When Palestinian designer Faissal El-Malak decided to study fashion, he had one destination in mind: Paris.
El-Malak, who grew up in Qatar and Canada, headed to the French capital and ended up launching his own brand as a result of his graduation project — based on the creation of tights and leggings that were cut and sewn, rather than knit, so they would last longer.
“That was in 2009/10. I was 21 and eager to start on my own,” El-Malak told Arab News. “Although, in hindsight, I don’t necessarily think that was the right thing. But every experience teaches you something, so I don’t regret it.
“I saw the project through from start to finish — from the actual product to branding, to design, and even a website. I took care of everything. It was definitely a learning curve.”
He returned to Qatar after graduation, and spent time coming up with ideas for clothing that incorporated his roots in some way.
“Throughout my studies I wanted to create using the tradition and heritage of the Middle East to produce luxury womenswear,” he said. “I initially wanted to use Palestinian embroidery, but my research showed me lots of other textile traditions in the region. So I started exploring Yemeni traditional hand-woven fabrics, then Tunisian fabrics, raffia weaving in Morocco, jewelry from Tunisia and weaving from Egypt.
“Initially I was alone with limited means, so I couldn’t go crazy and do five countries in one collection. I started slowly, collection by collection, working with one artisan, then another, then working with several people to create a modern fashion collection,” he continued.
From those humble beginnings, El-Malak has managed to make a significant mark on the industry. In October 2015, he was one of the finalists in the first Dubai edition of “Who’s on Next?” — a competition run by Vogue Italia. He went on to win the DDFC/Vogue Fashion Prize for his Spring 2018 ready-to-wear collection.
One of the looks from that collection was acquired by London’s prestigious Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). “That was one of the most exciting things that has happened so far, to have recognition from such an amazing institution,” El-Malak said, adding that he thinks a childhood visit to the V&A sparked his interest in fashion in the first place.
In 2018, though, El-Malak took a step back from fashion. “What came next is what came first, which was to go back to a more general idea of creativity,” he said. “I always had a fascination and curiosity for fine arts — creativity beyond collections and garments. I was craving more, so I just took the jump and started doing other things.
“Since October 2019, I’ve been in the Shaikha Salama Emerging Artists Fellowship (SEAF). It’s given me that push to explore other mediums. I had (previously) been asked to submit work for exhibitions: I created two textile works that are part of the Maraya Art Center Collection and another that I presented at Dubai Design Week in 2018. All these things, looking back, were maybe shy attempts at being an artist,” he continued. “What I’m interested in is being creative, that’s why I took a step back from fashion as an industry. It’s really also about flowing with what feels right. It took me somewhere else, which was good.”
That newfound confidence led him to participate in the Sabeel competition to design drinking fountains for Expo 2020, which Dubai was scheduled to host next month, but which has now been postponed until 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the winners have been announced, the project itself is still under wraps, so El-Malak refused to share any details, but it’s clear he is excited by the win.
“I thought, ‘Let me try my luck.’ And then I thought of working with a dear friend, Alia bin Omair, who is a jewelry designer. Neither of us are architects or product designers — we were just two creatives with an idea. But we submitted it and won.”
The competition came shortly after El-Malak had shown a collaborative installation at Amman Design Week, incorporating tapestry, cement tiles and ceramic vessels.
“It was an interesting collaborative project where I brought in different people to contribute. I worked with a graphic design studio in Beirut to create motifs inspired by Palestinian embroidery, then with a textile designer friend to create a print, and then a ceramist. I created the collage of the tapestry, with screen printing and embroidery and all these different elements,” he said. “Finally, I got to work with my Palestinian identity. It was just freedom to explore and create.”