Arab designers stitch together uniforms for collective identity and fresh expression

Spectacle de fin d'annee organise par le choregraphe Mourad ZEMANI qui scenarise et produit Art Haine City avec les jeunes de Clichy sous bois. Cette compagnie se compose de trentes danseurs et de dix comediens. Mourad ZEMANI travaille a la maison des jeunes de Clichy 93. Le spectacle raconte la vie de la cite et fait reference aux evenements de novembre 2005. Spectacle de fin d'annee organise par le choregraphe Mourad ZEMANI qui scenarise et produit Art Haine City avec les jeunes de Clichy sous bois. Cette
5 min read
06 January, 2023
After a long period of appropriation, Arab designers are reclaiming their status within the fashion industry. Spurred along by a youth increasingly conscious of style and vogue, the Arab world is entering an exciting period of self-expression.

What we wear says something about us. What style says, however, is not entirely up to us. Cheap garments communicate poverty but even the aspirational brands worn by the working class often underline class rank.

In the 90s, the popularity of Lacoste among the French lower class, especially those of North African heritage, transformed the brand into a kind of uniform for the immigrant banlieues and reinforced, rather than masked, marginalisation.

Style can convey wealth, aspiration, and exclusivity. Multinational brands, however, have made the primary purpose of style more elusive: the sense of personality good style signals — think of Jean Seberg's New York Herald Tribune short sleeve sweater in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). Good style does not have to be inimitable but cannot be too easy to replicate.

"In this world of uninspired fashion, Arab designers are forging an alternative, creative path forward. If a good style is rooted in something unique to you, it is no surprise that many young Arab designers are excavating their culture when it comes to curating their style"

But the massive footprint of global brands promotes uniformity in style rather than distinction. Swedish clothing giant H&M, for instance, has 5,000 stores across 74 countries.

Tailoring to local tastes does exist — akin to McDonald's menu variations— but customisation must take a backseat to the standardisation that defines fast fashion.

Even luxury houses and streetwear brands strike a delicate balancing act as they attempt to preserve their idiosyncratic appeal while conforming to the pressure to grow bigger and bigger.

Cult French films like La Haine helped popularise Lacoste among French North African youth [Getty Images]
Cult films like La Haine and the growth of Hip-Hop helped popularise Lacoste among French North African youth [Getty Images]

Consider the case of Supreme, the New York City streetwear brand. Back in 2012, the New York Times told its readers, "No offense, but if you don’t know about Supreme, maybe it’s because you’re not supposed to."

Supreme was cool because the street kids who lined up for its drops — the release of a new collection — were an in-the-know crowd.

In 2020, when the Times's fashion writer Vanessa Friedman asked "Can Supreme Stay Cool While Going Corporate?" the very question suggested that by becoming the brand of American suburbia and Instagram fashionistas, Supreme had undercut its own appeal. Cool means not being common.

In this world of uninspired fashion, Arab designers are forging an alternative, creative path forward. If a good style is rooted in something unique to you, it is no surprise that many young Arab designers are excavating their culture when it comes to curating their style, sometimes with a pointed message.

A few years back, an Arabic inscription tote bag went viral: “There is no purpose for this text other than spreading fear among those who are afraid of the Arabic language.”

For many Arabs, style may not matter beyond looking good. But for many others, style can embody a spirit of defiance toward a world that has misunderstood them. And, for consumers and designers, alternative fashion is an antidote to fast fashion, which has acquired a bad reputation for producing cheap clothing at the expense of workers and the environment.

"For many Arabs, style may not matter beyond looking good. But for many others, style can embody a spirit of defiance toward a world that has misunderstood them"

Take the Tunisian brand Fichier Caché. This streetwear brand’s tees and hoodies are stamped “North Africa” or “Third World” in an embrace of the subaltern but Fichier Caché avoids crass romanticisation.

The “Third World” is no easy place but its culture can still be a comfort. If fashion is to offer solace, it must first be accessible. Fichier Caché avoids an obvious but common pitfall that makes a mockery of streetwear brands who package urban cool at a price point beyond the means of those whose street style served as inspiration. Fichier Caché is affordable for Tunisian youth with little disposable income.

Politically subversive fashion hits a high mark with Trashy Clothing, which advertises itself as a “queer Ready-to-wear Palestinian fashion label.”

This brainchild of designers Omar Braika and Shukri Lawrence is playfully combative with such collections as “Pride for Pay” (a tribute to queer Palestinians fighting against Israeli pinkwashing) and “Souvenirs of Conquest” (an examination of the use of tourism to further occupation).

But Trashy Clothing is not preachy — its name mocks pomposity in fashion — and in a brilliant move, it satirized Supreme’s white-on-red trademark with the Arabic imprint “supremely superficial”.

Not all Arab fashion brands seek to be politically oriented, of course. Even those with a mission statement toward eco-sustainable clothing, such as the French-Tunisian brand BassCoutur, that mission is an underlying reality rather than an aesthetic.

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Others seek to reimagine traditional clothing or draw inspiration from their cultural surroundings. These brands often employ local artisans and emphasize sustainability.

The family behind A-3 reuses (or upcycles to borrow the industry term) the soles of thrown-out shoes as the foundation for its North African babouches.

The Moroccan label Zoubida sources local material and employs local talent, which helps sustain traditional methods of production. Arab fashion has Arab chroniclers, too, from The New Arab to Mille World.

In a fashion world resembling McWorld, a shorthand for the homogeneity of globalisation, many Arab designers are opting for culturally-rooted distinction rather than imitation and sustainable approaches rather than fast fashion. What could be cooler than that?

Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications