Could the designer Sultan Al Darmaki be the next big thing in fashion? We check out his footwear collection at Paris Fashion Week.
The Emirati shoe designer Sultan Al Darmaki sets the bar high
In the bowels of a chic Paris hotel on the rue de la Paix, keeping company with brands such as Lulu Guinness, Judith Leiber and Kotur, Sultan Al Darmaki mans his stall at the Vendôme Luxury trade show. His wares: the debut Darmaki collection of 15 models of women's shoes for which the phrase "high-octane" could have been invented. In python and suede, emerald, cobalt, scarlet, black, silver and gold, Swarovski-embellished, gold-studded and feather-frilled, these are the result of 13 months of determined graft by Darmaki and his team, all focused on creating the first high-end, internationally stocked shoe brand created by an Emirati.
And it's looking good. Darmaki, the creative director of Darmaki, as well as having a fine eye for design, is a formidable businessman and, even before his Paris launch, had been approached by a number of (for now nameless) retailers keen to stock his shoes.
It was this sheer energy and drive that prompted me, nearly a year ago, to seek a meeting with Darmaki in Abu Dhabi, where he introduced me to his fledgling company with nothing more than a book of sketches, before even a prototype was made. Flicking through his drawings, I was impressed - but then many are the young designers who start out full of hope, talent and energy only to be crushed by the realities of launching and running a fashion business that has to turn a profit.
Eleven months on from that coffee in Jones The Grocer, which was just downstairs from Darmaki's day job at Mubadala, it's a pleasure to be at the Park Hyatt in Paris holding in my hands a black court shoe with an ambitious laser-cut heel portion that was, back then, causing the manufacturers some construction issues.
Clearly they resolved the problem, because the shoe works beautifully - a testament to his choice of one of Italy's leading high-end manufacturers. I can only imagine how Darmaki is feeling about finally holding the fort at Paris's leading luxury trade show surrounded by the physical results of those sketches.
He looks tired, exhausted even, but his enthusiasm remains intact.
"When I first got the prototypes I can't even describe how it felt to hold in my hand some of the pieces that I have made, because until you actually hold it, it doesn't feel real," he says. It's certainly real now, as Darmaki talks buyers through the details of the collection - and the response has, he says, been positive, especially from buyers for this region.
"You won't believe the kind of support we got from the Middle Eastern market," he says. "It was amazing; even just talking about it gives me goose bumps. From friends and family, people who are anticipating putting the brand in the market, people who want to buy the pieces."
And it's not just the Middle East: the brand's Facebook update this week boasted: "We met Katy Perry's parents at Place Vendôme and the first thing they said: 'Katy will love your DIVA shoes.'" Praise indeed.
Local support, though, has been something that concerned Darmaki right from the start. Fashion is not a conventional career choice for one of the scions of an important Emirati family, and showing respect for the UAE's culture was paramount - especially given his decision to use the family name for the brand. Like his close contemporary Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, a successful menswear designer from the Sharjah royal family, Darmaki is keen to break new business ground for Emiratis in a world previously little explored: international fashion.
"I've been thinking about this concept for a very long time, but for many reasons I held off," he explains. "First of all culturally, traditionally, it's still not always seen as very acceptable to actually be involved in the fashion industry. But then you saw the creative directors such as, for example Khalid Al Qasimi, who's led the way to have his own brand, and I think to a certain extent it's opened a door for us young, creative directors to step out, and think this is the right time for us to do it."
It hasn't all been plain sailing for Darmaki: while there is a community of young, determined Emiratis out there pioneering new lines of business, art and design for their fellow countrymen, tradition remains hugely important, and it is a brave man who will risk the censure of his people. Yet, as so often in this adaptable country, when that barrier is broken the community will rally to support their successes.
"Let me tell you it does take a great deal of courage, because you're challenging the entire Middle Eastern community," says Darmaki. "You're challenging culture, you're challenging tradition."
Indeed, Darmaki, like many in the fashion industry, sees fashion and design as an inherent part of any city's culture scene. "Abu Dhabi and Dubai are very proactive at encouraging young artists, so there is big support for the art scene," he says. "But the fashion scene is young. We are increasing our efforts in terms of bringing art to the Middle East, but there hasn't been a light shed yet on the fashion scene, and I think as young designers that's important: design is an integral part of art."
