marwan for really believing in them: hats off this gentleman who really went ahead and made it happen.

"We want to show that if you have the right talent, the right will, nobody can stop you." That's a sentiment with which all involved can now, wholeheartedly, agree. gchamp@thenational.ae