Inside the world of the Syrian fashion designer Rami Al Ali, who blends eastern femininity with western dazzle and couture.
Dubai-based designer to make debut at Paris Haute Couture Week
If designer Rami Al Ali is not to be found at his Dubai atelier or in his native Syria, he's most probably flown to France.
At the end of January, Al Ali will make his debut at Paris Haute Couture Week, showing his spring/summer 2012 collection to an unforgiving audience of fashion critics and demanding high-profile clients.
"The couture fashion houses in Paris are hundreds of years old and I will, of course, be compared with them, which is a huge pressure for me," he says. "Plus, the media at Paris Fashion Week have seen a lot, so it's hard to impress them.
"It's too early to reveal the theme [of the collection], but it has something to do with my Syrian roots, with lots of Arabesque and ornamental details - very feminine and nostalgic."
After studying for an arts degree in Damascus and doing stints at some of the UAE's most prestigious fashion houses, he created Rami Al Ali couture in 2001.
Following the launch of his ready-to-wear line in 2007, the designer took a leap of faith two years later and became the first Syrian to register for AltaRoma's prestigious fashion event. That same year he was ranked one of the world's 50 most influential Arabs by The Middle East magazine.
"We did many shows locally and regionally around that time, and once we had established the name, image and philosophy of the company, we wanted to take the next step," he says.
Showing two couture collections, one bridal and a further two prêt-à-porter shows per year in the city, Rome quickly became something of a professional and spiritual home for the designer. He admits the move exceeded all expectations and allowed him to export his distinctive Arabic style abroad successfully.
"It was such a great decision," he says. "My proudest moment was probably my first European collection [spring/summer 2009]. It had a lot of meaning for me and was greatly received. The theme was the Damascus rose and we made special prints for the fabric with Syrian mosaics and the flower itself."
Al Ali calls his graduation to Europe's couture capital, Paris, "an organic development" and says the creations set to grace the runway will continue to bear the hallmark of this wistful, ethereal style.
"The Damascus rose may reappear," he says playfully. "But in a more mature way. I've used pale pastel colours - beige, champagne, dusty rose and pistachio green. And I went for very light materials with lots of transparency like tulle, chiffon and organza. I wanted the gowns to look unreal - like a mirage, as if in a dream."
Al Ali is also making good use of the current international trend of detailing by using new materials and fabrics to create texture, rather than simply adorning gowns with excessive embroidery, sequins and beads.
"Embellishment is one of the most important couture designer tools," he says. "But using the same classical ways is boring for designers and for the client as well - this is a far more modern and up-to-date way."
Al Ali's highly original, sculpted evening gowns soon attracted some very famous attention, not least from socialite Ivana Trump, who is now a front-row regular at his shows. The couturier famously dressed Trump, alongside model-actress Rosanna Davison, in a show-stopping peacock feather-inspired creation for Elton John's White Tie and Tiara Ball last year.
From regional royal fans to international celebrities and social muses such as the Egyptian actress Yousra and the singer Lateefa Nawal, Al Ali says the many varied people he dresses never fail to get his creative juices flowing.
"A client can really impress and inspire me," he says. "She may influence the whole direction of the next collection simply by something she says, or wears, her statement about design. It always stays in my mind."
Al Ali says that although he doesn't have dream clients to dress up, he has favourite celebrities whose fashion portfolios he admires. "Like Sarah Jessica Parker - I would definitely be happy to be a part of hers. She's just changed the whole way we evaluate fashion by mixing couture with high street pieces and she's even added new words to fashion's vocabulary," he says. "I also like Catherine Zeta Jones and Salma Hayek. They are very elegant, even when not wearing something particularly visually interesting."
Muses aside, Al Ali's love of music also plays a part in his creative process - his iPod is currently playing on repeat Chopin's haunting Nocturnes. Although he keeps a sketch book and pencil with him at all times for jotting down designs, his greatest fear is running out of new ideas.
"Every time I do a new collection I feel, no, this is too good!" the designer says, laughing. "And I wonder whether I should keep pieces for the next collection - so I would say a lack of creativity is what worries me most."
His worst fears have yet to be realised, however. His last collection, Rami Al Ali Autumn/Winter 2011/12, was a fitting farewell tribute to Rome, with accentuated feminine silhouettes, classically tailored pieces and floor-sweeping creations in jewel tones such as emerald green.
"We needed a lot of fabric that had the texture and feel of ancient wools," he says. "So we worked a lot with Italian companies to make special tweed with less wool, so a woman in the Gulf could wear them and still feel the richness of proper European tweed."
Al Ali concedes it's almost inevitable that the alluring je ne sais quoi of his new international base, Paris, will take his designs in another new and exciting creative direction.
"Paris has long been in my heart," he says. "And although you haven't seen it in my collections yet, I am working on one inspired by the city and its people."
He'll no doubt be inspired, too, by the line-up of iconic maisons showing alongside him in Paris next month, including Dior, Valentino and Versace, who returns after an eight-year hiatus.
In hallowed haute couture company Al Ali's brand may be, but the designer modestly admits he still has a long way to go.
"Fashion wise, I don't think I've done anything so far," he says. "I'm just starting, still exploring and enjoying, so probably I would like to do another 20 to 30 years.
"My relationship with my career is very emotional, I do it with a passion and not because it's profitable. It makes me happy and is a tool for me to express who I am."