Vogue Arabia has called it the “Middle East’s most ethnically-inspired fashion.” Vogue UK gushed that it’s the “holiday treasure to wear right now.” They were talking about Dubai-based Mochi — some admirers call it Mo’Chic — the fashion brainchild of Palestinian designer Ayah Tabari.
High fashion has often come under attack for appropriating ethnic designs for the sole purpose of meeting their bottom line. But Tabari has a different approach, one that is rooted in respect for cultural heritage and local practices. Mochi works to revive the art of hand-embroidery. Each collection pays homage to a country that mesmerized Tabari during her travels. Inspiration can be all too fleeting, but Tabari and her team take the time to learn about the specific histories and local practices of different embroidery traditions, collaborating with local women artists to produce each collection. Mochi thus helps sustain a traditional form of fashion that is often threatened by the mass consumption of fast-fashion. So far, Mochi has produced seven collections inspired by places as diverse as Jaipur, Thailand, Hungary, and Uzbekistan.
Tabari’s international spirit is rooted in her own identity as a Palestinian who grew up in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, studied in London, and then settled in one of the most vibrant expat communities in the world: Dubai.
Mochi’s business model combines the best of two worlds. While there are many non-profit organizations that provide employment for woman who produce clothing and while the attire produced might be authentic, these organizations lack the expertise and vision of fashion designers. Conversely, major fashion houses produce ethnic clothing with impeccable stitching, but are criticized as facsimiles divorced from local economies, workers, and production infrastructure. Mochi, on the other hand, weaves an ethical commitment to preserving artisanal traditions with quality standards that Vogue UK lauds as “almost couture-grade in their intricacy.”
It’s this uniqueness that has won Mochi an international and high profile following. Among those who wear Mochi’s fashions are actress Cara Delevingne, artist Rita Ora, and top model and fellow Palestinian Gigi Hadid, who wore a stunning piece from Mochi’s Palestine collection, pictured here.
Fashion designer Faissal El-Malak has much in common with Tabari, beyond their shared Palestinian heritage. El-Malak grew up between worlds. Raised in Montreal and Doha, he studied fashion at Paris’ Atelier Chardon Savard. He’s also based in Dubai, which is quickly emerging as the fashion mecca of the Middle East. His ready-to-wear embroidery collections “bridge traditional artisan work with modern design.” In the past, El-Malak has spoken about the rich cultural identity woven into the region’s fabrics and crafts. He has traveled from Tunis to Yemen in search of inspiration.
In 2015, El-Malak was one of seven young Middle Eastern designers celebrated by Vogue at their Fashion Dubai Experience. That same year, El-Malak was a finalist for Vogue Italia’s “Who is on Next?” scouting project to find the next top designer. Out of 25 contestants, El-Malak was one of five designers representing the Middle East. To be considered one of the best young designers, and twice over by Vogue, speaks for itself.
Many up and coming young designers no longer open boutiques; it is simply too costly. Rather, they showcase their collections at pop-up stores. El-Malak has organized pop-ups in Dubai, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi, including one hosted by the leading British department store Harvey Nichols. El-Malak has also shown his collections at Casablanca’s Festimode and Tunisia’s Carthage Design and Fashion week. His dresses have been photographed in several fashion magazines.
Recently, El-Malak has presented two collections, one inspired by Tunis and the other by Yemen. His three-month sojourn in Palestine last year, where he explored fabrics, might herald a Palestine collection in the near future.
Nablus-born Jamal Taslaq represents the high-end couture of the Palestinian fashion spectrum. He has quickly made a name for himself with his atelier and boutique in Rome, where he has distinguished himself by making exquisite dresses, particularly bridal gowns. For those outside of Rome, Taslaq is increasingly bringing his couture to cities around the world. In the past few months, he hosted Trunk Shows in New York, Budapest, and Naples.
Not unlike Tabari and El-Malak, embroidery is at the heart of Taslaq’s couture as well. While the traditional Palestinian influence in the modern Western dresses might not be immediately apparent, Taslaq made clear the connection when he paid ultimate homage to his Palestinian heritage in a beautiful black-and-red (traditional Palestinian color pattern) evening dress. The dress was one of 30 pieces designed by Taslaq to celebrate Palestinian fashion as part of the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People this past November in New York, which showcased cultural events highlighting the Palestinian narrative. The embroideries in the colorful collection featuring white, red, ivory, green and black dresses, gowns, and suits were partly designed by refugees in Jordan’s Jerash camp.
“When I left Palestine,” Taslaq said, “I understood that I must do something for me and my people to show the world that we are the same as other people. We want a life. We want peace. We love. We have all the feelings that make us the same as other people.”
Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer for the Institute for Palestine Studies based in Tunis. He previously served as Online Content Editor for IPS-USA in Washington, D.C.