Sultan Al Darmaki: Emirati follows his heart - and sole

Profile: Sultan Al Darmaki tried the career expected of him, but could not ignore his passion for fashion designing. His new role creating female footwear is influenced by the titanic trio of women's shoemakers - Louboutin, Choo and Blahnik.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
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Sultan Al Darmaki tried the career expected of him, but ultimately could not ignore his lifelong passion for fashion designing. His new role designing shoes is not only influenced by the likes of Louboutin, Choo and Blahnik but also by his mother, Hadeel Al Sayegh writes

When Sultan Al Darmaki announced to his mother that he was leaving the finance world to design women's shoes, it almost knocked her off her heels.

The Emirati designer, who came from a traditional family in Al Ain, was expected to end up in finance or public relations (PR) after three years working as an executive at a government investment company.

But for Mr Al Darmaki, he was fulfilling a dream he had had since he was 10 years old.

"We had a very long chat and I told her that for a long time I have done what the family wanted to do and now is the right time to do what I wanted to do," says Mr Al Darmaki, who was born in 1982 and is one of 10 children.

Mr Al Darmaki's father gained status and wealth through property management. His mother, however, was his inspiration for fashion. As a youth, Mr Al Darmaki would travel with his mother to Beirut, Paris, and other fashion cities of the Arab world and the West, as she bought haute couture pieces from Dior, Elie Saab, and Givenchy.

"My mother is extravagant. She's always had a fine taste for style. She appreciated a beautiful cut, or a beautiful colour," the designer says. "I have to give her all the credit. She trained me in her very own way."

Despite the fact that Mr Al Darmaki had been drawing sketches since he was 10, his family would not initially allow him to apply for fashion school in Paris when he was a teenager. They insisted he take on a more traditional role in business.

He opted to study PR and marketing at the American University of Sharjah, but he still kept the fashion flame burning by continuing to sketch shoes.

He graduated and pursued a career in PR working in the Abu Dhabi government sector. He started at ADWEA, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, and then finally a government investment company.

"I wasn't able to do those roles for more than two years," Mr Al Darmaki says. "It's like I knew what I wanted to do but, I was clearly in denial."

After coming to terms with his need to pursue his dream, he took a flight toMilan, Italy, to meet manufacturers that work with luxury brands. Mr Al Darmaki did not schedule an appointment and was afraid he would be turned away.

"Here we go, I thought," he says. "I am going to get escorted out of the building."

But luckily for him, they made time for him and were very receptive to his vision.

Mr Al Darmaki spent nearly four months coming up with a name for his shoes during the establishment of his firm in London.

"I wanted to make sure it competed with international brands. After looking at several options I told my team: 'I'm sorry guys, but it's my brand name, it's my name. Why wouldn't I be proud of having my name on my product?'"

Having "Darmaki" literally stamped on the shoes was a main cause of concern.

It was finally decided to have the sole imprinted with the letter "D" along with a dragonfly, the Al Darmaki family emblem, which symbolises wealth and prosperity.

"I wouldn't want anyone to 'step' on my family," Mr Al Darmaki said. "As long as we have those boundaries and make sure we do not disrespect the family name, it's perfectly fine."

In the past, Emirati men who ran shops such as Abu Dhabi's Mandoos that sell the na'al, the popular slipper worn by both men and women in the Gulf, were solely entrepreneurs and not designers.

"I was very worried about how people will react to the idea of an Emirati man as a shoe designer," Mr Al Darmaki says. "The support we got from that market was phenomenal, so we ticked the box."

Mr Al Darmaki had success from the start, although he admits he has been fortunate. After just two seasons, he has more than doubled his buyers, from three to seven retail companies, selling his products across the GCC, Europe and the US.

"We weren't expecting any sales because it was a purely marketing exercise," Mr Al Darmaki says. "We had regular showrooms during Paris Fashion Week and would talk to potential buyers, run them through the collection and tell them what we are trying to do, and we managed to close deals."

Prior to the launch of his shoe business, Mr Al Darmaki was seen as somewhat introverted.

"I would never ask anyone for advice," he says. "But my personality has changed, because in this business you have to network and rub shoulders with people who have been in the industry for a long time. No one is going to knock on your door and ask if you need it. If I didn't have these contacts, honestly, I wouldn't know where I would be right now."

The designer aims to have big department stores, such as Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Harrods and Dubai's Chalhoub Group, carrying his shoe collection.

"The big department stores want to see consistency. Are they going to survive the next season? Because of the cost of the prototype, many designers drop out because they can't afford to continue."

The most expensive part of any shoe business is the sampling. Getting a prototype of 25 pairs of shoes at a luxury standard could cost anywhere between €50,000 (Dh244,855) and €100,000, depending on the mould of the shoe and material being used. "For a start-up, that's a lot of money."

Mr Al Darmaki spent four years holding down two or three jobs on top of his role in PR to get the cash together. "When we first launched the brand, many people said: 'He's a Darmaki, he has the money.'

"I would laugh because when I first started, I didn't have the funds.My dad taught us early on to work hard to get something. He always said he wasn't born with a gold spoon in his mouth. He had to work hard to build his fortune."

Mr Al Darmaki studied business models of successful women's shoe manufacturers.

"I wanted to make sure it had a bit of Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik," he says.

"Jimmy Choo is a very successful business, every time they sell a stake to a private partner, it has a massive financial return. Louboutin as a brand is recognised for its strong identity after it made a patent on the red sole. We wanted the look and feel of Manolo Blahnik, which are very classical shoes, that you could still wear in 10 years time."

Mr Al Darmaki has been in discussions with potential partners to sell a 20 per cent stake in his company. The proceeds of the funds will be used to shift his day-to-day operations to New York and expand his production to about 2,500 to 5,000 shoes per season, from the current 300 to 500. Darmaki's headquarters will remain in London.

"When you look at the different fashion weeks, whether it is Milan, Paris or London, New York is still on top," Mr Al Darmaki says. "It's the big brother that approves which brand will make it or break it. This is why New York is important for us."

His plans also include helping young Emirati designers establish successful fashion lines abroad.

"We are diversifying the UAE economy into different industries, but the younger generation have different interests. So why can't we adapt to that? Our culture is not daring and scared of taking that big leap into the unknown," he says.

"Many young designers are creative, but need a 360° understanding of the business. One of our mandates includes creating an incubator type fund that will help young designers establish themselves. I am hoping that Darmaki will change that perception."

London's Victoria & Albert Museum in August acquired Darmaki's Lydia shoe, to represent contemporary Middle Eastern fashion, in its permanent collection. He is the first Emirati designer to have his work showcased in the museum.

"Who would have thought that one day, an Emirati from Al Ain, would have his work displayed in the V&A Museum?"

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