How traditional Middle Eastern crafts are inspiring contemporary fashion design

The region has been central, literally, to the global textiles trade for centuries

Irthi aims to conserve traditional Emirati crafts such as weaving straw baskets and mats out of palm leaves. Photo: Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council
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The concept of “handmade” has sent consumers seeking luxury items on far-reaching emotional journeys for centuries. Once revered as masterful art forms, many handmade techniques used in the production of fashion and jewellery were gradually eclipsed by machine counterparts throughout the 20th century, as brands churned out their products at warp speed, choosing cost efficiency and a standardised approach to design over a personalised one.

Even Italy, a nation renowned for the prestigious “made in Italy” label, has experienced a decline in skilled artisans as younger generations have gravitated towards careers in offices, software and technology, rather than manual labour.

However, in recent years, the global appreciation of traditional craftsmanship has had something of a revival, with many fashion and jewellery houses revisiting centuries-old methods to enhance their modern designs while acknowledging the emotional value embedded in handmade creations.

This year’s Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda collection is a testament to this, paying homage to traditional Italian craftsmanship. The designers celebrated embroideries and hand-sewn designs hailing from the southern region of Puglia, where the brand hosted the collection’s show-stopping runway presentation in July, underscoring a commitment to heritage and artistry.

Similarly, Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s autumn collection pays homage to the time-honoured techniques of India and the crafts that reflect the nation’s rich cultural legacy, even partnering with a local atelier in Mumbai.

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As everything becomes so fast and artificial, we need to preserve traditional crafts, which reveal their beauty slowly throughout time
Fatma Mostafa, Egyptian jewellery designer

This passion and appreciation for the handmade also resonates in the Middle East; craftsmanship is booming as brands and organisations champion traditional handicrafts. The Middle East has been central, literally, to the global textiles trade for centuries, as a crossroads between the East and the West.

It was a pivotal point on the Silk Road trade routes, with textiles being transported back and forth between Europe and Asia. As a result, combining cross-global influences with the region’s own cultural traditions made the Middle East a melting pot for brands and artisans, embracing heritage and history in everything they do.

Irthi partners with designers from Pakistan and Palestine, as well as the UK. Photo: Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

In Saudi Arabia, the establishment of the Fashion Commission by the Ministry of Culture signals a commitment to nurturing the kingdom’s clothing industry while safeguarding its storied heritage of craftsmanship. Burak Cakmak, chief executive of the commission, emphasises its mission, saying: “The Fashion Commission was set up to build a forward-looking fashion industry in Saudi Arabia that amplifies local talent and champions the local value chain and local craftsmanship.”

By spotlighting some of the country’s established and upcoming designers, the commission is helping to share their designs with the world.

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Designers from the Saudi 100 Brands programme preserve the kingdom’s rich fashion heritage
Burak Cakmak, chief executive, Fashion Commission by the Ministry of Culture, Saudi Arabia

Saudi fashion has a long history of talented craftsmen and women, says Cakmak, with many artisans perfecting skills and sustainable design traditions that have been handed down over generations, from weaving to beading and traditional jewellery design.

Last year, the commission set up the Saudi 100 Brands platform, choosing 100 designers from the kingdom whose works were showcased around the world. The travelling exhibition has been renewed for a second year with a new pool of talent, which also offers mentorship to the designers and increases brand awareness internationally.

“Designers from the Saudi 100 Brands programme often blend the traditional and the contemporary, preserving the kingdom’s rich fashion heritage and sharing our vision to develop a circular and sustainable industry that allows local brands to share their identity with the rest of the world,” Cakmak adds.

A Brazilian artisan learns Emirati talli from Irthi artisans, in Sao Paulo in 2018. Photo: Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

In the UAE, the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council extends this commitment to traditional Emirati crafts. Since it began, the organisation has provided support to Emirati women, rekindling the passions of their female ancestors in particular, encouraging them to practise traditional weaving techniques such as talli and safeefah.

By forging partnerships with local institutions, participating in international showcases and collaborating with global brands, Irthi not only aims to elevate the status of these crafts, but also nurture a sense of pride and purpose among Emirati artisans. Moreover, the council’s mentorship programmes encourage younger generations to get involved, fostering a deeper connection to their heritage and the legacy of craftsmanship.

The five-day Hirfati Summer Camp will train 50 young Emiratis in traditional and contemporary crafts. Photo: Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council

Designers across the region regularly take inspiration from their cultural heritage. For example, Egyptian designer Fatma Mostafa, winner of the jewellery category at Fashion Trust Arabia’s 2022 awards, creates unique jewellery pieces based on her home country’s ancient history and diverse landscapes. Her designs are now stocked globally on British online retailer Matches Fashion.

Mostafa blends modern jewellery techniques with traditional crafts inspired by her heritage. “In the Middle East, crafts have always been the foundation for design, especially jewellery, as they are an essential part of our culture and every place has its own unique jewellery,” she says.

“I found myself naturally combining handicrafts that I’m skilled at and love, such as embroidery and jewellery-making when I started my brand, to make distinctive and artisan pieces to express myself. As everything becomes so fast and artificial, we need to preserve the traditional crafts, which reveal themselves and their beauty slowly throughout time. They are also a source of income for many communities that still practise them.”

Fatma Mostafa’s jewellery is inspired by her home country of Egypt. Photo: Matches Fashion

These crafts represent the roots of fashion and jewellery thousands of years before trends or seasons took over. “A craftsman’s skill has been a part of all industries since the beginning, especially in the fashion industry,” she adds.

“In all ancient civilisations you can find examples, so preserving it is crucial to maintaining beauty that cannot be found in something made quickly, and keeping us connected to our roots.”

Updated: September 14, 2023, 4:00 PM