Feature The duo behind the new British fashion label Qasimi have no qualms about basing their business on extreme luxury.
The Sheikh's new clothes
In proud defiance of the make-do-and-mend Blitz spirit that has taken hold of the UK and Europe, the duo behind the new British fashion label Qasimi have no qualms about basing their business on the sort of extreme luxury that, even at the best of times, most people can only dream of enjoying. Belt-tighteners would no doubt disapprove of the Dh73,000 silk and vicuña kimono lined with orylag that is the showpiece of Qasimi's debut collection, but fans of investment pieces will surely beg to differ. As do the designers. Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the son of the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, and his business partner, Elliott J Frieze, who launched the label at the last London Fashion Week with their autumn/winter 2008/09 collection, don't look the slightest bit worried - in fact, they see the credit crunch as an opportunity.
"At a time like this, people tend to put more value on money," says Frieze, as we shelter from a summer shower under the awning at London's Charlotte Street Hotel. "Why buy a wardrobe full of mid-end product when you can have that one luxury item? I think people would much rather have a piece that has longevity to it. And Qasimi is not about just wearing something for one season. It carries through. I think people will want to indulge in those special pieces."
That may seem like an optimistic spin, but then Qasimi and Frieze are a cheerful, optimistic pair - with good reason, given the reaction their first collection garnered. Unusually for young London-based designers, their obsessions are perfection of construction, quality of fabric and refinement of classic design, traits more commonly associated with the fashions of Paris or New York. In a city of lamé leggings, cooler-than-thou models and conceptual labels, the creation of exquisitely cut men's and women's tuxedos in a pared-back palette of black, white and navy seemed somehow more sensational than the wackiest catwalk ensembles London Fashion Week could offer. Unsurprisingly, their clothes have caught the attention of top stylists such as Nicola Formichetti and magazines like Vogue.
So why didn't Qasimi follow the lead of Britain's greatest tailoring perfectionists, Galliano and McQueen, and show in Paris, where their skills would be appreciated? "I've lived in London all my life," says Qasimi, who visits his family in Sharjah about twice a year. "A lot of people have told us that we fit into Paris, but I feel like I want to give something back to London: it's given me so much, so I wouldn't want to go to Paris and show at the moment."
Frieze jumps in: "And the collection might not be East End fashion, but it's British tailoring - it's the other side of British fashion that you don't really see. I mean Paul Smith is here, which is a tailored brand, but all the true British tailors and designers tend to move to France and Milan because that's where the buyers attend. But we're happy for the moment to continue our relationship with the British Fashion Council and London."
That snippet of conversation offers a nice insight into the personalities behind Qasimi - their differences probably accounting for its success after only one season. The company's namesake may be royalty but he stands on no ceremony, offering a hearty handshake and dragging the three of us on to the Charlotte Street Hotel's terrace, in spite of the threatening clouds and the roaring traffic. "It's so much nicer out there. We should make the most of it!" he enthuses of the brief respite from summer's downpours. Dressed casually in a T-shirt and calf-length shorts, hair ruffled, he seems impulsive and instinctive, the only obvious similarity to Frieze being a faint Celtic brogue he seems to have picked up from his Welsh business partner.
Frieze, meanwhile, is tall, slender, neat and precise. With short white-blonde hair and a classically British pallor, his looks are unusual and arresting enough for him to have been scouted by a model agency in his early twenties to model for the tailor Paul Smith. His voice is quiet and his accent clipped, with just a hint of the Welsh lilt of his Cardiff hometown. "We balance each other out," says Qasimi. "I'm more creative-centric and very much into that side of things, whereas Elliott is really practical, and you know, deals with the business side as well."
The pair met nearly 10 years ago, at University College London, where Qasimi studied Hispanic Studies and French literature and Frieze studied history, politics and economics. A firm friendship established, they went their separate ways, with Qasimi going on to study architecture at the Architectural Association. After finishing the first part of his course, he moved across to Central Saint Martins to study fashion.
