Nour Al Tamimi is wearing a silk blouse printed with camels and elephants, tucked into a green, sequin-covered skirt with a fuchsia waistband, and a pair of nude-toned trainers. Her choice of footwear is quite deliberate, because she is here to introduce me to her new brand of trainers, called The Nou Project.
We are sitting at Vogue Café inside Level Shoe District in Dubai Mall, where The Nou Project will be launching next month. And while the label’s first retailer will be a prominent luxury-footwear destination in the city’s largest mall, The Nou Project started out as nothing more than a university project, Al Tamimi tells me.
While doing her master’s in art business at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Los Angeles, Al Tamimi, who is originally from Saudi Arabia, was assigned the brief for her final project. “We had to come up with a business plan to benefit the art world,” she says.
Students were given the option of completing their projects in Los Angeles or relocating to New York. "I thought: 'I've never lived in New York, I'm in my 20s, I'm young and single; I want to do this. So I moved to New York and I was so inspired by the sneaker culture there. I was a girlie-girl who used to always wear heels and flats, and suddenly after my first week in New York, my feet were full of blisters. I obviously had to buy a pair of sneakers."
Although Al Tamimi thought she had already finalised the idea for her graduating project back in Los Angeles, her change in lifestyle inspired a whole new concept: the marriage of artwork and trainers, packaged in a footwear brand dubbed The Nou Project. She recruited her Lebanese friend Basma Chidiac, who had been completing her master’s at Parsons School of Design in New York, and hired her as the brand’s co-creative director.
The two initially met through mutual friends at the Coachella music festival, and instantly hit it off. "She and I are actually very different," Al Tamimi says. "If you're too similar, it becomes a little blah, but we always challenge each other. Even our personal styles are different, which I love, because we can appeal to so many people together."
The two met regularly throughout the autumn of 2015 in Chidiac's New York apartment, to brainstorm about their brand. "We wanted to create a blank canvas, something very minimal, because we wanted to have artwork on it," Al Tamimi says. And their first muse – New York's street culture – makes a subtle appearance on the soles of the shoes, which are made from recycled rubber and have been designed to look like cement, turning them into street fashion in the most literal sense.
“We tried in Portugal, but nobody could make our soles. They just didn’t have the technology; they would hand-stitch the sole to the shoe, but we didn’t want the stitching to show, because our whole concept is minimal and clean. We had gone through at least eight or nine prototypes until we finalised the right one. You don’t want to sell something unless you love it yourself,” Al Tamimi says.
After months of trial and error, and experimenting with shoe designers and manufacturers in New York, Portugal and China, the duo had their final shoe in hand. Next, it was time to recruit artists who would lend their custom designs to the sides of the leather high-top trainers. Both Al Tamimi and Chidiac were in touch with numerous artists from university, and connected with James Rawson, Nydia Lilian and RexChouk.
"As a team, we try to encourage up-and-coming artists that echo our generation, and pop art seems to resonate very well with millennials, as well as minimalist, post-modern and contemporary," Chidiac says. "We look at artists from different cultures, cities, backgrounds and that use different mediums in artistic expression. We have discussed collaborating with singers, architects and fashion designers [too], hopefully in the near future."
Known for making contemporary pop art, Rawson takes a creative approach that involves re-interpreting troubling societal ideals such as inequality, greed, fast-food culture and violence. His motif for The Nou Project is an icy-blue semiautomatic pistol reimagined as a toy water gun. Mexican photographer and graphic designer Lilian's contribution features myriad lines and shapes, resulting in a visually abstract high-top that is purely black and white, complementing the cement-like soles of the shoe. New York-based artist RexChouk, who is originally from Jeddah, is known for combining pop art with Arab culture, slang text and vivid colour. His art work for The Nou Project comprises a crude drawing of a man wearing a crown, set against a blue background with illustrated stars. "The whole point was to create something for artists to act as designers, and have their artwork on something other than gallery walls and museums; something that's cool, hip, fun and that speaks to our generation," Al Tamimi explains. As compensation for their designs, each artist was paid a one-time fee, and their art will appear on a total of 300 shoes. "It's equivalent to us buying an artwork of theirs," Al Tamimi says. "We buy the rights to reproduce their image 300 times."
For less daring customers who admire the effect of the designers' signature cement soles, the brand has also developed a classic line of low-top and high-top trainers in solid shades of white, nude and black. While prices may seem steep, ranging from Dh920 to Dh1,745, the shoes, which are all unisex, are not all that expensive if you compare them to the price of a painting in a gallery. And the designers are confident that their shoes won't be perceived as mere trainers, or be subject to fleeting fashion trends. "We have no limit as to who our audience is, because art is universal," Chidiac says.
Although sneaker culture may be in its prime, the duo believe their concept is timeless. "They're sneakers, so they're classic, and they're collectibles; they're works of art," Al Tamimi says. She adds that although other brands may also offer eye-catching visuals, The Nou Project attracts a niche, luxury market, thanks to its quality leathers, stylish aesthetic, curated approach and overall vision: to make artwork accessible, wearable and cool.
And when she describes the kind of customer that The Nou Project will appeal to, it is pretty all-encompassing: “They would be an art lover, slash a sneaker head, slash a person who’s cultured and just loves fashion, and appreciates art and a story behind a brand.”