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Apr / May 2014
One to Watch

WRITER: Sylvia Byatt

Saudi-born Hatem Alakeel wants us to change the we look at thobes, suits and womenswear. With his fresh take on traditional clothing, the designer is breaking new ground this year as he launches his collection in Europe.


Born in Saudi Arabia and based between Jeddah and Dubai, Hatem Alakeel is an anomaly in the world of Gulf fashion. And not because he built his brand with no formal fashion training. After all, the wannabe who is declared a ‘designer’ before even producing a collection is a common regional trope. He’s an anomaly because this June, he will hold his first show at the British Fashion Council’s London Collections: Men.

The ready-to-wear show, which will take place on the second day of menswear fashion week at the Bulgari Hotel, is new ground for the fashion designer and is his first attempt to break into the European market.

“My ultimate ambition is to be known as a global designer,” the 35-year-old explains simply. “Not to be labelled a ‘thobe designer’ or a ‘regional designer’, which is common when you’re from the Gulf but just a designer. That, and to change perspectives of tradition around the world.”

Alakeel first made his name when he launched his brand - Toby by Hatem Alakeel - in 2006. The line of contemporary kanduras grew out of his desire for an alternative take on traditional Gulf menswear. “I remember I was working in a bank, hating what I was doing with my life. I was amazed by how limited men were when it came to wearing traditional dress every day. I wanted something more, which is when I started designing my own.”

His debut collection was traditional, with a twist. Where the typical thobe is a simple tunic-style affair, with an open collar and little detailing, Alakeel’s introduced stiff, button-down collars never seen before. Some even came with double-cuff sleeves while later iterations have combined a top half that looks like a Western shirt under a flowing kandura, partial jackets stitched into the thobe and zippered, skirt-like affairs paired with short shirt tops.

What was most unique though, was Alakeel’s attention to the silhouette. Much like a suit tailored to fit, these thobes were crisp. And flattering. “I’ve always loved fashion and paid a lot of attention to investing in sharp, well-fitted suits for when I was travelling in Europe or the US,” he explains. “I didn’t see why I couldn’t look as sharp and snappy when I was back home, in Saudi Arabia.”
An eye for tailoring and finish (possibly the result of boyhood trips to Rome with his mother every summer to shop), coupled with the best quality fabric from Italy and a team of skilled craftsmen, turned Alakeel’s dream into a reality. His clothes became an instant hit, first in the banking community and then the rest of Saudi Arabia and he subsequentlyopened his first boutique in the Kingdom, a year later in 2007.

At his debut runway show in Dubai, Sheikh Majed Al Sabah, founder and then chief executive of Kuwait’s Villa Moda, bought the entire collection. Abruptly, the designer became a regional name. “I like to think that what I’m doing is like Savile Row for thobes,” he says modestly. “That is, making bespoke, well-crafted pieces that are simple, yet wearable on all occasions, not unlike a suit.”

While his contemporary thobes are still the core of his brand, the designer has moved into more Western-style clothing in the past few years. He now produces shirts, suits and tuxedos, all with details that echo his heritage. The shirts range from casual – think muscle-T fits and epaulette-style snaps on short sleeves – to more formal examples, made out of pinstripe panels arranged at aesthetic angles to each other, in rich colours or with the closed collars and linear embroidery you’ll find on the cuffs and plackets of traditional thobes.

A host of celebrities have been spotted in Alakeel’s designs over the few years. “Of course, it’s flattering when someone in the public eye chooses to wear my designs but what I’m really excited about is the breaking down of perceptions people may have around traditional clothing,” he explains. “It’s exciting seeing someone, anyone, wearing a thobe, who normally wouldn’t. I like breaking down barriers in fashion.”

Alakeel is also experimenting with a collection for women. For the past few years, he has produced a capsule collection especially for Ramadan. Made of lighter, more airy fabrics – chiffon, lace and silk have figured in previous collections -  they are designed to work as well by night, as they do by day. Conceived almost as kanduras for women, they’re even more tightly tailored. Mandarin-collared, open-necked, some are designed to be worn as cloaks, sleeveless and open at the front, while others come with belts that give them more the appearance of a dress. Long, flowing and often asymmetrical (one shoulder bare, for example), the Indian, Japanese and European influences are hard to miss.

“I’m trying to do the same thing with womenswear that I do with menswear, which is to reinvent tradition,” he says before revealing that Qatar’s Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned and British artist Daphne Guinness are both inspirations. “Womenswear is something I love doing, but I’m taking baby steps. I want to do it right.”

So for now it’s menswear that remains at the forefront of this ambitious designer’s itinerary. Alakeel’s dream is to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Armani and Ralph Lauren. “I’m really inspired by designers who have created a brand and then expanded it into different areas like architecture, interiors, homeware, anything really,” he says. “That, for me, is my ultimate dream.”

While a Hatem Hotel may be a few years off, he is opening a new boutique in Riyadh at the end of this year and there are plans for one in Dubai. Baby steps, perhaps but two more towards realising Alakeel’s long-term vision.


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