Protest back in fashion: Khalid Al Qasimi at London Fashion Week

Sharjah-born designer Khalid Al Qasimi tells us how he looked to the past to comment on current social and political turmoil with his latest menswear collection.

Fashion designer Khalid Al Qasimi. Photo by Mariano Vivanco; Philip Meech

There was a noticeable political subtext to the recent London Fashion Week Men's programme, where many of the designers used their collections to comment on current international problems and controversies.

One of those ­embracing a ­sociopolitical theme was Sharjah-born Khalid Al Qasimi, whose collection was inspired by John Lennon’s “Bed-In” protest in an Amsterdam Hotel in 1969.

While that concept seemed a long way from topical issues such as Brexit, Syria or Donald Trump, which preoccupied most designers, it provided the undercurrent that influenced a relaxed loungewear look for autumn 2017.

“It made reference to a lot of the protests that are happening at the moment – from Brexit, to the Dakota Pipeline protest to Black Lives Matter,” the Emirati designer says shortly before his presentation in London this month.

“It is a time for people to stand up and voice their ­opinions. There is a lot of ­politics that goes on in the Middle East and this is a nice medium to express your ­political views.”

Lennon’s protest gave Al Qasimi a way to combine the loungewear style that has evolved since spring/ ­summer17 and the current protests in one collection.

The backdrop to the presentation, created by installation artist Nika Neelova, was rusty iron bed-frames used either as barricades or as ­platforms for the models.

Al Qasimi’s signature tunics and tapered trousers were mixed with military jackets, blousons and fluid ­layers, some of them featuring ­Arabic messages.

“‘There is a sky inside of me’: very poetic isn’t it?” he says, translating one of the slogans.

“‘Dust to dust’, reads another, and ‘If we knew who was listening to us, we wouldn’t be writing on the walls’.”

The words are simply ­fragments of graffiti he had spotted.

Since launching his first collection in 2008, Al ­Qasimi, who designs for men and women, has dressed celebrities on his catwalk including Lady Gaga, along with leading models including Lily Cole, Yasmin Le Bon and Jacquetta Wheeler.

He was lured to Paris by the Chambre Syndicale to ­present Al Qasimi Homme at their nascent Men’s Fashion Week in 2009.

The market at that point was still quite young, and he found his true calling in contemporary men’s fashion.

“It was right for me,” he says, “womenswear was becoming saturated.”

He took a break from designing in 2012 to restructure his label, returning with a new menswear line in 2015.

“I felt I understood menswear better as the seasons progressed, and it felt right,” he explains from his ­spacious new showroom in London. The designer has been based in the UK since receiving an art scholarship to Tonbridge School in the 1990s.

“I was more honest with myself after the restructuring, as before that I had never self-­referenced my background and it was only after the ­restructuring that I thought this would be truly me. People accepted it because it became a bit more believable as well.”

The rails lining the freshly whitewashed walls are filled with the colourful new ­collection and there is a hum of activity in his ­studio next door. He says his ­current spring/summer ­collection was an expression of his ­childhood.

“There are always references to the Middle East and ­sociopolitical issues in every ­collection – and for that one it was discovering what war is, as a child,” he said.

“I was only 12 when the Gulf War happened, and this ­collection was about how I came to terms with the loss of innocence.”

The idea behind the collection was of a child wearing his father’s clothes, with lots of soft, oversized, layered ­silhouettes.

It reflects a cathartic period in Al Qasimi’s life, as soon ­after he left Sharjah to be ­educated in England. A linguist, he graduated in Hispanic Studies and French literature at University College London, before taking a foundation course in ­spatial design and then studying ­architecture at the Architectural Association.

Fashion, however, was what he really wanted to do. Form, shape and construction are part of his design language, as is colour, which he likes to explore in challenging combinations such as the clashing hues of 1960s interiors in his autumn/winter17 collection.

Brutalist and modernist architecture were influences, as well as contemporary art from the museums and Art ­Foundation in Sharjah.

He has yet to tour with his collection in the Arabian Gulf, saying that people preferred to do their shopping when they travelled.

“Men especially – I think it is to do with discovery and owning pieces that other people don’t have,” he says.

However, he adds that he got a lot of support online from the Middle East.

In London, meanwhile, Harvey Nichols and Bluebird carry his collection, which is popular with architects and creatives.

Al Qasimi says the biggest markets for his soft, relaxed tailoring, however, are ­China, Hong Kong and South Korea where customers like clothes with a bit of attitude.

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