The designer Norma Kamali talks about her ethical-carpet project as it hits the UAE

Selina Denman meets the fashion designer Norma Kamali, who is behind a new range of ethical carpets.
A selection of the 12 carpets designed by Norma Kamali for the Fatema Bint Mohammed Bin Zayed Initiative. The veteran New York-based fashion designer has lent her skills and name to the project free of charge. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National
A selection of the 12 carpets designed by Norma Kamali for the Fatema Bint Mohammed Bin Zayed Initiative. The veteran New York-based fashion designer has lent her skills and name to the project free of charge. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National
Staring out from behind her trademark fringe and thick-rimmed glasses, speaking forcefully about female empowerment, and wearing one of her own designs, Norma Kamali is nothing if not formidable.

This is one of fashion’s greats; the woman credited with popularising the shoulder pad in the 1980s; for coming up with the trainer heel and the sleeping-bag coat; for rendering “sweats” respectable and for revolutionising women’s swimwear (anyone who remembers Farrah Fawcett’s red, one-piece swimming costume in that iconic Charlie’s Angels poster will already be familiar with Kamali’s work).

The New-York-based fashion designer, who was born in 1945 and is of Basque-Lebanese parentage, has been dubbed “fashion’s Greta Garbo”, and everyone from Raquel Welch to Rihanna has sported her designs over the course of her near-50-year career.

But we’re here to talk about carpets. I meet Kamali at Manarat Al Saadiyat, at the launch of a new collection of carpets, called Weaving for a Brighter Future, that she has designed for the Fatema Bint Mohammed Bin Zayed Initiative (FBMI).

FBMI was established, in association with Tanweer Investments, to empower women in Afghanistan by offering employment in the carpet-production process. It provides them with resources, such as looms and wool, and pays a fair market price for their work and encourages them to develop their skills. Beyond that, all FBMI employees are provided with free health care and are educated in literacy, numeracy, health and hygiene and other vocational subjects. Since the initiative was first launched in 2010, it has produced more than 10,000 carpets and currently employs 3,000 low-income Afghans – 70 per cent of which are women and 35 per cent of which are widows.

The carpets are competitively priced, retailing at about Dh15,000 for a six-metre piece, and about 80 per cent of the profit goes back to the women. FBMI currently sells its wares in showrooms in Dubai, London and Afghanistan, with its first Abu Dhabi location due to open in the Yas Mall in November.

When the opportunity arose, Kamali jumped at the chance to collaborate with the initiative, she says, pointing to a silver-haired gentleman standing across the room. “That’s my guy. He spends half his time here [in the UAE] and half his time in New York. One day he came home from a trip and said: ‘We have to design and sell some carpets.’ I had just finished a collection and was exhausted, so I was like: ‘Really?’ And then he told me the story of the initiative and of how it empowers women. And the minute I heard that, I knew we had to see what we could do.”

So Kamali decided to lend her skills, name and not inconsiderable celebrity (free of charge, it’s worth noting) to help highlight the work being carried out by FBMI – and the plight of Afghan women. “Women that feel empowered have a voice, because they are part of commerce,” she says. “And when they have a voice, they can raise their children to have a voice and then they can influence the politics of a country. A woman empowered is invincible.”

When Kamali talks about female empowerment, it’s not lip service. In 2012, she launched KamaliKulture, a line of designer clothes priced at less than $100 and available in sizes 0 to 18, “for women around the world who like to shop smart, who are on a budget, who work and travel, and don’t want to spend too much”. She’s also responsible for the Stop Objectification campaign, an initiative designed to encourage women to speak out about and fight back against daily objectification in the home, workplace, media and even in the streets.

Which is why she was the perfect person for the FBMI to partner with, says Maywand Jabarkhyl, FBMI’s executive director. “To keep the project sustainable, you have to sell. That’s very important. We decided to bring a designer on board that would provide real cutting-edge design, which would enable us to really make a name for ourselves and get the word out about the initiative.

“When it came to choosing a designer, we wanted someone that was very much involved in ethics and charity work and in empowering women, so in that we found the right person. For the past 45 years or so, Norma Kamali has been giving back to the community.”

It took two years for the collection to come to fruition; the end result is 12 carpets, with inspirational-sounding names like Collaboration, Gratitude, Empowered, Knowledge and Potential. They were woven using indigenous Afghan wool bought from nomads in western and central Afghanistan, explains Jabarkhyl. “The reason we use Afghan wool is to ensure that the benefits are felt by those most difficult to reach, and that the product is made in Afghanistan by Afghans.”

It is a collection consciously designed to challenge preconceived ideas about what the Afghan carpet is – and could be. The pieces are striking in their lack of colour – they are predominantly black and white – and in their bold, contemporary motifs. They look about as different from a traditional Afghan carpet as can be, which, Kamali explains, was the whole point.

“I looked at the work that FBMI was doing and I really thought hard and I said: ‘I wouldn’t buy this and I don’t know anyone else that would buy this, so what has to change?’ So the first thing was to step away from the old idea of an Afghan carpet. Instead of trying to compete with the Persian carpet, I decided to move away from that and eliminate colour, first, and eliminate anything that looked traditional, and do some very bold graphics that look like art, instead.

“What is most important about what you see here is the phrase ‘weaving for a brighter future’. That was in the brochure and when I saw it, I thought, that’s it, that’s the brand, that’s what we are going to call it. So I incorporated that phrase into the carpets. So anyone that buys a carpet and has it in their home, just the fact that it says ‘weaving for a brighter future’ somewhere, says that they are supporting these women. And what can be ­better?”

Was it challenging, I wonder, for a fashion designer to create something that was not three-dimensional? “I looked at it like fabric, because I design fabric prints all the time,” Kamali says. “Some of these carpets actually came from fabric prints that I was developing. So I took the same philosophy about what I would do with fabric and thought of it in a space, rather than as a dress. I thought about it hanging, not so much on the floor.”

Now that FBMI has added this new, unashamedly contemporary collection to its portfolio, it will be interesting to see whether future collaborations will result in more of a marriage of styles, where traditional Afghan motifs are retained but reinterpreted to create something that is modern but still speaks of its heritage. One thing is for sure. It’s unlikely that this will be the last time that we see Kamali collaborating with the initiative. She had initially hoped to design a line of 1970s-style carpet bags, but getting the right quality proved a little tricky, so this has been converted into a longer-term plan. She would also like to experiment with the many colour options available and create a more masculine range of carpets. “I have so much that I can do with this,” she says. “And it’s fun as well as being purposeful.”

• The Weaving for a Brighter Future collection will be exhibited at Manarat Al Saadiyat until June 1.

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Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM


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