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Apr / May 2012
Full Reem Ahead

Writer: Ellen Hardy

Born in Iraq but brought up in the leafy surroundings of rural England since the age of eight, Reem Alasadi’s clothes combine rarified costume exuberance with cool urban chic.


The county of Kent - the Garden of England - is an affluent commuter belt, a lush and pleasant region well known for its cathedrals and churches, its orchards and busy market towns. Maidstone is one such town and possibly the last place you would expect to find yourself strolling along a riverbank, past canal boats and carefully clipped hedges, in pursuit of an Iraqi-born haute couture fashion designer whose ethereal, sustainable catwalk collections have wowed fashion show audiences from London to Tokyo. But then, from the tiny basement of a red brick house, there comes the whirr and clatter of a sewing machine going full throttle and inside, a seamstress is sifting through a pile of peach-coloured vintage crochet-work and creamy strands of wool, the chrysalis pieces of a fabric butterfly that she will transform into one of the cumulonimbus cardigans hanging along the walls.

This is the studio of Reem Alasadi and its contradictions go some way to explaining her pragmatic vision. Balancing three children and an international fashion career, you can understand when she says how much she prefers Kent to the buzz of London. “Love it, it’s perfect,” she declares. “Don’t need to see any people, just pretty dresses and knitwear.”

Born and brought up in Iraq, her family moved to Maidstone when Reem was eight, but the country of her early childhood remains vivid, especially memories of the sights and smells of visits to family members living in Bedouin tents. In her collections today, she draws from all those inspirations. When she talks, this small, slight figure with delicate features and huge eyes beneath a punk haircut, engages the listener rather than making statements, often pausing to search for the right word. “It’s like a magpie nest, isn’t it really?” she says about her style. “It’s quite eclectic.”

Alasadi started out at the age of 15 as an intern to another unlikely Maidstone fashion luminary, the high-street notable Karen Millen. She learned so much that by the time she was accepted at two of London’s top fashion colleges, Central St Martin’s and the London College of Fashion, she didn't see the point of giving up pay and practical experience for the classroom. “[Karen] taught me not so much how to design a collection,” says Alasadi, “but how to run it.” Good business sense has defined her path ever since. Does she regret not having a more classical design education? “No,” she says, “because I’ve done fine.”

Rather more than fine. Having opened her first retail unit in Maidstone when she was only 21, Alasadi eventually moved to Portobello Road, the home of all things antique and alternative in west London. Here she sourced for the big name fashion houses, which would buy pieces from her themed vintage collections or employ her as a design consultant. Stella McCartney, Prada, McQueen and Galliano were all among her clients. A thrilling position to be in, you might think, but eventually the desire to be publicly acknowledged for her own work led her to look further afield.

It’s typical of Alasadi that what she presents almost as an accident (“Tokyo could have been Timbuktu”) turns out to have been a canny move. After a family holiday where she noticed the lack of vintage outlets in Japan, she opened a store in Tokyo for five weeks a year. A pop-up shop by any other name (this was before the concept exploded) it sells around 2,000 garments annually during its short life and this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. In 2005, Alasadi began showing her collections at Tokyo fashion week giving her the platform to reach audiences beyond Europe. In 2007, her show Beautiful Agony was part of On|Off at London Fashion Week, and when we meet she has just returned from the Paris shows.

Long before sustainability was in fashion, Alasadi was diverting from mainstream design and manufacturing approaches. Inspired by the reality of her materials, her production is based on draping. She doesn’t do sketches or make any patterns. Instead, her designs grow organically, often inspired by leftover scraps, vintage or recycled garments that ensure that her studio produces next to no fabric waste. “I hate waste,” she explains. “All the little tiny bits and pieces will be picked up. We re-make it, we re-knit it and we use it for accessories. If [a piece of fabric] gets too small, then I’ll deliver it to my kids’ school and they can re-use it to make arts and crafts.” Not just her own sewing room scraps but leftover wool from yarn factories, mackintosh fabric, even fish skins from a wallet and bag factory in Iceland all make their way into the mix.

This doesn’t make her an eco-warrior. “Have you seen the size of my car?” she asks, laughing. “I fly everywhere. I have a big car because I have three kids, and I’ve just been to Paris and I’ve brought the whole collection. What do you want me to do, cycle with it? But I believe that we can all do a little.” She also economises on time, habitually showing both summer and winter collections together, breaking the seasonal boundary in the fashion world.

The garments that grow out of her unique inspiration and way with fabric are a bold, inventive and incredibly detailed mish-mash of punk and vintage with more than a touch of the Victorian about them. Be it a recycled catwalk collection like 2010’s Bubble and Squeak, all deconstructed 1980s silhouettes and bewitching layers of lace, or her robust ready-to-wear lines, there’s a sense of whimsy combined with eccentric textures that Alasadi will happily apply to menswear, children’s collections and interiors.

This year will see her defining the ready-to-wear and haute couture lines through re-branding and the opening of a brand new ‘House of Reem’ at a property in south London, a three-floor themed lifestyle experience she describes as “walking around a house where everything is for sale”. Against a global economic background of relative gloom, Alasadi has come into her own preaching the same mantra she has for years. When she started out, she says, people didn’t want to wear recycled clothes. “But they want to now, don’t they?” One-off pieces, too, are seeing a surge in popularity in the post-recession period.

“It’s kind of like our time,” she muses. “I’m doing this, it’s my living and I’m lucky that I love it. [But] if something doesn’t make me money, I’ll pack it up and do something else. I could do anything.”

Though she’s clearly a woman at the top of her game to whom such worries are mere abstractions, somehow, having met her, I don’t find that hard to believe.

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