"There are four fashion capitals where you will find the sharks," says Ahmed Alkhyeli, 29, "and if I was going to create a space for myself, then it had to be swimming with the best. If you stand out here, you will stand out anywhere."
The designer is explaining why he's chosen London to establish his Khyeli label. We are in his pristine white salon, dominated by a vast mirror and giant chandelier, in a listed building just north of Mayfair. Two months earlier, this room was packed with international press and clients primarily from the Gulf, watching the budding Emirati couturier's first official presentation at London Fashion Week.
Graceful models in feathered minidresses, puffs of nebulous white tulle and exquisitely draped gowns twinkling with a Milky Way of crystals posed against a night-sky backdrop. The music, the choreography and the elegant mise en scene finale gave the audience some time to study and savour the craftsmanship of this promising talent.
It was Alkhyeli’s fourth couture collection, and the reason for his fashion-week debut wasn’t about widening his audience, he says, but about “engaging people with the Khyeli brand”. He saw it as a way of getting people excited. “I want it to be a lifestyle brand,” he says, describing his dream of developing a range of shoes, suits and maybe even furniture one day.
Although he's not one to put all his eggs in the celebrity-endorsement basket, Alkhyeli was understandably delighted when Lady Gaga wore a daring sheer black dress from his summer collection on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last month.
A few weeks earlier, actress Lili Reinhart wore a cloud of Khyeli’s red tulle to the Golden Globes, and Leomie Anderson was swathed in pink taffeta with a cape for an AmFar dinner in New York, while the very same week, Lady Gaga, once again, stepped out in a billowing black coat by the designer.
“It’s exciting to see how people react to my dresses and sharing that, but I don’t use it for commercial purposes,” he insists. He says it’s because he doesn’t believe his customers are swayed by celebrities. “So far I have been lucky: they are educated women who know what they want, and will come and seek us out.”
As a child growing up in Al Ain, Alkhyeli would spend hours sketching with his mother. “I was obsessed with Disney characters and then moved on to sketching things in magazines. I often got kicked out of class for sketching in schoolbooks and sent to the supervisor. He was Lebanese; he would look at my drawings and tell me about Elie Saab, and encourage me to be a fashion designer. I thought he was crazy.”
Of his original training as an architect at the American University of Sharjah, Alkhyeli says: “I loved the experience, but it doesn’t have the excitement and pace of fashion. In the fashion industry, we are obsessed with the same things; it’s probably why we get along with everyone very easily.” He had never envisaged fashion as a career (a man doesn’t do so naturally in the Middle East, he explains), but through architecture he began to think more deeply about why he would appreciate a pretty dress. “I would wonder how it was constructed, the materials, the craft and the concept – the couture process,” he tells me.
Following his passion
The fascination prompted him to buy a mannequin, sewing machine, and books and DVDs on how to cut patterns, and start experimenting. He had no idea what he was doing at first, but curiosity drove him on. “It’s all about geometry,” he says. His efforts impressed a professor at a London fashion college who then helped with the Khyeli brand in its early stages. Drawing, pattern-cutting and working on the mannequin remain essential parts of Alkhyeli’s design process.
After completing a business of fashion course at L’institut Marangoni in Paris, a city where his family spent many summer holidays, he realised it was the first time he had been so engaged in something, “unlike my experience of architecture”. He moved to London in 2014 and began planning his couture business. “In Paris you have to already be established. If you are young, London is a better place to start.”
Alkhyeli chose to concentrate on dresses, and the first garment he made was a ballgown for a close friend to wear to her sister's wedding. It had an intricately beaded top and a slim skirt in silk shantung with six metres extra of the fabric asymmetrically draped off the side. Everyone loved it, and just like that, he began receiving orders.
A call to duty
The designer was all set to launch Khyeli, when a call to duty in 2016 – obligatory military service in the UAE – stalled the process for a year. "Tough as it was, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he reveals. "It was physically and emotionally challenging, but it was a time of clarity, getting away from fashion."
His father is a military man who, even four collections later, doesn't understand the business of fashion, and as Alkhyeli admits: "I don't think he ever will." However, as the oldest of three brothers and a sister, the designer admits that there were things he previously didn't appreciate about his father, but did after his military service. "I think I understood him a lot more. How you get used to being obeyed, and then someone like me comes along and says: 'No! I won't do that.'"
Having put away his combat boots at the start of 2017, Alkhyeli immersed himself in voluminous amounts of taffeta and satin to launch his first eveningwear line in September. This year's tulle and crystal collection, meanwhile, partly alludes to the way women are described in Arabic poetry, as "the sun, the moon, the stars", but it is equally inspired by women as fighters, protecting what is important to them, hence the leopard chiffon dresses and feathery "lion's mane" necklines – looks that are fierce but also exude a gentle gracefulness.
“I am a mix of Middle Eastern and western attitudes,” reasons Alkhyeli. “What I like to create is relevant in both worlds.”