The designer Lamis Khamis talks about growing up with fashion in Baghdad, Aqaba and London.
'I never wanted to be like everybody else'
The designer Lamis Khamis talks about growing up with fashion in Baghdad, Aqaba and London. I was born in Baghdad and my family was quite liberal. My mum wore miniskirts in the 1970s. As a child, I was a bit of a tomboy. I used to love wearing jeans but also little dresses, dungarees and denim. In Iraq, a lot of people made their own clothes but my parents used to travel a lot within the Arab countries and would buy me European-style pieces. I was fortunate to have really good clothes as a child. I was envied by other kids in my area. My auntie was a seamstress, so she used to make me dresses that I would find in magazines, even when I was young. I'd say: "I want this." We'd go to the market, pick the fabric and she would make it for me. I used to love that: having my own individual pieces.
When you look back, it's quite weird how I'm exactly the same now. Everything relates to your history and you don't really change much. My dad is a hairdresser by trade, but when he was in Iraq he worked in an office job. We also lived in Aqaba, Jordan, for two years. We had an apartment next to the Red Sea and my father was head of shipping at the port. That was amazing. We had a beautiful life there. We ate fresh fish every day, grilled on the beach on barbecues.
When I came to London in 1979, my mum was very trendy. She used to take me to Carnaby Street. I still remember her wearing flares and she looked fabulous. She used to wear Biba and I still have a few pieces. Coming to this two-bedroom flat in Cricklewood with the heating on all day and having to wear thick woolly jumpers was a shock. But I like the cold more than the heat. I find it easier to design for cold weather because you can do a lot more. You can layer things. You have a bit more excitement.
I'm lucky that I have a mum who has good taste. As we grew up we never really shopped in high-street stores. We always went to Bond Street. It's not that we were a wealthy family but she always loved good clothes. I've always made my own stuff. I used to go down the King's Road and buy vintage Levi's from American Classics. Then I'd head down to Covent Garden to the art shop and get paints and beads and trimmings and cut them up and change them round.
At school I rebelled because of the uniform. All my schools had uniforms and I hated it. Every day I'd be called into the office. My parents got called in a lot, too. If they said you have to wear a red jumper I'd wear purple or change the socks around. I just didn't want to be like everybody else. I studied art and design and after I finished the first two years, I went to the London College of Fashion to have a look around. I saw hundreds of students all doing the same thing - sitting and sketching - and I thought: "I don't want to be like that." It seemed like a chicken factory so I said: "No, I want my clothes to look different." I decided to study fine art. I did ceramics as well at Camberwell College of Art.
When I left, I wanted to go back to fashion but still didn't know how to go about it because I didn't have the technical abilities like pattern cutting. So I worked in advertising for a little while and did a few art shows. Then one day I made a pair of trousers, which I have to say were really fabulous. I got a pair of vintage jeans, cut them up and covered them with vintage brooches. I'd bought the brooches from this old man on a stall in East London. He had loads and I just bought the lot. I love crystals and they were covered in crystals.
I was in St John's Wood in London and these women stopped me and said: "Where did you get your jeans?" I said: "I made them" and they went crazy. So I gave them my number and went into a store. As soon as I walked in, the shop assistants asked where I got the trousers. They called the store owner and she wanted to order several pairs to sell, so I said: "Yeah, sure." They sold out straight away. A friend recommended I get a stand in Portobello Market, which I did in 2000. On my first day there I was approached by Patricia Field, the stylist for Sex and the City. I didn't know who she was but she bought most of the collection. The whole buzz of it is what made me think I made the right choice going into fashion.
Lamis Khamis is available at Tiger Lily boutique in Wafi City, Dubai.