Sitting in an isolated workshop hidden in the heart of Akhmim, a man directs his attention to the hands moving relentlessly in front of his eyes. Every night, he dedicates his days to absorbing a legacy that many generations have translated into patterns and weaves.
Faissal El-Malak is a Palestinian designer on a journey to follow his passion through the unbeaten tracks, in order to revive the region’s oldest crafts. Like an ardent lover, one day he can wander all the way to Yemen to get his hands on traditional fabrics. Meanwhile, a few months later, his feet can march in the other direction towards Upper Egypt’s most-traditional weaving.
While ancestral motifs and textures are at the heart of his label, El-Malak still manages to keep avant-garde experimenting a cornerstone of his aesthetic. The Middle Eastern designer is not only aiming to lend a helping hand to the region’s forgotten crafts, but he is also quite determined to push conservative gender roles.
For his latest collection, Morphology, El-Malak borrows folkloric feminine embroidery and vibrant colour pallets to dress his male models. On the other hand, he tailours masculinity to suit his female heroines.
This unorthodox fashion leap depends on duality and gender fluidity. Each garment is designed to equally appeal to both genders. The collection brings polar opposites face to face and mixes time-honoured materials with unprecedented silhouettes to shatter stereotypes obscuring the road to visionary wardrobe.
The Dubai-based designer was recognised by various specialised foreign enterprises, including the “Vogue Italia Fashion Dubai Experience 2015” as he was named one of the finalists for the “Who Is On Next Dubai” competition.
Daily News Egypt talked with the patron of Arab craftsmanship to discuss Morphology, his infatuation with Akhmim’s hand-woven fabrics, and dominating international trend charts with Middle Eastern artistry.
How does your Palestinian nationality reflect in your aesthetic as a designer?
My identity is closely linked to my work as a designer. I always start with a lot of research, in particular on the traditional motifs and clothing of the region. It is through this research that I source most of my inspiration.
My aesthetic is very much influenced by my infatuation with my identity as an Arab—whether through contemporary art, music, tarab, or dance.
How can fashion be a useful tool to raise awareness regarding Palestinian and Arab heritage internationally?
I am very passionate about our Arab heritage as a whole and all the crafts that are unfortunately dying today. It is through research as well as finding and working with artisans that I myself discover new crafts, which I am amazed by and I am always eager to use them out of their traditional context and in turn share them with my clients.
I do things out of pure passion for the craft and not with the intention of raising awareness. I think that this approach is something that clients can relate to more easily because, ultimately, they are after a unique and beautiful product.
What was the main inspiration behind Morphology?
When I first started using the fabric from Yemen, the general Yemeni feedback was “look as these women wearing our traditional men’s fabric.” The fabric I use from there is exclusively made for men; it is part of their daily attire.
They wrap it around their waist and pair it with a shirt and jacket. This made me think about gender and how something that I perceived as genderless, if not leaning towards femininity for its use of colour and motif, would strongly be associated with masculinity where it originated.
I wanted to explore that idea, push it further, and see how it could translate to shapes and use of colour in this collection. For example, taking the idea of the fabric being traditionally wrapped and applying it on trousers, dresses, and skirts both for men and women.
How would you describe your first experiment with menswear?
I decided to work on a collection that incorporates men’s and women’s wear for the first time this season. It is through that first exercise that I wanted to explore the idea of making masculine and feminine clothes that would work for both genders, such as the full-red look for men and the strong-shouldered men’s coat for women.
No gender means both genders. It means that things do not need to be exclusive. In fact, it could be the other way around.
I would like to dress men and women that have a strong sense of self and that are bold. They are interested in telling a story through their life, particularly their clothes. Furthermore, geography does not limit them as they are constantly on the go.
This constant stream of influence and diverse information that they receive make their eyes receptive and in demand of that kind of product.
Tell us more about the artisanal craftsmanship incorporated in Morphology?
This collection is one step closer to achieving my vision of a Middle Eastern luxury-fashion line sourcing from different countries around the region. This season took me from handwoven fabrics in Yemen to one of the last hand-weaving workshops in Egypt that specialises in cotton jacquards, cordonnés, and hand embroidery.
How did you find out about each one, and how did you manage to source them?
I find things by being very curious, continuously travelling, and not being afraid to ask everyone and anyone about where to find things. Sourcing is sometimes quite challenging because a lot of these artisans only have very basic forms of communication and accessibility; however, it all becomes worthy when I see the finished product.
Why did you choose the hand-woven fabrics of Akhmim?
There was something very contemporary yet nostalgic about their motifs and colour combinations. The owner of the factory was a kind man. I used to enjoy paying him visits and learning about the craft that has been passed on within his family from one generation to another.
The fabrics tell a beautiful story; meanwhile, they are optimum for making structured tailoured pieces.
If you can name a certain craft from each Arab country that you aim to incorporate in your designs, what would you choose?
Even long before I started, I have wanted to use Palestinian embroidery in my designs. I have met with several associations in Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon working with Palestinian women, and I have been waiting until the right moment comes along to integrate it with my work.
I believe that this step will take a lot of effort and time in order to be implemented correctly, and I want to do it justice. With that in mind, I have recently developed some contemporary motifs in collaboration with a Beirut-based design studio and cannot wait to start using them in the coming collection.
How can those crafts become more known and receive international fashion recognition?
It is about creating a beautiful product with an interesting story that people will want to buy and most importantly want to return for more. There is a lot of work beyond the craft. I am lucky to have studied fashion design in Paris, interned there for a few fashion houses, and worked as a stylist for a short period of time.
This taught me the importance of visual language as well as attention to details that has to be put into each garment and the way it is presented. I also loved the storytelling aspect of working as a stylist, which is something I use a lot in my work.
What can you tell us about your upcoming collection and near-future plans?
I am very excited to be part of a pop-up this summer in London with other UAE-based designers. The pop-up is organised by the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council of Sharjah and will take place at Fenwick’s of Bond Street from the 10 July until 10 September.
It will be my first time selling my designs in the UK. I am certainly looking forward to this experience and cannot wait to test the response of that market.
As for the collection I wish to continue exploring the region as well as keep finding new artisans and crafts I can work with to grow the collection step by step.