DUBAI: When London-based Lebanese fashion designer Nour Hage decided to shift from creating womenswear to menswear, she figured she’d check if any other Arab women were creating clothes for Arab men.
“I don’t know of any others,” she says. “Nada Khoury in Beirut has a small menswear line, but that’s more about suits, it’s quite classical. And besides that I don’t know of any. I might be wrong, but I didn’t find anything.”
So Hage’s recently launched Zero One collection, which takes clothes traditionally associated with the Middle East — abayas, thobes, et cetera — and gives them a distinct, contemporary feel, is something of an anomaly. But it’s already proving popular among some of the most influential young cultural players in the Middle East, the wider Muslim world, and beyond.
In September, for example, Emmy-winning British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed was on the cover of GQ in the UK. On the inside pages he was pictured wearing two items from Hage’s collection; an abaya and Satra (a jacket inspired by traditional Levantine wrapped coats).
Other prominent artists to wear Hage’s designs include Iraqi-Canadian rapper Narcy and Kuwaiti multimedia artist Zahed Sultan, while Firas Abou Fakher — guitarist and keyboardist with the seminal Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila — has performed in a striking blue abaya from Zero One.
These ‘brand ambassadors’ (not in the ‘paid-social-influencer’ sense, importantly) have been of great value to Hage. Not just because they’ve helped raise the profile of her work, but because they’ve proved that the people who she wanted to wear her clothes also want to wear them.
“When I was designing the collection, I was thinking about who my target audience is,” she says. “The brand is about expressing pride in Arab culture and putting Arab identity at the forefront of the global market. It’s about bringing unique high-quality Arab design to the world. I want people who aren’t Arabs to experience Arab design.
“So I looked at who represents Arab culture in the best way possible — looking at, like, the ‘new type’ of Arab men. For me, Narcy is one of them, Zahed Sultan is one of them, Mashrou’ Leila… They’ve had such an impact on the new generation all over the Arab world, and on me personally and on my work,” she continues. “And Riz Ahmed, he’s an activist about representation in the media — having non-white people represented in big movies and TV shows, but not being stereotyped. So he was a perfect fit as well.
“So I’d basically narrowed it down to a group of people and it turns out that not only did (that association) make sense in my head, it made sense in their heads.” She laughs. “So it all worked out.”
It’s an impressive roster of supporters for someone who’s only just started out in menswear. Hage launched her own womenswear brand in 2013, out of Beirut, having returned to her homeland when her French work permit (she was working for Paris-based German designer Damir Doma, who at the time, she says, was “kind of the darling of the fashion scene”) was rejected in early 2012.
It wasn’t until she moved to London a couple of years ago that she decided to switch to menswear.
“I wanted to rebrand completely,” she says. “I felt the need to bring out Arab culture and the traditional clothing that I think is beautiful, but was overlooked in the last few decades. There’s something really proud about the way Arab men dress, especially in the Gulf and North Africa. I started researching and it sparked something inside me. I think it’s the best decision I’ve ever made for the brand.”
It wasn’t an easy choice, though. “Menswear is much more challenging,” Hage says. “Men tend to buy for comfort more than aesthetics, whereas women tend to buy something because it looks nice rather than because it’s comfortable. But I like that challenge of designing something new and avant-garde and innovative, but in the frame of it being comfortable and practical.”
Alongside the desire to meet that challenge, the primary influence on Zero One has been Hage’s research. “When you look at how men in the (MENA) region used to dress, their taste in clothes was very soft. They also wore a lot of colors. So it’s not like I’m doing something insanely new. It all comes from research.”Take what Hage describes as the “key element” of her collection: the abaya. “Decades ago, farmers, merchants and landowners would all wear it. But depending on your social class you wore it in different types of fabrics and colors. So farmers and shepherds would wear it, but they’d also use it as a bag to carry food for animals, or as shelter when it rained. It was an overgarment that was also a practical thing. When you first look at it, you might think you wouldn’t wear it every day. But it’s actually really easy to wear. You just throw it on.”
Her research also influenced smaller details too. Her shirts don’t have folded collars “because Arab men didn’t tend to wear ties.” They don’t have buttonholes on the cuffs. Her thobe has a side opening, inspired by an Emirati friend. “He’d ordered a custom thobe and asked for the sides to be open because he always wears trousers underneath. I really like that small detail and I think it brings a more modern aspect to it.”
It’ll be no surprise to those who know Hage that she has ended up creating such a distinctive collection. As a teenager, she says, “I had a massive interest in clothes and styling, and looking kind of unique. I went to a French Catholic school, wearing a uniform every day, so there was this constant striving to look a bit different.”
That didn’t mean she felt destined to be a fashion designer, however. “I wasn’t really interested in the whole fashion scene — I didn’t know, like, the names of the models or anything like that. I didn’t buy the magazines. That’s why I wondered if I should do something else in design instead, rather than fashion.”
It wasn’t until she began her foundation year at the Paris campus of Parsons School of Art and Design that she really started to focus on fashion. And she was left with no illusions about how much work would be required to build her career.
“I think fashion has a really false image. It sells that whole glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle, but it’s not like that at all, mostly,” she says. “Right at the beginning, all our teachers told us that you don’t go into fashion because of the glamor, or because you want to be rich. Because most of the time, it’s none of these things. You go into it because you love it.”
But while Hage may be a long way off getting rich from her work, the launch of Zero One has, at the very least, placed her in the cadre of young Arab artists introducing an Arab culture that doesn’t conform to the worst Western stereotypes to a wider audience.
“There are a lot of artists from the Arab world doing things like this — trying to bring their work outside the Arab world — and I think that has a big impact. It’s about showing we have beautiful things that can be adapted for Europe and North America, and that we have pop culture,” she says. “And it’s not all about flying carpets and genies.”