UAE Portrait of a Nation: Designer uses fashion to send a message

UAE fashion designer Reema Al Banna is inspired by everything from food on skirts to boxing to Frida Kahlo.

Reema Al Banna, designer and founder of the fashion brand Reemami, at her workshop in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National
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Reema Al Banna, a former graphic artist, has become renowned for weaving social messages into her successful fashion designs.

DUBAI // Whether it is food on skirts, boxing gloves on dresses or Frida Kahlo’s face displayed on unusual cuts by Reema Al Banna, it is all there for a meaningful reason.

Driven by a need for creativity, the 29-year-old Palestinian fashion designer from Sharjah quit her job as a graphic designer and started her fashion line, Reemami.

“I started my career as a graphic designer then I got sick of it because every time I would come up with something creative, the clients were very corporate so they would take the boring stuff only and remove the creative things,” she said.

“So, I decided to look for something else where I can take out my creative side.”

As a start, Ms Al Banna – who was born and raised in the UAE – enrolled at Esmod fashion school in Dubai at night, and went to her office job during the day.

Then she entered the design-a-dress competition with Sauce, a Dubai fashion brand, in 2009, and made it to the final.

“After that they told me, ‘Make a collection and we will sell it in the shop’. And things started rolling for me.

“Sauce helped me, and they pushed me to start my own label, and I created my first collection for them and started stocking for Sauce.”

Now, Ms Al Banna works with regional fashion boutiques and has been named Dove’s ambassador of the Middle East and fashion mentor for Samsung’s Launching People Initiative.

She was also named “most creative designer” at a fashion show in 2011, from nine other regional designers, and a finalist for the Arabia Fashion Prize award in 2015.

As she matured in her career Ms Al Banna decided that her work should not only stand out by having unusual, flamboyant designs, but by portraying social messages, and with artists who have special needs at times contributing to her line.

“Usually, I start off with a theme and a concept, and I expand on it. I try to tell a story and I don’t end the collection until the story has been told,” she said. “I use graphics, illustrations, different cuts and designs just to convey the messages.”

Reemami’s first themed collection involved Ms Al Banna collaborating with special needs artists at the Mawaheb from Beautiful People art studio. “They started creating portraits of [Mexican painter] Frida Kahlo,” she said. “They related to her because she was an artist struggling with issues with her legs, so they connected with her.”

“The pieces are very bold. They all have a unibrow because she had a unibrow – that’s her look.”

Reflecting on the success of that collection and positive feedback she received, she decided to connect a themed message to every collection.

Saddened by crises throughout the Arab world, last spring and summer season, Ms Al Banna released a “boxing collection”.

Influenced by her boxing workout, she illustrated elements of the sport, such as boxing gloves and punching bags, on her clothes.

“I wanted to show the world that not everything you can deal with through war, you can also talk and discuss things,” she said.