[Muscat, Oman] Situated on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sultanate of Oman possesses a rich, textured history, which has witnessed much cultural interfacing over the centuries, whether through Omani sailors trading across distant shores or through being located on the famed Silk Route.
However, whilst embracing and assimilating the trappings of modern development only as recently as 1970 with the ascension of its ruler, Sultan Qabus Bin Sa’id to the throne, the country remains firm in its dedicated commitment to preserving and maintaining its traditions, whether they pertain to architecture, handicrafts, or costume.
Omani fashion designers are nevertheless experimenting and innovating within the scope of traditional wear, particularly with regard to women. They are aware of prevailing global fashion influences and incorporate them into their designs in the local context; they also mine the abundant lode of cultural traditions of their country for inspiration as well.
Women figure prominently among the number of designers who are appearing on the fashion scene in Oman, each intent on articulating their personal fashion vision intertwined with respect for traditional sensibilities and tastes.
While there are several Omani women designers who are reinventing the traditional black abaya [the traditional ankle-length cloak-like garment] worn by women, others are carving a more specialized niche in different design domains.
Twenty-three-year-old Arwa Mousa recently launched a line of T-shirts which uses the beautiful imagery of Islamic calligraphy as a design motif, while Najla Al-Kindi cleverly incorporates examples of authentic Omani silver jewelry into her rainbow-hued shoes, which embody the cultural confluence that constitutes Omani culture.
Part of a local event management company, the Layali Al-Asalah organization, since its inception in 2006, has been interested in providing encouragement to budding local fashion designers. It has been holding a competition, “When Authenticity Speaks,” since its first year of existence, encouraging designers to combine three cultures in their work.
Al-Kindi found herself deciding to compete in the shoes category in the 2007 competition.
“At first, I was really casual about my decision; later, with only another lady and myself competing in the shoe category, I was determined to prove that it was not impossible to create shoes in Oman,” she says with quiet pride.
The year in which she competed, competition rules stipulated that the designers should use elements of Omani, Yemeni and Chinese cultures in their works.
“I decided to incorporate Omani silver jewelry [which is renowned in the Gulf region for its expert craftsmanship] into examples of evening shoes,” she relates.
While continually attending workshops conducted by Layali Al-Asalah, which schooled the designers in the technicalities of designing, she began the arduous journey to creating shoes in Oman.
“There are several shoemakers here who make flat-soled slippers for Omani men [who wear it along with the traditional male dress, the ankle-length robe, the dish-dasha] but few create women’s shoes,” she points out.
After much searching, she finally found a shoemaker willing to craft the shoes on the condition that she would provide him with the stiletto heels.
“I had to purchase numerous pairs of high-heeled shoes, and those too were of superior quality as I wished my product to be equally good,” Al-Kindi reminisces, adding she would craft the entire shoe from inserting the jewelry to gluing the Chinese embroidered silk fabric onto the shoe; the shoemaker’s job was to glue the upper and high-heel sole together.
“I did the rest to ensure that the finish was absolutely perfect,” she says.
Her tasks included transforming a bangle into functioning as an ankle-strap, necessitating the re-sizing of the bangle, or draping the shoe with an intricate Yemeni necklace.
At the competition, the judges were so impressed with her shoes that they forbore from interrogating her about the work, acknowledging that the craftsmanship that had gone into the creation of the shoes spoke for itself. She was rewarded for her endeavors with a three-day accessory designing course at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia.
“While I was competing, I wasn’t sure if I would continue making the shoes,” she says, but added that winning the competition made her re-think her decision.
Al-Kindi has built up a sizeable Omani clientele who are always on the look out for dramatic, unique evening shoes, and she presently retails her shoes in the headquarters of Layali Al-Asalah, which also provides retail space for several other Omani designers to showcase their work.
“I do want to open a boutique of my own, but I would like to go step by step towards realizing that dream,” she emphasizes.
