Spotlight — Faissal El-malak Blends Craft and Cultural Identity

The rising talent is making waves in the Middle East, bringing together traditional flavour with modern global appeal. In an exclusive ORDRE interview, he reveals more

To come across a young designer so entrenched in preserving traditional craft and culture is a rarity in the current fashion landscape let alone a designer whose vision is, at the same time, to reinvent the fashion tendencies of a nation steeped in thousands of years of traditional dress codes. But 2017 DDFC/Vogue Arabia Fashion Award winner, Faissal El-Malak, is a designer balancing these polarising notions, informed by his nomadic upbringing.

The Uk-born, Palestinian designer was brought up between Montreal, Canada and Doha, Qatar, before jetting off to train as a fashion designer at Paris’s Atelier Chardon Savard. Upon graduating, he was invited to showcase at the Casablanca Festimode Fashion Week in Morocco and then at the Carthage Design and Fashion Festival in Tunisia in 2010. This consequently encouraged the beginning of his eponymous label, which he launched in 2011 at the Tranoi trade show at the age of 21. Returning to the Gulf to settle in Dubai in September 2014, he re-launched his label the following year with a completely renewed design sensibility.

Living in a number of melting pot cities has undoubtedly played a huge role in El-Malak’s design approach. When asked about his global background, the designer beamed: “I truly embrace my diverse upbringing as it made me familiar with very different cultures. Whether in my life or in my work, it has made me really open to absorbing influences no matter the setting.” On why he decided to return to the Middle East to set-up his label with the potential to launch anywhere in the world, El-Malak humbly explains: “I’m lucky to be living in a very cosmopolitan city like Dubai, where you are constantly surrounded by people from all over the world, each coming with their culture and adding to this rich mix.” For the designer, it’s a chance to track back to his roots, whilst bringing truly refreshing perspectives from a union of different continents.     

Faissal El-Malak is a storyteller, curating layer upon layer of well informed aesthetic. He infuses a narrative into each of his designs, setting him apart from many of his contemporaries. From inspiration, to craft, to fabric, to identity - every inch of the way is carefully considered. It’s most evident in his latest SS’18 film ‘Potions and Persimmons’ - a visual manifestation of the collection titled ‘Echoic Memories’. The term refers to the memory of sounds and the phenomenon in the human psyche whereby auditory memories are accumulated for a brief moment and only processed when subsequent sounds are heard. Filmed by Amirah Tajdin and starring ‘It’ girl Dana Hourani, the film is an optical feast, revealing the ephemeral beauty of the collection.

El-Malak often champions creative collaborations with stylists, bloggers, filmmakers and photographers, which adds a freshness to his label. When he was first nominated for the Vogue Arabia Fashion Prize, one of the challenges given was to team up with a brand ambassador. Needless to say, El-Malak took this very much to heart and enlisted Amirah Tajdin, a dear friend of his, with whom he had already discussed creating a fashion film. He further explained: “I instantly thought of Dana Hourani as her look and style fit perfectly with my brand. I wanted the outcome to be a creative collaboration. I’m lucky to be surrounded by amazing talents in Dubai”. The designer went on to describe the finished product as “a testimonial of creatives coming together to create something fresh and exciting that goes beyond the clothes and tells our common story of a poetic empowered woman.” Their hard work didn’t go unnoticed, landing its debut on Vogue Italia online.

Faissal El-Malak’s SS’18 collection is a synthesis of memories, textures and influences - resulting in a coherent set of well constructed garments. Splicing the energy of 90’s pop culture, with the emancipated essence of 1920’s female garments, along with a dash of dark romance from pre-Raphaelite paintings, these elements are married with traditional textiles and sensual silks, sourced from his native region of the Middle East. Each garment is presented in a rich palette of persimmons, lilacs, moss greens and blush pinks.

The designer attributes his love of traditional crafts and fabrics from the region to both his international upbringing and his Palestinian background, stating “these textiles and objects were something tangible that I could refer to, even though I was living far away from home. I’m deeply moved by the craft and this research has contributed in strengthening my understanding of my region and of myself.” With the intent and determination to keep artisanal techniques and fabrications alive, El-Malak ofen travels the Middle East in search for age-old techniques. The designer has worked with artisans from Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia with the hopes to continue expanding his network. However he was quick to note that it is by no means an easy task to uncover many of these dying trades, which are unfortunately continuing to suffer under current geopolitical situations in certain Middle Eastern countries.  

“Traditional craft is an integral part of identity and traditionally accompanies all the major milestones in an individual’s life. Unfortunately what I have found while travelling and meeting artisans is that none of the new generation are interested in learning these meticulous crafts. This makes it difficult to imagine that these millennial techniques will still exist in a few years. I hope that by offering a sustainable demand for their work, these artisans will not only carry on their work but that they will be able to train a new generation and keep the tradition alive”, reflected El-Malak.

Winning the prestigious 2017 DDFC/Vogue Fashion Prize signals a great milestone for the budding designer, securing his place as a rising authority in Middle East’s luxury fashion scene. El-Malak recognises the importance of being honoured by such a distinguished jury panel, with the hopes the win will aid in the development of his brand’s global awareness and consequently benefit sales distributions. The designer’s next entrepreneurial step is to focus on building his sales and PR strategies.

El-Malak explains, one of the biggest challenges emerging designer's often face in the Middle East is that many consumers seem reluctant to shift from traditional wear or long-established names and remain highly taken by imported fashion. Most successful designers from the region are marked by century-old silhouettes and extravagant evening wear. El-Malak’s modern ready-to-wear approach on the other hand pushes the envelope and taps into a market still very fresh and undiscovered. 

“You see initiatives slowly emerging to nurture and support talent and I hope that with time and the right support there will be a relevant community of designers and retailers that can adequately showcase the great things that are happening here”, explained El-Malak.

Internationally, the designer is gaining vigorous momentum, being lauded by the likes of Vogue Arabia, Vogue Italia, Buro 24/7, Citizen K, L’Officiel Morocco, Antidote, WWD, BBC Culture, Harper’s Bazaar and Grazia amongst others. In April 2017, he was invited to showcase his work at the Ataya Exhibition in Abu Dhabi as well as a popup at Fenwick of Bond Street in London, showcasing alongside 10 other Emirati-based designers. Both were organized by the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi.

El-Malak’s designs speak to modern style savants; urban nomads who meander the world with an air of sophisticated poise, but who appreciate the beauty of tradition. One can almost feel the rhythm of the handloom in his creations; its luxurious silk threads oscillating delicately to create unmatched quality. El-Malak revitalizes ancient techniques into a considered modern wardrobe, striking a chord in the hearts of conscious consumers and buyers the world over. Ending on an inspired note, El-Malak’s future plans involve collaborating with more of his muses including Lebanese Australian beauty Jessica Kahawaty, known as lawyer, TV Host, beauty queen, model and charity worker. El-Malak mused “I really admire the humanitarian work she has been doing with refugees for the UNHCR. I would love to come up with an interesting way that can benefit that effort.”