The new wave of Arab T-shirts

Feature Growing numbers of designers are using Arab culture to forge a bold new fashion statement via the basic T-shirt. By drawing on artistic and cultural influences, this most basic piece of clothing may never be the same again.

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Growing numbers of designers are using Arab culture to forge a bold new fashion statement via the basic T-shirt. By drawing on artistic and cultural influences, this most basic piece of clothing may never be the same again. Vineetha Menon reports. When you think of art, your mind instantly connects to thoughts of expression, inspiration, creativity and stimulation. So can that basic piece of clothing, the T-shirt, ever count as art? Four young men in Jordan believe it can and have made T-shirts a central part of a creative project called Blouzaat, which explores art through unconventional means.

It all started when Ahmad Sabbagh, a Jordanian, met Michael Schinköthe, from Germany, at the design firm where they were working in Amman. Both shared a love of art, and both were disappointed by the lack of an urban art scene in the Jordanian capital. They were convinced there was an audience for it but that there just wasn't enough of an environment to inspire artists. A year passed before they were finally spurred into doing something about it by Jordanian Mohammad Assaf. Together with the contribution of Falk Lehmann, an experienced German graffiti artist, the team launched Blouzaat in 2007. Blouzaat means T-shirts in Arabic, and in order to promote the brand to a wider audience, the team went on to create a collection made up of 28 designs and sold them at a small rented shop in Jabal Amman that also doubled as an art gallery.

"Blouzaat is a cross-cultural project, but Arabic culture is one of the main tools for what we created. We like to play with type and words and create phrases for the T-shirts besides just using illustrations," says Sabbagh. There's a heavy typography element in their T-shirts, which also include grungy images of chihuahuas, bulldogs and other unconventional characters. According to Sabbagh, the style is about aggressive visuals and witty messages, mostly in the Arabic language, chosen because it could "communicate our culture".

These Arabic-inspired T-shirts have been well-received by young Jordanians, and today, most of the original collection has been sold. The shop is no more, but the T-shirts are still available online for US$35 (Dh128) each on the website and orders are pouring in from all over the Middle East. Sabbagh adds that future collections will be sold both online and at "key locations". The project has extended beyond just T-shirts, with the team now exploring new and different ways to communicate their work, through canvasses, books, music and movies.

"After opening the store, launching Blouzaat online and organising some events, we've been called 'the hottest topic in the Jordanian blogosphere'. We started receiving calls and emails from local young artists who wanted to get involved, and from art houses and galleries interested in hosting our work and asking us to hold workshops," says Sabbagh enthusiastically. "Blouzaat is one of the very few underground movements happening in this city. But I believe that this was the beginning of something real... and Blouzaat was part of it."

Sabbath and his team are part of a growing number of designers who are using Arab culture to make a bold new fashion statement. And despite their distinctly Middle Eastern flavour, the designs have the potential to influence international style trends as other regional items of clothing have done. The kaffiyeh scarf, for example, took the international fashion scene by storm, and had a whole new lease of life as a global style statement, after being featured on the catwalks of Paris, Milan and New York and being worn by celebrities such as David Beckham, Sienna Miller, Kirsten Dunst and Kanye West.

Riding that same trend, sisters Rima and Dina Zahran designed a special ghutra line of T-shirts for their fashion label, Dinz Clothing, which merges the best of the Arab and western worlds. The label, which was launched in 2006, reflects the women's own background; originally Palestinian, they were raised in Marbella, Spain, but have now settled in Dubai. Their T-shirts, which cost upwards of Dh183, are sold in both local and international stores including Harvey Nichols in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, Ounass in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, Spoiled Brat in the United Kingdom and 007 in Spain.

"Fashion is constantly incorporating cultural elements - there's the modern take on the Indian sari, the western version of the kimono, and so on. The Arab world has a long heritage and a very rich culture, so it can be very inspirational and used to influence clothes," says Rima Zahran. And while the kaffiyeh trend may be dying down, the sisters are already working on a new collection that incorporates Arabic calligraphy, but used in an unconventional and graffiti-style manner. Calligraphy in the Middle East enjoys a rich history dating back many centuries as a primary form of art for Islamic expression. The two are now giving it a modern twist in their upcoming spring/summer 2010 collection, and believe it has the potential to be the next Arab-inspired global style statement.

No one can deny the power of an arresting visual... even on a T-shirt - from the silhouetted image of the revolutionary icon Che Guevara to the lolling red tongue from the Rolling Stones album Sticky Fingers. But while designs make an impact, a message is best put across in words. A few years ago, US-based Obaida Abdul-rahim created a T-shirt with the message "Salafi Street" written in English that was designed to imitate the logo of the famous children's television programme Sesame Street, and another that said "Fitna Factor". He wore them to an annual Islamic Society of North America convention and the positive reactions from people who saw them gave him the idea to set up his own T-shirt company. Phatwa Factory was launched in 2006 and sells T-shirts printed with quirky slogans, such as "Salam, my name is-not that hard to pronounce", or a "Now Entering Ramadan: No Food or Drink for Next 30 Days" written on a green street sign design. The T-shirts are mainly sold at Islamic conferences and events in the United States and online through where he accepts orders from every major country, including the UAE, but asks that potential customers first sign on as members. Abdul-rahim says that most of his tees don't make sense to people who aren't exposed to Islam, but his bestseller, which costs Dh55, is an exception. It has "Arab Limo" written below an illustration of a long camel with five humps. "The [Arab Limo] shirt is the only one understood by a majority of non-Muslims and I get compliments on it all the time." He believes that by portraying Islamic and Arab culture through T-shirts, he'd "like Muslims to know that it's OK to laugh and for non-Muslims to know that we have a sense of humour"., another online store, also sells T-shirts with amusing messages an can ship to any country. Its founder, Dalia Ghanem, was born and brought up in the USA, but has Egyptian roots. She noticed a rise in negativity towards Arab Americans after the September 11 attacks and her line of T-shirts aims to show the "soft, human side of Arabs". Her tees, which range from Dh55 to Dh91 online, bear slogans that play on popular western sayings - such as "Got Falafel?" and "When life hands you fava beans-make foul mesdames". Ghanem says: "Not everyone knows that humour plays a major role in the Middle Eastern culture- I wanted to create a sense of pride through humour and pop culture for our community." Design entrepreneurs such as Ghanem and Abdul-rahim, and creatives like the Blouzaat team and the Dinz sisters are making us look at our wardrobes in a whole new light by tapping into the universal appeal of the ­T-shirt and giving it a definitive local twist. It's a perfect fit.