WRITER: Sara White Wilson
It is impossible to be indifferent about Shourouk Rhaiem’s sparkling accessories. Bold, bright and kaleidoscopic in colour, they are the ultimate anti-depressant, cocktail conversation piece and protest against financial crisis.
From her studio, Shourouk Rhaiem, a soft-spoken Parisian of Tunisian origin recounts her company’s rapid ascent over the last five years. She says her first and most enduring clientele are Middle Eastern women but judging by the legions of international celebrities embracing her work, she is most definitely an international phenomenon. With such personalities as Japanese Vogue’s extravagant editor-at-large, Anna Della Russo, Lady Gaga and First Lady Michelle Obama endorsing her wares, she must feel on top of the world these days.
A perennial favourite with Net-à-Porter, the online fashion retail reference, Shourouk has previously collaborated with Jean Paul Gaultier and Shanghai Tang. This year she created a capsule collection for Swarovski, which is available across their network of boutiques.
Rhaiem started her career as a fashion stylist, working in the studios of Chloé and John Galliano in Paris and Roberto Cavalli in Florence. “I think it was Lanvin who made this kind of jewellery trendy. For years, they made their famous pearls strung on large ribbons,” she says, fingering one of her colourful creations. “Before that, big jewellery was passé, dusty. Prada has always done this type of jewellery but it was Lanvin that made such jewellery fashionable, sparkling and glamorous. They started this wave and I rode it. I was the first to do only outsized jewellery.”
Her pieces certainly are large. There are giant pearls attached with baby pink cording and a ‘grande parure’ set on PVC backing, lined with black satin, which features symmetrical bursts of clear and coloured Swarovski crystal clusters. Her unique palette has become clearly recognisable but in the early days, Rhaiem couldn’t find the colours she was looking for in Swarovski’s supply. So she modified them herself, dying the crystals to a perfect matte white or a shiny, florescent yellow, pink or green and then pairing them with crystals dyed in delicate pastels, also in matte finishes. Lustrous pearls and prismatic crystals, coupled with a mixture of glossy and matte finishes lend her designs an unusual visual texture.
“I love colour in general. I am an Arab after all and we adore colour. Traditional clothes used to always be coloured, it was extremely rare that a woman was dressed totally in black,” she gushes. “I was bathed in this Oriental universe.”
Rhaiem also harbours an enduring passion for and fascination with India, “where there is a real explosion of colour”, she adds, shiny-eyed. Raised by a mother who was addicted to Bollywood films, she travelled to the country as soon as she could and has returned as often as possible ever since, sometimes up to three times a year. She also credits the multicultural mix of Paris as a constant source of inspiration. “Paris is beautiful, very rooted. But then there are its waves of immigration, it is this melting pot that inspires me. I love the city and its population.”
Rhaiem is shaped by the cycles of French fashion and the compelling influence of Parisian chic. Releasing two collections a year, she has expanded her portfolio with bejewelled baseball caps, leather handbags and turbans, although necklaces and earrings continue to be the brand’s mainstay.
In shape and form, her jewels recall the ‘grande dame’ of another era, the kind of woman who adorned herself lavishly before a night at the opera. “I’m inspired by classic European jewellery but with a twist. The Cartier parure, a strand of diamonds, princess necklaces, the jewels of Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Taylor. I’m also attracted to Indian jewellery but the kind with a European influence, like the famous private commissions by Cartier for the Maharajahs,” she continues. “I don’t use precious stones but I love to borrow from high jewellery and to recreate those ideas in fluorescent colours, with sequins and rhinestones.”
As luxuriant as her pieces may be, they are remarkably light. For this reason, they are perhaps most provocative when worn casually by day. “I don’t like to wait for an occasion to wear something particular. If I want to wear something which shines in the middle of the afternoon, I do it. I encourage women to do the same. I like big jewellery on big knits. I find this way of cocooning oneself with big pieces very pretty.”
Rhaiem’s jewels are definitely statement pieces but they are also a statement about a new sort of elegance, one that both obeys and breaks rules at whim. “I’m never in the past but always in the now. Women are active today, they work and travel, they can’t wear heavy things. It’s true that the classic image of the Parisian was Catherine Deneuve – elegant and distinguished – but there was also Loulou de la Falaise with her turban and big jewellery, her craziness, her vision of the exuberant muse.”
Most Parisians today are more Deneuve than de la Falaise, understated and fashionable within the bounds of conservative trends but Rhaiem speaks to the world’s dream of what they imagine the real Parisiènne to be – an elegant conduit of French creativity, in poise and attire.
“When we began the brand, everyone said my company would be a total flop because it was the middle of the financial crisis, life was grey and morose. People were designing jewellery that was understated and small. Then I came along and bam! Swarovski! Colour!,” she says impishly. “I got clients immediately. It was clear that buyers and boutiques really wanted something different.”
Lost your job? Country going down the tubes? Raining when it should be sunny? Cat doesn’t love you any more? Don’t cry. Go theShourouk way. Put on something big, colourful and sparkly then go out and carpe that diem.
WHO Tunisian-French jewellery designer
WHY Her colourful, Swarovski-studded oversized pieces dared to be different and as a result they started a new movement of bold, inexpensive fashion jewellery.