You do not have to speak with Salem Al Mheiri for long to realise his passion for Emirati fashion and its history. His enthusiasm about subjects such as the evolvement of the kandura over the decades and his plans to bring traditional looks back into fashion with his Italian friend and business partner, Max Girombelli, are endearing.
Taking a tour of the duo's brand new Duca & Das store in Abu Dhabi and listening to them describe the reasoning behind their design choices is akin to a history lesson. "A jacket was worn over the kandura until about the 1990s, then it started to disappear," says Al Mheiri. "But it was beautiful and we want to bring it back."
He says wearing top jackets and vests over the kandura goes as far back as the days of Sheikh Shakhbut, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi between 1928 and 1966, and Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father. Accordingly, a fitted jacket is part of the offering at Duca & Das.
Al Mheiri and Girombelli were friends for more than a decade before they decided to work together to bring the best quality of cuts, fabrics, stitching and designs to the Emirati man's national dress and accessories, as they felt the kandura was not being given enough attention.
Al Mheiri's family owned Das Tailoring in Abu Dhabi for decades and he took over in 2005, while Girombelli, who comes from a family with more than 50 years of experience in luxury Italian fashion and stitching, launched Duca Sartoria for high-end custom-made men's clothing. The duo's love and curiosity for blending high-quality tailoring with traditions and trends led them to carry out extensive research on kanduras and accessories, before combining their expertise and launching Duca & Das with re-engineered designs that combine Italian stitching and cuts with traditional styles that were forgotten over the years.
At the Hamdan Street store's majlis-style set-up, Al Mheiri flits between a variety of kanduras to demonstrate the difference between the "old days" and now. What he cannot find in the store, he shows us using the vast collection of images on his phone.
"The tarboosh [a piece of fabric that looks like a tie and is unique to Emirati kanduras] was always there, but the design was different – it was shorter and started to get longer over time. The older tarboosh was twisted, not straight," he says, pointing to several black-and-white pictures. "Nowadays some people want to achieve that look by leaving one button open at neck of the kandura."
Al Mheiri says that until the 1950s, women generally made clothes at home and although the outfits were similar, he says there were differences in details. It was also common at the time for some households to boil their stained kanduras with herbs and seeds, which turned the garment brown and made it reusable, while cotton was the go-to fabric. "They didn't care much about creasing then," Al Mherir says.
However, by the late 1950s and 1960s, tailors rose in popularity, leading to a variety of styles and trends. By the late 1970s and 1980s, fabrics combining cotton with polyester were more widely used. As ironing became more common during the 1980s, the kandura went through a phase of being worn with pressed lines, showing its crisp folds. Another trend during this time was for a kandura that had lost the purity of its whiteness to be washed with a dye that turned the garment powder blue.
The changes were mostly fabric-related until the 1990s. "I would say everything started in that decade. The 1990s changed everything," Al Mheiri says. This is when full polyester fabrics replaced cotton completely, due to their "shiny look and soft feel". Adventurous embroidery designs appeared in the stitching on the front of the kandura. The classic two buttons on the neck were also replaced with one, but this was short-lived and the second button made a comeback by the end of the decade.
In the 2000s, heavy polyester fabrics and the colour brown became popular, albeit few wearers knew the latter's history. The kandura's flat buttons were also switched out for round ones. Not much has changed since the rigid polyester fabric went out of fashion not long after its debut. Tailors generally offer two styles of kandura cuts, Al Mheiri says. "There is the classic Arabic design, which is a straight cut and more square, and then we have a more fitted kandura, which is more a Kuwaiti design. The trend now is to go for this more fitted design, but it is still not perfect."
Duca & Das has developed a signature cut to provide a completely fitted look across the chest and sleeves that can be achieved with a variety of fabrics, including wool. The duo have also created a tarboosh that is slightly off to the side, to embrace the traditional look without the need to leave the neck button open.
A fitted pure cotton jacket and storm-system vests are also part of Duca & Das's collection, to go with the fitted kandura. "The jacket is completely unconstructed, no lining, no shoulder padding," says Girombelli. "It has a feeling of a cashmere fabric. It's super-light. This is the classic jacket. We have modernised it with Italian stitching."
Both men agree that wearing the jacket on top of a kandura with heavy fabric, such as wool, is more than enough to keep warm during the winter in the UAE. The water and wind-resistant technical vests, meanwhile, with their pockets and zips, are designed to be worn for outdoor events or while hunting.
"This is not just a store, this is an education centre, a research centre and a museum," says Al Mheiri, who hopes more men will turn to flattering cuts in high-quality fabrics with a nod to tradition.
Seasonal kandura recommendations
Salem Al Mheiri's tips for which kandura to wear when:
Autumn: light fabric in light grey and light brown.
Winter: heavy-weight fabric in wool or mixed wool (wool and polyester) in dark grey, navy, brown and white. You can wear light colours during the day, but stick to dark shades in the evenings.
Spring: light fabric in yellow, light green and powder blue.
Summer: light fabric in white and cream. Avoid shaal, or red, or other shemagh colours. For fabrics in summer, you can go 100 per cent polyester.
Duca & Das will launch its winter 2020 collection today at 7pm at Emirati restaurant Mezlai in Emirates Palace