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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

The Emirati illustrator offering ‘cultural insight’ via chic khaleeji pop art

Emirati creative artist Fatma Al Mulla speaks to us about her new distinctly designed, Ramadan-inspired collaborations with international brands 

Fatma Al Mulla has designed everything from clothing and furniture, to jewellery and packaging. Reem Mohammed / The National  
Fatma Al Mulla has designed everything from clothing and furniture, to jewellery and packaging. Reem Mohammed / The National  

Emirati artist and fashion designer Fatma Al Mulla has made a name for herself crafting vividly patterned products punctuated with locally-relevant pop-culture motifs.

Her FMM kaftans are dotted with nostalgic symbols of Dubai, from packets of Chips Oman to cans of Rainbow Milk; her handbags and passport covers portray images of henna-covered hands, and her phone cases take the shapes of niqabs and oud bottles. Now, this distinct aesthetic has caught the eye of two international brands that were looking to introduce culturally relevant packaging for the Middle East market this Ramadan. Italian eyewear brand Glassing recruited Al Mulla to design limited-edition eyewear cases, and Garrett Popcorn Shops enlisted the designer to create an exclusive popcorn tin.

“It’s nice to collaborate with international brands because they need that insight into Ramadan,” explains the designer. “As an Emirati and as an Arab and as a Muslim, I do have that insight. I’ve been fasting all my life in Ramadan and it’s a beautiful month to create something that has meaning.”

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For Glassing, Al Mulla appropriated her signature Bedouin lady, orange peel, pink eyes, camel and dihn oud prints. “Glassing gave me complete freedom,” the designer tells me. “I wanted to design something that’s very avant garde but also that represents Dubai culture, so the prints are very graphic and exaggerated but still extremely modern, with a cultural twist.” While Italian eyewear may seem worlds apart from Arab fashion, Al Mulla explains that Glassing aligns with her brand, in that they both focus on simple and classic shapes with fun and quirky finishes. “Their glasses speak to millennials, and I think I do the same thing as well,” adds Al Mulla.

Glassing is using Al Mulla’s “dihn oud” prints on its eyewear cases. Courtesy FMM
Glassing is using Al Mulla's "dihn oud" prints on its eyewear cases. Courtesy FMM

Her tin design for Garrett Popcorn Shops depicts a mint-green background covered with colourful bottles of dihn oud. “They wanted me to come up with something very iconic of my brand, FMM, and something that people would recognise. I gave them a few illustrations to pick from and they picked the dihn oud. For some reason it’s a favourite for both Emiratis and expats; they find some beauty and something different and something very Arabic about this print,” she says.

While Al Mulla has a background in digital art and graphic design, she is primarily known for her range of kaftans and cover-ups, and welcomed the increased flexibility and creativity that came with designing packaging. “Designing clothing has more of a personal kind of feeling to it. I’ve always found that people are more conscious with the things that they wear but they tend to experiment more or be more risky with things like boxes and cases; items that they can hold,” she says.

Working with these brands was an invaluable experience for Al Mulla, who hopes to continue to collaborate with globally recognised labels. “They’re international brands with so many different branches, and I thought to myself that these collaborations could also give me a chance to see what big brands want in terms of cultural insight,” she says. Her dream collaboration, she reveals, would be with Adidas. “That would be amazing – imagine, FMM sportswear,” she says excitedly.

Al Mulla's popular Bedouin Lady motif. Courtesy FMM
Al Mulla's popular Bedouin Lady motif. Courtesy FMM

Al Mulla has never been one to allow herself to be pigeonholed into one particular category of design. “I’ve always been a curious person; I don’t like to stick to one thing.” Her creative spirit and drive for design diversification led her to recently launch The Living Room – a coffee and dessert shop in Mercato Mall, inspired by what Al Mulla calls “the modern majlis”. Dishes like Unicorn Parfait and Baklava Cheesecake appear on the Ramadan menu, and the pink and marble interiors feature built-in shelves stocking phone cases from her eponymous brand.

“To be an artist isn’t like you’re just designing clothes or bags,” says Al Mulla. “As an artist and graphic designer and painter, I tend to find different mediums. I moved from clothing, to furniture, to jewellery, to designing boxes and packaging.

“It’s all about the different mediums that one has. The Living Room gave me room to design an experience, and that was an extremely challenging but fulfilling journey.”