DUBAI: The question usually arrived in stages, often introducing itself by way of physical cues. The furrowed brow, a pause for thought, maybe a tilt of the head – for variety’s sake – and then: “So, just where are all the Middle East’s menswear designers?”
For many years, it seemed a valid point.
Scan any red carpet during an awards season and a female megastar dressed by an Arab designer is likely to be there. Beyonce wearing Zuhair Murad, Cardi B in Ashi Studio, Kendall Jenner in Elie Saab; womenswear designers in the region have been much sought after for decades.
By and large, the answer to all of this was a numbers game. Women bought more, they wore more, and had more diverse tastes. Men would often wear the same work shirt for years and think nothing of it. So, more demand and more opportunities to be creative meant more womenswear designers.
But perhaps it was also a cultural question.
Keanoush Zargham, GQ Middle East’s style editor, said: “I think the debate around the lack of menswear designers wasn’t just restricted to our region.
“For years luxury menswear shows, globally, were mixed with womenswear because the men’s market was always so small. However, in the Arab world the issue ran a little deeper, with something of a stigma attached to the notion of a man designing fashion for a living. Thankfully, perspectives are changing.”
Fashion is changing, culture is changing, so should the question be changing too? Never mind the lack of menswear designers, due to a global shift toward genderless collections, maybe soon menswear will become a thing of the past – just clothes made for us all to wear and enjoy.
Looking back, as the noughties came to an end, Saudi Arabia had a small, but burgeoning scene. There was the legendary Yahya Al-Bishri designing for royalty, and Hatem Alakeel doing all kinds of amazing things with thobes, but other than that there was little conversation.
“My work in menswear started from a personal requirement. I couldn’t find what I was looking for in the market, so I decided to design it myself,” said Alakeel, who has just launched Authenticite, a Saudi-centric agency forging collaboration opportunities for up-and-coming authentic creatives in the region.
“But fashion remains a female-dominated ecosystem, especially in Saudi,” he added.
While it may be slow going in some Middle East and North Africa (MENA) markets, the scales are undoubtedly tipping, and men have gradually become more adventurous in how they dress. Combine that with streetwear hype gripping a generation and the numbers have acted accordingly. Figures from the Dubai Chamber of Commerce show that menswear dominated the UAE apparel sector in 2018, amounting to $12.3 billion in sales.
As a further signal of shifting sands in the Middle East, this year has witnessed an industry milestone with the first ever Arab Fashion Week – Men’s (AFWM).
A three-day showcase in January, AFWM highlighted the extent of menswear talent in the region, from classic to avant-garde to streetwear, all produced under coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic conditions and presented as a digital project. Organized by the Arab Fashion Council, its chief strategy officer, Mohammed Aqra, said it was a clear sign of an exciting market.
“For quite some time the MENA region wasn’t ready to accept an adventurous wardrobe for men. At the same time, consumer behavior in the region was very much driven by international brands.
“This recently has started to change thanks to an ever-growing fashion scene that has allowed the culture to be more accepting and resulted in a growing demand for unique menswear,” he added.
He noted Proud Angels, El-Salam, and Anomalous as examples of fledgling local brands to watch out for.
Perhaps more indicative of menswear’s rude health has been the decision by some womenswear designers to migrate their work to men. In 2016, the Lebanese fashion designer Nour Hage did exactly that, launching her Zero One collection. The idea was to take traditional Middle Eastern garb and make it feel contemporary and relevant.
Her move received some vindication two years later, when the Emmy-winning actor Riz Ahmed wore items from her collection in a shoot for British GQ.
Aqra said: “The prognosis (for menswear) is very positive. Since the launch of the first AFWM, many Arab womenswear designers have also started to create menswear, or genderless, lines too. Brands such as Mrs Keepa, Amato Couture, and Michael Cinco in the UAE, and Kojak Studio in Egypt.”
It is true that there are an ever-increasing number of Middle Eastern brands creating genderless collections.
Zargham said: “Personally, I really love the Moroccan brand, Casablanca. It has an eccentric, softer interpretation of masculinity which can really work on both men and women.”
Then there are brands such as the Saudi-based 2D2C2M and the stylings of Palestinian label Trashy Clothing.
Trashy’s co-founder and co-creative director, Shukri Lawrence, said: “We believe whoever feels comfortable wearing any piece from our collection should have the freedom to choose.”
When it comes to what men wear on the red carpet, the lines of what is expected are already starting to blur, whether it be Michael B. Jordan in a Louis Vuitton harness at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, or Billy Porter decked out in a custom-made white suit – including train – by Ashi Studio for the Emmys.
“We’ve entered a new era in fashion where men are experimenting. Both men and women shouldn’t be restricted to wearing specific pieces. We believe clothing has no gender,” Lawrence added.
Gendered collections aside, there is another shift that feels prevalent right now in menswear and beyond: A desire to bring attention to the region and shine a light, not just on talent, but also the issues of its people.
While brands such as the Iraqi/Moroccan COR-Project highlight socio-political problems via a military aesthetic, Lebanese brand Emergency Room has been built around sustainable style and a fair industry ethos. For Trashy Clothing, somebody wearing its products is about existence itself.
“As a Palestinian brand, having a celebrity wear our label means solidarity and awareness to our cause. Bringing the name of Palestine to the mainstream is important since our identity is under constant threat of erasure,” Lawrence said.
So, that age-old question about Arab menswear does not really seem to exist anymore. No more furrowed brows or considered pauses. The style question has become a fashion statement.
Menswear, womenswear, genderless collections. In 2021, it no longer really matters. The work by an array of Middle Eastern talent is speaking for itself.