If you pay attention to on-trend accessories, you may recall the blinged-out phone cases covered in colourful crystals, which were all the rage a decade ago. "I was an expert in them," recalls Emirati fashion designer Yasmin Al Mulla. "I'd decorate them at home for friends and family, and I'd use Swarovski crystals, in even the smallest sizes."
Today, Al Mulla heads up her own Dubai-based fashion label YNM. And while she has since refined her design aesthetic, developing an elegant and minimalist approach to style with her modest shirt dresses and relaxed robes, Swarovski might play a role in her creative process yet again.
The Swarovski Creative Centre opened in d3 last week, providing the community with a hub where designers from fashion, jewellery, art and interiors, can experiment with the brand's materials, free of charge.
Swarovski was founded in Austria in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski, and has grown to become a leading crystal manufacturer. For some, the brand will be synonymous with kitschy animal figurines collected by grandmothers; for others, with over-the-top fashion accessories favoured by the wives and girlfriends of footballers.
However, the brand has an illustrious history working with top fashion houses. It has supplied products to Chanel for the brand's costume jewellery, and was used for Alexander McQueen's crystal mesh creations. In fact, Nadja Swarovski, the great-great- granddaughter of the brand's founder, credits McQueen for re-popularising the stones.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Atelier Swarovski: a diffusion brand that partners with jewellery and decor designers to produce limited-edition collections. Glass vitrines showcasing past creations – including jewellery collaborations with designers Jean Paul Gaultier, Viktor & Rolf and Peter Pilotto – are placed around the foyer of the centre.
Though the brand has inspired countless couturiers and celebrity red-carpet looks (such as the sheer dress and fitted cap worn by Rihanna at the CFDA awards in 2014), it is also a supporter of up-and-coming talent, and currently has its eye on the Middle East's fledgling design scene. "We look forward to seeing [the Swarovski Creative Centre] become an inspirational hub for design in the region, helping to enable creative talent to develop and thrive," Nadja says.
When Al Mulla explores the space, she says she is most surprised by the variety. Her previous impression of the brand was limited. "I knew about their classic crystal shape, the beautiful brilliant one, but now I've got a whole new perspective. I never knew about all of these categories, and different shapes and cuts," she says.
One of the centre's walls is lined with drawers containing more than 200 types of colourful embellishments, while another wall showcases about 430 crystals, in varying shapes and sizes. Al Mulla is attracted to the off-white pearls, light blue, round crystals and clear, star-shaped crystals. She's especially enamoured with the latter, since the motif features in her autumn/winter 2017 collection. "I wanted to reintroduce stars in an elegant way. People are so used to stars being funky, and YNM is a brand that makes elegant and classy wear, so I combined both this season," she says.
The designer takes a handful of crystals back to her workplace – a long, white, rectangular table, lit by rays of light flooding in through large windows. The markers, wooden clipboard and measuring tape that she has brought along are laid out in front of her, as are fabric swatches in shades of light blue, white and grey. "These are the softest denims in the market," Al Mulla says. Some are already adorned with minimalist black beadwork, arranged to form star shapes. Had she known earlier about the Swarovski star crystals, she says, she would have used them in this collection, but now plans to use the space – and the brand – for spring/summer 2018.
"Embellishments play a huge role – they're what make a garment stand out," she says. "At the end of the day, my label is all about classic and simple cuts, so adding that statement can transform the entire look."
At the Swarovski centre, designers have access to the crystals, as well as to equipment such as sewing, heat-pressing and rivet machines. "We are dedicated to creating an inclusive creative ecosystem that incorporates design from every facet of the industry, and so we are proud to welcome this inspiring facility into the community to enable us to equip, promote and nurture our next generation of design talent," says d3 chief operating officer Mohammad Saeed Al Shehhi.
The space is open to all creatives in the region, not only to those who are based in d3. Though the foyer currently exhibits jewels to mark Atelier Swarovski's 10th anniversary, designers will be able to showcase here, and the centre will also host workshops and talks. Design enthusiasts looking to experiment with Swarovski's creations can visit free of charge, although the machinery will need to be booked beforehand.
"The concept is really inspiring – the idea of having it without any profit is very pure and encouraging. It's really giving back to the community in a beautiful way," says Al Mulla.
Many upcoming designers have limited budgets, and are often unable to take part in design events in the region. Not only will the Swarovski centre provide them with a free outlet to play with embellishments, but it can also open up doors for them to network with industry professionals. Fashion magazines and coffee-table books at the centre provide additional guidance for designers, and a room bordered by glass walls features creations from the Swarovski archives. An aged envelope from 1920, for instance, is stamped with the brand's original logo – an edelweiss flower. Also on display is a crystal mouse from 1987, the brand's first figurine to come to market. A more recent exhibit is the pair of ruby slippers created in France by Christian Louboutin, as part of Swarovski's project celebrating The Wizard of Oz's 70th anniversary in 2008.
Visitors to the Swarovski Creative Centre will also learn about the brand's role in some of fashion's most memorable moments. And, hopefully, the creativity will be contagious.