How Arabic calligraphy is weaving its way into the UAE's fashion industry

Emblazoned on apparel and accessories alike, the age-old art form has many young fans

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Arabic calligraphy may be prominent on book covers and gallery walls, but the age-old art form is becoming increasingly popular among aficionados of apparel and accessories.

Numerous home-grown labels are weaving calligraphical strokes into everything from streetwear to statement dresses.

What’s in a word?

Head to the recently opened THAT Concept Store in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, and you’ll see an assortment of statement Plexiglas clutches on display. Some are adorned with the keffiyeh scarf print, while others are embellished with the word “love” in bold Arabic calligraphy – artistry that Palestinian designer Meera Toukan has always been drawn to.

“I believe words written in calligraphy hold powerful meaning, and the way they’re written makes it even more appealing and helps bring me closer to my roots,” says Toukan, who launched her eponymous brand in 2014.

“It’s art and it’s heritage. I love how traditional it is, yet it’s versatile and can easily be played around with to make it more fitting to the modern consumer.”

Toukan also stamps words such as “peace” and “freedom” on to her clutches.

“The reason I stick to these three pillars is because I always wish for freedom, peace and love in its all its forms, in the Middle East and around the world,” Toukan tells The National.

I wanted to bring to life the vision of designing minimalistic praying clothes that will leave us in clarity and comfort
Nawal Masri, founder, Exhale

The Arabic words for “peace”, “patience” and “truth” also decorate dresses from Canava, a brand by Nisreen Krimed. Her fabrics, which are handmade in Dubai, feature calligraphy-covered chiffons layered over newspaper prints and maps of Damascus and Jerusalem.

She says the words she chooses reflect timeless virtues, and experiments with their scale and placement.

“The abstraction of pictures into words also holds a meaning in the shape itself,” says Krimed, whose passion for design and “garment manipulation” was sparked as a child, watching her mother and sisters sewing clothes.

Layered meanings and messages

While some designers experiment with layering fabrics, others reflect on the layered meanings of Arabic words. Nawal Masri is the founder of streetwear label Exhale, which collaborates with artists, most recently an Arabic calligrapher who calls by the pseudonym illm.

The clothing you own represents you ... and affects your mood, attitude and psychological state
Nawal Masri, founder, Exhale

Arabic letters fill the outlined silhouette of hands in prayer, which features on the back of a hooded prayer cover-up from the collaboration.

“The praying hands in Arabic calligraphy act as your wings to soar higher,” Masri explains. “I wanted to bring to life the vision of designing breathable and minimalistic praying clothes that will leave us in clarity and comfort during prayer, to present ourselves to Allah with beauty, not materialistically, but soulfully.”

Exhale illustrates Arabic phrases in various typography themes, often linked to topical events. A collaboration with calligrapher Diaa Allam, for instance, is an ode to the Emirates Mars Mission, and features the words “nothing is impossible” in Arabic.

A celebration of diversity and unity

These designers believe Arabic calligraphy can be an inspiring and unifying art form, as well as an intimate reflection of beliefs and cultural roots.

“Using the language in my designs is how I stay true to my core,” says Masri. “The clothing you own ends up representing you, and what we choose to represent us affects our mood, attitude, confidence, performance and psychological state.”

I want to create fashion pieces that resonate with this generation, but also introduces our rich heritage to the world
Meera Toukan, handbag designer

Perhaps this is why Arabic calligraphy has been on the rise in fashion, not only in the Middle East but also in the West, where brands such as Zidouri (which features Arabic embroidery on streetwear and jewellery) are flourishing. Arabs and Muslims in these areas are often marginalised communities, yet donning calligraphy-emblazoned garments can be a sartorial statement of pride and political or religious allegiance.

“What makes [the language] even more beautiful are the dialects and accents used in different countries – yet we all write it the same way, and this is what unifies us,” says Toukan.

“A lot of Arab millennials classify themselves as ‘third-culture kids’; it makes our generation an interesting one. I want to create fashion pieces that resonate with this generation, but also introduce our rich heritage to the world.”

Fashion is often political, and in a world where young fashion enthusiasts are imbuing their style with emblems of culture, heritage and faith, Arabic calligraphy makes a trendy but also touching statement.

“Anything is impactful if it connects to its audience,” says Emirati fashion designer Fatma Al Mulla, known for her bold, graphic dresses, kaftans and accessories, often stamped with tongue-in-cheek Arabic phrases.

“The beautiful language has words with such deep meanings that, in some cases, they cannot be translated – they are rooted not only in Arabs, but Muslims around the world.”

Customised pieces for a personal touch

Al Mulla’s newest designs merge her trademark Arabic pop culture aesthetic with decadent calligraphy.

“Being a brand that was born in Dubai, I am bound to have the language imprinted in my designs,” she says. Her patrons can customise their dresses with oversized bedazzled letters or initials, making for conversation-starters.

“The embroidered letters take a lot of work, usually three to 10 hours, depending on the size that the client orders,” she says. “They are stuffed, a cloth is added for support and then the beading begins. The colours of the beads are also completely customisable to the client.”

Customisation is proving to be a popular service, given the power of words; Toukan also personalises her Plexiglas clutches withArabic and English letters.

The universal appeal of language

While Arabic calligraphy may naturally resonate with speakers of the language, all the designers say they are happy to see their work attracting non-Arab clients, too.

Masri believes calligraphy, being a statement on its own “magnetises” those who come across it, whether or not they can read it, while Toukan describes it as “eye-catching” and “intriguing” to non-Arabs. “It leaves the consumer eager to learn more about the culture, norms and heritage.”

Krimed echoes Masri when she says that Arabic, in its tangible, calligraphic form, offers an authentic and accessible dose of culture to non-Arab consumers, concluding that “the aesthetics of calligraphy allow it to be one of the easiest ways to immerse yourself in a cultural experience, even if you don’t read or speak the language”.

Updated: August 17, 2021, 10:57 AM