The Zay Initiative: The region’s first ‘fashion-history archive’

The Zay Initiative: The region’s first ‘fashion-history archive’
Dr. Reem Tariq El-Mutwalli is the Dubai-based author and founder of The Zay Initiative. (Supplied)
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Updated 27 March 2020

The Zay Initiative: The region’s first ‘fashion-history archive’

The Zay Initiative: The region’s first ‘fashion-history archive’
  • Reem El-Mutwalli’s passion for fashion — and the history of Arab dress — led her to open a digital costume museum

DUBAI: There is no question that what we wear tells a story: By understanding the history of our regional dress, we also gain an appreciation of our cultural heritage. That’s something Dubai-based author and founder of The Zay Initiative, Dr. Reem Tariq El-Mutwalli, has long recognized. She has been involved in art and culture for more than 30 years — she has worked at Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation, and holds a PhD in Islamic Art and Archaeology. Fashion, she believes, should be recognized as an art form.

The Zay Initiative is a the region’s first ‘fashion-history archive’ — a digital museum that ‘exhibits’ more than 700 articles of traditional clothing from this region. Its free online portal is called “The Memory Closet.” The oldest piece in the collection is an 1870 Syrian izar (a long woven silk shawl).

This is a crimson red hand-woven Abyaa of silk, cotton and gold threads worn by men in Syria. (Supplied)

For El-Mutwalli, the project began as a way of recognizing her own roots. “My parents — both of whom are Iraqi — moved to Abu Dhabi when I was five years old,” she told Arab News. “I think most families who leave their home country are left with a longing to hold onto their heritage through their possessions.”

The Zay Initiative celebrates the Arab world’s unconditional love of textiles and crafts. The museum went live at the end of last year, all El-Mutwalli’s efforts right now are focused on raising awareness of, and growing, her collection. “Establishing the Zay Initiative and having the first publicly available archive of MENA region (fashion) artifacts presents a useful tool and bridge between retail and academia,” she said. 

This is a Bahraini garment that dates back to the 1930s. (Supplied)

El-Mutwalli is the first to acknowledge that technology has helped her to ensure the traditions for which she has such love are given a public platform. “The Zay Initiative would not (exist) if it weren’t for the Internet,” she said. “An interesting and unexpected outcome of the influence of new technologies and social media on the subject of national heritage and culture is clearly evident.” It has enabled her to make a social impact and start important cultural conversations without institutional backing. 

However, she hopes that her digital platform will collaborate in the future with established bricks-and-mortar museums, galleries and academic institutions. “We are very excited about the 26 pieces that will soon be on display at the new Al-Shindagha Museum in Dubai,” she said.

This is a “headdress” formed from four lengths of orange silk rope, partially wrapped in gold metal thread. (Supplied)

Every garment in the Zay Initiative’s collection has a story to tell. For example, a beautiful red traditional abaya from Syria gifted in the late 1930s by the Emir of Cyrenaica in Libya to a Parisian family who had saved his son from attempted suicide. “It is a wild and fascinating tale, that incorporates different cultures and countries, carrying stories of people that have never met nor will ever meet,” said El-Mutwalli. 

The collection reveals the story of how the region is woven together, but how each nation has its own narrative within this. The kaftan — for example — is a common garment across the region,  but each country put its own stamp on it through embroideries and fabrics. And it shows how the region has itself been influenced by other cultures.

This is a Kuwaiti dress, sewn and embroidered in 1975 on Indian silk fabric. (Supplied)

“For now, our focus tends to gravitate towards the Arab world, which translates to the MENA region,” El-Mutwalli said of the collection. “However, many of these garments have been influenced by other cultures and civilizations — Mughal India or the Ottoman empire even places as far away as China.”

Clearly, fashion has always had a role in spreading awareness and appreciation of other cultures. The Zay Initiative clearly shows how rich the fashion heritage of this region is, and why it is no surprise that international designers are often inspired by Middle Eastern heritage.  

“Today, one can find elaborate abayas for sale from Western luxury brands,” El-Mutwalli said. “The effect of modest fashion and how it is taking over the world is evident.”