"At the AA, architecture is really more creative, which is why I studied there, because you don't have to do physics or maths. It's very conceptual. You're just kind of designing spaces and figuring how people move around spaces. I think fashion was always something I wanted to do. But I don't see fashion as being 'it' for the moment - I'd like to go into housing in the future, too. We're really more of a lifestyle label than a fashion label, and I would like to include everything in the house: the furniture, the products and the clothing... This season we've introduced a Qasimi candle. The scent of it is kind of a story of the Emirates and the UK, a sort of crossover of travel between there and here. I love smells and in the Middle East scent is really important - it's more of a ritual, so it comes naturally to me."
If Qasimi is a man with a vision, his business partner is more pragmatic. He couldn't have better calculated his experience thus far to culminate in exactly this sort of enterprise. After leaving university he spent some time in Australia and Paris before working in Welsh television as a fashion reporter. Through his job he met the Japanese designer Michiko Koshino, who invited him to work for her as international relations director for a couple of years. When he returned to Wales to study fashion design at University of Wales, Newport, his path converged with Qasimi's once more and they decided to stop talking and start doing.
"We talked about it every day," says Qasimi. "We really wanted to just get out there do something, so we met up in London and just decided to go for it." "I think fashion is the kind of industry that there's only so much you can learn at university on a BA level," adds Frieze. "We were much older than a lot of other graduates were, and we've already experienced our BAs and our student years. By the second time round, when we went back to do our degrees, I found a lot of students were there to party, and fashion's not really the sort of degree that you can treat like that. Certainly I went back there for a reason and not just to party, and I think that's why I decided not to finish."
Different in character they may be, but hard work, meticulousness and a sense of urgency are the traits that unite the pair, who work from a studio in Dalston, East London, that they share with the British fashion darlings Christopher Kane, Emma Cook and Peter Jensen. Qasimi explains: "We're both perfectionists. We don't expect less and if we're selling at those kind of prices then they have to be perfect. Everything's important to us. The quality of the fabric is important to us, the finishing of the garments, how things are made... It's not the throwaway fashion that has taken over the market at this point. It's not radical, it is understated, but the buyer knows how special it is because of the touch, the tactility of the fabrics, and because it feels great against their skin. All our fabrics are cashmeres and silks and we work with the top-end Italian mills, like Loro Piana and Zegna. Even our T-shirts are all cashmere. I think people will want to indulge in those special pieces."
That perfection has a price, but it is one the duo are willing to pay, says Frieze. "We're putting our heart and soul into it, and sweat and blood. It's not just about turning up to the office and scribbling on a piece of paper; it's about seeing it through from start to finish and not being worried if you can't have a social life, or you're not in bed by 10 o'clock. Literally you're using every hour that you can, and using them constructively as well. Last season we were working 140 hours a week, getting up at seven in the morning and leaving at four the next morning. For the last three days we didn't sleep at all. We worked straight through. The only time you stop is half an hour before the show starts, and then you just pull everything together." "And once it ends we have to start all over again with the next one. The next morning after the show, the next collection has to start," adds Qasimi. It's not a complaint; he clearly relishes the hard work and drive demanded by the fashion world. But working so intensively with a partner can have its sticky moments, and their perfectionist tendencies don't help. "It's natural that we do argue," admits Qasimi. "But we understand each other and we know that it's work. We're honest with each other and tell each other straight up. We get it off our chests." "It's the only way to push ourselves forward all the time, constantly setting each other higher targets all the time, for the greater good of the company," continues Frieze. "And the more time you put into it, you elevate the final product and it's far more rewarding at the end of the day," Qasimi adds. "I think we are doing something that's so different in London. Like I said, we're not a radical label, and we're doing something that is classic and fresh. Saying, 'I'm not actually going to do conceptual pieces, I'm going to do beautifully crafted classic pieces that will last' is going completely against the grain here." Of course, Qasimi's upbringing and background has a lot to do with his love of design and luxury. "Looks are very, very important in our culture, and the way you present yourself... To me personally, design is more important than being trendy; being smart is more important." Nevertheless, launching a fashion business is not an obvious path for an Emirati royal, but Qasimi says he has encountered little resistance to his chosen career. "I've had a lot of support from my immediate family. With anything, there will always be a reaction, but my immediate family have been very, very supportive, which is all that really matters. "I think a lot of Middle Eastern people have design tendencies naturally. There are a lot of architects and artists, especially in Dubai now. Actually I would like to encourage other Arabs to go for what they want, and to believe in themselves." firstname.lastname@example.org