This could be the season for Rami al Ali in Rome
Has Middle Eastern fashion ever had a higher international profile? Red carpets worldwide are the modern measure of a designer's success, and while Elie Saab's gowns have been gracing them for over a decade, the past two years have seen a rush to harness the Arabian glitz that shines so brightly under the flashbulbs. The designers of Lebanon, for example, are setting up shop in Paris - Saab, Zuhair Murad, Robert Adi Nader, Basil Soda, Rabih Kayrouz - and New York - Georges Chakra, Reem Acra - and in the past couple of weeks alone the London-based Omani designer Amr Ali has seen his label BodyAmr sported by Elle Macpherson, Hilary Swank and Katy Perry.
This can only be good news for Rami al Ali, the much-loved Dubai-based couturier who has just celebrated his 10th year in business in the UAE. Today, al Ali will show his extravagant evening gowns at the Rome couture fashion week Alta Roma for the fourth time, in his continuing efforts to grow his label internationally, and if the global passion for Middle Eastern fashion is anything to go by, this could be his season.
It's started already: last week the 38-year-old Syrian provided two ball gowns for attendees at Elton John's White Tie and Tiara Ball, one of which, a flamboyant peacock gown from his autumn/winter 2009/10 collection, was worn by Ivana Trump. "Knowing the calibre of the people attending, the celebrities, the media that's going to cover it, especially when they see a massive piece that is known from your show, it's a very good visual identity for us," he says, clearly delighted.
But when I speak to al Ali in Dubai, a couple of days before he leaves for Rome, celebrities and PR are taking second place to bringing together the Persian Princess collection that he will show in the hope of attracting more couture clients. His 40-strong team (which includes master cutters, tailors, finishers, quality controllers, embroiderers, sample makers and beaders) is frantically finishing the collection ahead of the journey.
"The last week is the most horrible week for me, and it's actually the most fun week," he says, "because in this week we try to finish everything and it is the time where I start connecting all the dots together, so when I find something not really relevant, that I don't feel is really helping the theme of the collection, I try to eliminate it. The work this week is going to be very dense and very hectic."
That work is only just beginning: when he arrives in Rome he will have to cast the models, do the fittings, meet the production company, organise the choreography. The show itself will fly by in a flurry of hair, make-up, pins and fashion tape, and then begin the meetings with buyers, stylists, costume designers and media. It's hard work, but for al Ali it's worth it. "From the second collection [in Rome] we started having enquiries from Russia, from Brazil, from the States, and lots of enquiries for red-carpet events. There are not a lot of couture clients in the world and when you show internationally it's easy to be noticed. That's the good thing about showing in Rome or in Paris. It's a very strong presence, because you're not competing with so many worldwide."
But why, when other designers are flocking to be recognised by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, is Al Ali showing in Rome? "Rome is closer to the Middle East when it comes to style and fashion and taste, and for a long time the Alta Roma was closer to the Middle East in design and more exposed to the media here, and at the same time it was easier to show first where you feel that you shared some elements," he says. "Both countries have a lot of sun, and they work almost with the same body figures and features, so it's easier for them to understand what you produce before you go somewhere else."
Of course, al Ali already has a devoted following here in the UAE. "Luckily, in the Gulf region the couture market is still flourishing, and clients still buy couture for their main occasions, so that's why you find most of the Middle Eastern designers focus on the Gulf region." The designer's regular customers get the full couture experience, something that those of us accustomed to prêt-à-porter (an area al Ali is dipping his toes into for the international market) can only dream of.
"We have our regular clients and of course every new collection we add to them, thank goodness. We always build their own mannequin, with their own figures, so when they come back they still have their fitting ready for them. "For the new customers, we adjust a new mannequin for them until it fits the right size. Then we meet a couple of times before we proceed with the dress just to know exactly what's suitable for the client, what's the occasion, what she wants to look like, if there's jewellery or anything to be added to the dress.
"And when we decide on which design the client wants to pick we see if there is any amendment to make it more suitable for the client, if there is any change of detail or colour, and then we proceed with the sample-making, with the first stitching, and once everything is approved and the client is comfortable with it then we proceed to the final stage of delivering the dress." These are gowns that come in at between Dh23,100 and Dh92,500, in contrast to his prêt-à-porter line, which costs about Dh3,700 to Dh14,800. Why, then, continue with the prohibitively priced couture?
"The prêt line is easier to market, you can buy it off the rack, it's simpler, therefore the cost is less, so the price tag is less," explains al Ali. "The couture line is very exclusive, it's one piece for one client, it's made to measure, all hand-made, and all precious materials and limited edition fabrics, therefore the cost of it is quite high. That's why we're trying to balance by having both lines.
"The daywear we are still working on. When we talk about jackets and sportswear and jeans and pants, we don't have a big demand for it yet." What al Ali does have a big demand for is feminine, glamorous, embellished evening frocks, and that looks set to continue. This season's collection is inspired by Persian carpets, he says. "The detailing, the colours, the ornament, the weaving of the silk and wool, this mixture, the richness, that's the core of the inspiration.
"There are a lot of patterns. We were trying to recreate the fabric from crystals on some dresses, and on some others we took antique carpet designs and we printed it on a special fabric for this collection." This is Al ali at his best, pursuing a quintessentially Dubaian design vision that he describes as "a blend between east and west, very feminine and very soft, very romantic. It's not harsh, it's not sharp, it's not so heavy that you feel that you had enough from the first five minutes that you saw it - no, you want to see more of it."
We'll be seeing a lot more of it, if all goes to plan in Rome.