Next year, Rami Al Ali celebrates 20 years in fashion. Since founding his eponymous label in 2001, the Syrian-born, Dubai-based designer has become recognized as a master of shape and structure.
Al Ali was influenced by how his sisters and mother expressed themselves, and his architect father shaped his views on design. His studies in fine art college encouraged him to embrace freedom and explore controversy. Today, every sumptuous collection features stunningly dramatic details like billowing fabric, flowing tulle, and hand-embroidered adornments. His latest haute couture collection, for Spring/Summer 2020, was inspired by an orchid. In it, we saw a balance of strength and fragility, romance and modernity.
Whitewall spoke with Al Ali about his brand’s upcoming 20th anniversary, where he finds inspiration, and why he feels couture is so powerful.
WHITEWALL: What role did fashion play in your life early on?
RAMI AL ALI: Growing up around four sisters and my mother, I had the privilege of being introduced to the world of women through them. Their interaction amongst each other was my early education in the world of fashion and gave me a better understanding when it came to designing for women. They’ve had a great impact on the brand and are a constant source of inspiration to me.
WW: Your clothing today has deep architectural elements to it. Were you impacted at all by your father Ghassan’s profession as an architect?
RAA: Yes, very much so. I learned the art of drawing, understanding structure, and enhancing a 3-D imagination from my father. He taught me how to think outside the box and gave me a greater understanding of design—something that I was able to transfer into my work and shape my design aesthetic.
WW: In 1991, you moved to the capital city of Damascus to study at the College of Fine Arts. You mentioned being inspired by the institute’s freedom of expression. How so?
RAA: Coming from a small town, your thoughts and opinions have been guided by the people that surround you. Moving to a big city and mingling with different creatives from all types of backgrounds opened my eyes and my perspective. My college encouraged us to think outside the box—at times covering somewhat controversial topics and allowing us the creative freedom to express ourselves in a way that I’d never done before.
WW: In 1995, for your final graduation project, you designed and produced a fashion show—a portrayal of fine arts through fashion. What was that first show like?
RAA: A disaster! As I was still learning the ins and outs of the industry, production, and fine-tuning my design aesthetic, it didn’t come out how I had initially envisioned. Although my designs weren’t quite how I imagined, the overall message was delivered.
WW: In 2012, you debuted your first haute couture collection in Paris. How would you describe your unique approach to haute couture and the woman you are designing for?
RAA: There is a certain character of a woman that inspired the house and has influenced the collections season to season. She is strong, confident, and elegant, with an unapologetic air of glamour about her. She is both modern and timeless. It’s this Rami Al Ali woman who the brand channels to influence our collections.
WW: You’re based in Dubai. Can you describe the fashion culture there?
RAA: The Middle East in general is starting to become internationally recognized for its contribution to the world of fashion, thanks to an increase in designers, models, and social media personalities spotlighting the region. While we have great talent in the Middle East, and the fashion industry has come a long way from what it used to be, I still think we have a long way to go before we reach the heights of, say, Paris or Italy. Having said that, we have a great infrastructure now that promotes young talent, and we have a lot of support from industry veterans, so it’s only a matter of time before we get there.
WW: Tell us about your atelier. What’s an average day like?
RAA: We have two ateliers in Dubai—one in Jumeirah and another in Dubai Design District (D3). Each space is responsible for the production of different collections. Our Jumeirah atelier handles the production of our couture and bridal lines, while the D3 space focuses on prêt-à-porter. We have a team of 55 people with 80 percent of our staff being female. Each day’s activities differ—from pattern making to intricate hand embroidery.
WW: Outside of the U.S., your retailers are all located in the Middle East— in Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. Which location do you see the most demand from and why do you think that is?
RAA: Each location is equally successful, so there isn’t a particular country that does better than the other; however, there is a variation in what styles are picked up from each location. They are all very different markets and their tastes reflect that. Knowing this, we try to ensure our collections are diverse so there is something for everyone.
WW: Being a fashion designer encourages travel and exploration of various cities and cultures. Have you been anywhere recently that’s inspired you to create something new?
RAA: I can find inspiration in most unassuming places, whether it be in nature, in architecture, or through my travels. My Syrian roots greatly influence me. They are engraved in my subconscious and float to the surface without me even realizing. Syrian design is all about focusing on the little details that make up the bigger picture, such as the ornate patterns in mosaics, or the beautiful Arabic shapes in architecture. It inspires me a great deal and is a definite drive behind my urge to create.
WW: Your clothing is for special occasions in a woman’s life. What’s the one occasion you’d hope she wore Rami Al Ali for?
RAA: A bridal gown is arguably the most important dress a woman wears in her life, so that’s particularly special. In saying that, I’m happiest when I hear that my designs positively contributed to a particular feeling or was a part of a special moment in that person’s life, great or small. It reaffirms my work as a designer and is why I do what I do.
WW: Tell us about your haute couture Spring/Summer 2020 collection.
RAA: For Spring/Summer 2020, we embraced the celebrated orchid and channeled its splendor. A symbol of beauty and strength, the orchid is delicate in its nature but bold in its stature. I looked to illustrate not just the physical beauty of the flower but also the essence of what it represents. It encapsulates the spirit of couture, and also the DNA of the Rami Al Ali brand. It’s elegant, feminine, bold, romantic, and modern all at the same time.
This season, we looked to further develop techniques from past seasons and evolved them. We created embroidery to add texture to designs and to create a different surface and dimension to the fabric. We also focused on creating architectural structures with strong lines while maintaining lightness, so that the fabrics appeared very delicate. We mixed techniques, combining silk organza with embroidery, to blend something very classic with something very modern.
WW: Next year, you’re celebrating your 20th anniversary. How has your brand evolved over the past two decades?
RAA: Over the years our collections have become more refined, evolving from past seasons and updating them with fresh concepts and new techniques. What began as just one couture line has evolved into three permanent lines—couture, bridal, and prêt-à-porter. We diversified, collaborating with many regional and international brands, such as high street giant Charles & Keith and fine jewelry brands like Bulgari, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels. Our regular presence at events such as Fashion Week combined with the longevity of the brand has given some stability and helped shape the character of the brand.
WW: Why do you feel couture is important for the world?
RAA: Couture allows people to dream. It’s a form of escapism that has the power to move you in a way you didn’t think possible. I think there is a greater demand for the concept now than ever before. In the current fashion climate, the desire to obtain individuality is something still revered. Couture is the ultimate expression of individuality, therefore it allows the industry to continue to flourish.