She is currently absorbed in putting the final touches to her second collection which combines Omani jewelry with that of Indian sari fabric, reiterating the theme of amalgamating cultures.
“I am using components like a locket and a piece of that fringed traditional Omani headscarf worn by women,” she describes.
She also mentors young Omani women in shoe design, persuading them to enter the shoe category of the competition.
“I do feel that we designers need more support from the government, particularly in marketing our products and creating brand awareness,” Al-Kindi concludes.
Arwa Mousa had declared that she would be a fashion designer as early as when she was 10 years old.
“I inherited my sense of aesthetics and practical skills essential for becoming a fashion designer through my parents; my mother is an accomplished seamstress while my father is an artist,” she says.
She was always conscious of fashion and its role in delineating a person’s personality and creating a space of expression.
“I always create a first impression of a person from what they wear and how they style themselves,” she elaborates.
She would design dresses and other outfits for herself as a child, although her first foray into more specialized designing occurred when she began making design innovations to the abaya.
“Abaya is a habit and an integral tradition for us,” Mousa says, adding that the garment has deviated from the traditional straight-cut silhouette in solid black. Today, abayas feature different kinds of embellishments and are found in cuts such as a flowing butterfly or a tailored, nipped-in French style.
“I began designing abayas for my family and friends and started incorporating modern silhouettes into the abayas. I added a belt as an accessory or covered the sleeves with pieces of differently shaped leather,” she says.
The recipients were impressed with her innovations, saying that they were able to adhere to tradition while injecting their abayas with an individualistic flavor.
Mousa had always nurtured aspirations of becoming an entrepreneur in a fashion-related venture.
“I was initially interested in designing abayas [on a more commercial scale]; however, after conducting market research, I became aware that there were already many designers in that field. I, on the other hand, wished to do something completely new,” she says.
She then brainstormed and came up with the concept of creating T-shirts using Islamic or Arabic calligraphy as a design motif; she was well-versed in the art, having studied various scripts of Islamic calligraphy in summer school at a local youth club.
She employed a variety of scripts such as Thuluth, one of the earliest scripts and described as the “mother of all scripts”; the geometric Kufi, which originated in the Iraqi town of Kufa; and the heavily cursive Diwani, developed by the Ottoman Turks in late 15th century.
“It’s such an exquisite art-form which we do not make much use of our in daily life,” says Mousa, who in turn transplanted calligraphy onto a more modern terrain.
Her sounding boards were once more her supportive family and friends who provided very responsive feedback, thereby encouraging her to think of branching out and supplying her work to selected stores in Muscat.
The latter proved to be a challenging mission, although she now supplies the T-shirts to local bookstore chain, Turtles, and duty-free stores at Muscat International Airport.
“I am positioning my brand for the Omani youth and tourists; however, I do not wish to restrict myself merely to the Gulf,” she emphasizes. “I would be very happy to acquire a global audience and get the opportunity to showcase the sublime beauty of Islamic calligraphy through an essential item of popular culture, the T-shirt.”
She hopes that this marriage of classical Islamic tradition and modernity will serve to be a bridge connecting the two disparate worlds of the Middle East and the West.
Currently a part-time student of fashion design at the Middle East College of Technology, Muscat, Mousa works in an oil company by day and studies during the evening. She had previously also achieved a diploma in marketing at a time when fashion-designing courses were not yet available in Oman.
Mousa believes that both her studies in fashion design, which includes history of fashion, theory, and practical aspects, and in marketing have benefited her operation of the T-shirt business venture.
She sees her future unsurprisingly as being in the world of fashion.
“I would definitely like to study fashion in more depth,” she says. “I will continue to design; designing is me and I cannot imagine a life without designing.”
She would also like to start her own boutique in which she will retail her T-shirts and interesting neck-scarves, thereby establishing a local brand and identity.
Omani women fashion designers are not wanting in inspiration as much as in encouragement, opportunity, and practical measures towards helping them actualize and share their unique fashion statements with clients also interested in individuality and eclectic approaches to traditional concepts.