That may be the case, but fashion is also a business, and Darmaki and his team are already on to the next items on their agenda: the spring/summer 2012 collection, retail expansion and, in the next five years, the first flagship store. They are aiming high, then?
"But that's how we've been brought up in Abu Dhabi," he argues. "Always aim for the best. We do have great ambitions for the next five years. The plan is basically making sure that we stock our brand at different retail stores, both locally and internationally; after two years, once we start building that brand recognition in the market, will be the right time to open our first flagship store eventually in London. We do have different plans for the American market; we are talking about having a presence at the Oscars in 2012, which is taking a lot of our time at the moment."
All of this is achieved, mind you, in Darmaki's spare time from work: his typical day is one that even those with the strongest work ethic might balk at. Now based in London, still with Mubadala, he works from 8am until 5pm on his day job, where, he says, "the company I work for is very supportive of young talent" and has no problem with his sideline as long as he commits himself to his job during work hours. That leaves the hours of 6pm until 3am in which to work on a luxury shoe line that he hopes can eventually compete with the brands of his heroes, Giuseppe Zanotti and Manolo Blahnik. This 17-hour working day has been Darmaki's life for the past 13 months. It's no surprise he's feeling tired at the end of Paris Fashion Week, the culmination of his graft.
"To be honest with you, it is a big part of my character: I'm very driven in terms of accomplishing what I want to do," he says. "I don't complain - I'm enjoying every single minute of it. It's something I have a passion for."
But just where did this passion for shoes come from? Partly, says Darmaki, from the simple experience of being brought up in Abu Dhabi, a place where luxury brands are almost commonplace.
"I think we've been indulged in the luxury industry for a very long time in the Emirates, so we're fully aware of the fashion industry," he says. "Sketching footwear and fashion generally has been part of my life since I was 14 or 15. I think the first thing I ever do when I meet a person is look at the shoes. I believe the shoes you're wearing do reflect a lot of your personality, and I've always been fascinated by men's shoes, women's shoes, children's shoes. You get to a certain point where you think: I've done various things in my life, is it time to do something different? And the reason I decided to go ahead with women's footwear is that there are no limits to creativity."
Which brings us to the collection, and what Darmaki sees as his signature style. You will find no chunky platforms or quirky cone heels here: it's all about the most glamorous, feminine shapes he can muster, with slender, elegant stiletto heels, in which you can see the influence of Blahnik and Zanotti.
"I'm not a contemporary designer," he admits. "I wasn't brought up in east London, so I don't think you'll be seeing any edgy contemporary heels or whatever. I've been brought up to appreciate classical style, but with a modern twist. A lot of the pieces have a beautiful, classical sole. I think that it makes a woman feel feminine and attractive, and if she's going to wear shoes, why not wear beautiful styles?"
That's not to say these are boring: bright shades of suede, explosions of feathers round the ankles, mesh inlays and metallic leather fringing are what make these statement shoes. The fact that you might actually be able to walk in them, rather than stumbling around virtually en pointe, as is the current mode, is an incidental bonus. And for Darmaki, the quality of construction is as essential as the style, for two good reasons. First, he is using his family name for his brand. "We're being very cautious in terms of how we use the name: obviously it is not going to be placed on the shoes, because of respect for the cultural traditions, and we're not even using it on the box. We are using our emblem, the D and the dragonfly. But because my brand is my family name, I must be absolutely proud of the product I'm offering to the market, and I want to make sure that whatever I do, I do 100 per cent."
If you need another explanation, then the point that he so often returns to - Darmaki as an international brand - is crucial. He knows that, for better or worse, he will be seen as an example of what happens to an Emirati who dares to take his culture to the world.
"When you look at Middle Eastern designers, it's an interesting combination. We're very Arab, we're very stuck to our cultures and traditions, but we've been brought up in a very western way, so that combination of western and Arab is very, very interesting. I do now see a lot of young designers who are stepping up and saying we want to have an international brand, and Abu Dhabi is a very cosmopolitan city."
And, he believes, it's something the world is waiting for. "A lot of the people in the fashion industry are very well travelled; they know the Middle East and they know there is talent there, but some of the young designers here are a bit scared to take the big step to an international brand. I think they're waiting for that to happen."
In other words, this small step for Darmaki is one giant leap for fashion in the Emirates.