Gowns with no hidden designs
ABU DHABI // Mona Al Mansouri strolls through her studio, just off Sheikh Zayed the First Street, pointing out photographs of what she calls her "message" dresses.
"This one," says the Emirati designer, pointing to a photograph of a white frock, "was for fashion week in Italy. I speak about stopping the killing of the environment in it."
Mrs Al Mansouri points to a photo of another white dress, this one covered with hand-stitched images.
"This one caused me much trouble," she says, "because I speak about peace in it."
As with all of her themed dresses, the messages are obvious - not hidden under layers of silk and taffeta and chiffon.
From discussing the possibilities of a united Arab world, to comparing the impact of the global financial downturn on Dubai with that on the rest of the world, to questioning rising obesity levels in the UAE, Mrs Al Mansouri has gone through yards of material to deliver messages through fashion.
Those messages, she says, are on whatever she is thinking about near the time of her fashion shows.
Mrs Al Mansouri considers the message dresses to be the most effective way to reach out to people.
"I know now that fashion is cultural," she says. "It is cultural for the people, so I said, 'Why not use this catwalk to make messages for the world about many things?'"
A self-taught designer, Mrs Al Mansouri says her career in fashion began more than 20 years ago.
She was studying engineering and geology when she decided to pursue the love of fashion that had until then only been a hobby.
Her family questioned her decision to abandon her education and pursue her dream career.
But her choice clearly paid off when she was this year named the "most influential designer in the Middle East" by the UAE version of the French fashion magazine L'Officiel.
True to her message of international unity, she has assembled a loyal team of about 20 Indian, Pakistani and Filipino tailors to help realise her vision over the past decade.
They say their work is more than just a job.
"When you work here you feel like you're in the home," says Pablo Ampaya of the Philippines, who has been Mrs Al Mansouri's right-hand man for the past six years. "You feel like you're doing your hobbies."
Her message dresses may get the attention but there are hundreds of more wearable creations lining her shop, ranging from Dh4,000 party dresses to Dh100,000 bridal gowns.
In February, Mrs Al Mansouri grabbed national attention after unveiling one of her dresses at the Bride Show Abu Dhabi.
Intended as a representation of the Abu Dhabi archipelago of Bu Tinah, which seeks to become one of the new seven wonders of the world, the frock held vivid images of turtles, dugongs and other marine life.
"It will be exhibited in the airport as a landmark," Mr Ampaya says.
Turning her attention back to her troublesome "peace" dress, Mrs Al Mansouri smiles.
"I want all the people represented, without looking at religion and without looking at colour," she says. This dress had attracted complaints, Mrs Al Mansouri says, because of the placement of a mosque and church alongside one another.
"Some people said, 'What are you doing?' and I replied, 'In the Holy Quran, there is writing about Jewish and about Christian people, as it should be. I told people that this is a message for stupid people who question peace."
Despite her passion for haute couture designs, she did not initially aim to bring her views into the mix.
"For some time I told Pablo I don't want to make messages. But suddenly, something happened near me that made me make the first dress."
She points to another dress on her wall of fame. Made of silk, it is black with a series of intricate patterns. It was the first of her message dresses and was created in homage to Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, shortly after his death.
Mrs Al Mansouri has created 15 more designs since. The most recent, finished last month, depicts the growing relationship between Switzerland and the UAE.
Made for a solo exhibition in Lausanne, the dress now belongs to the Musee Suisse de la Mode in Yverdon-les-Baines. It is the first Emirati artefact to be housed at the museum.
It is not the first time - nor will it be the last, says Mr Ampaya - the designer will give her dresses away.
"Most of them she gives as a gift," he says.
Looking to open her own gallery "some day", Mrs Al Mansouri keeps some of the message dresses - the ones that have not been given as gifts - in her possession.
They have no price and they will never be sold, Mr Ampaya says.
Updated: July 15, 2011 04:00 AM