Arabic calligraphy may be prominent on book covers and gallery walls, but this age-old art form is becoming increasingly popular among apparel and accessory enthusiasts.
Many local brands weave calligraphic strokes into everything from streetwear to statement dresses.
What’s in a word?
Head to the recently opened That Concept Store in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, and you’ll see an assortment of perspex clutches. Some feature the keffiyeh headscarf print, while others feature the word “love” in bold Arabic calligraphy – an art that has always appealed to Palestinian designer Meera Toukan.
“I believe words written in calligraphy have powerful meaning, and the way they’re written makes them even more appealing and helps me connect with my roots,” says Toukan, who launched her eponymous brand in 2014.
“It’s art and it’s heritage. I like its traditional character, but it’s versatile and can easily be adapted to make it more suitable for the modern consumer. »
Toukan also stamps words such as “peace” and “freedom” on his claws.
“The reason why I stick to these three pillars is that I always want freedom, peace and love in all its forms, in the Middle East and in the world,” Toukan said. The National.
The Arabic words for “peace”, “patience” and “truth” also adorn dresses from Canava, a brand of Nisreen Krimed. Her fabrics, handmade in Dubai, feature calligraphy-covered muslins layered over newspaper prints and maps of Damascus and Jerusalem.
She says the words she chooses reflect timeless virtues and experiment with their scale and placement.
“The abstraction of images into words also has meaning in the form itself,” says Krimed, whose passion for design and “manipulation of clothes” was sparked as a child, watching her mother and her sisters sew clothes.
Layered Meanings and Messages
While some designers are experimenting with layering fabrics, others are pondering the layered meanings of Arabic words. Nawal Masri is the founder of streetwear label Exhale, which collaborates with artists, most recently an Arabic calligrapher who goes by the pseudonym illm.
Arabic letters fill the sketched silhouette of praying hands, which features on the back of a hooded prayer blanket from the collaboration.
“The praying hands in Arabic calligraphy act as your wings to fly higher,” says Masri. “I wanted to bring to life the vision of designing breathable, minimalist prayer garments that will leave us in clarity and comfort during prayer, to present ourselves to Allah with beauty, not materialistically, but emotionally.”
Exhale illustrates Arabic phrases in various typographic themes, often related to current events. A collaboration with calligrapher Diaa Allam, for example, is an ode to the Emirates Mars mission, and features the words “nothing is impossible” in Arabic.
A celebration of diversity and unity
These designers believe that Arabic calligraphy can be an inspiring and unifying art form, as well as an intimate reflection of cultural beliefs and roots.
“Using language in my designs is how I stay true to my heart,” says Masri. “The clothes you own end up representing you, and what we choose to represent ourselves affects our mood, attitude, confidence, performance, and psychological state.”
Perhaps that’s why Arabic calligraphy is all the rage, not only in the Middle East but also in the West, where brands such as Zidouri (which offers Arabic embroidery on streetwear and jewelry) are flourishing. Arabs and Muslims in these regions are often marginalized communities, but wearing calligraphic clothing can be a sartorial statement of pride and political or religious allegiance.
“Which makes [the language] even more beautiful are the dialects and accents used in different countries – yet we all write it the same way, and that’s what unites us,” says Toukan.
“Many millennial Arabs classify themselves as ‘third culture kids’; it makes our generation interesting. I want to create fashion pieces that resonate with this generation, but also showcase our rich heritage to the world.
Fashion is often political, and in a world where young fashion enthusiasts imbue their style with emblems of culture, heritage and faith, Arabic calligraphy makes a fashionable yet touching statement.
“Everything is impactful if it connects with its audience,” says Emirati fashion designer Fatma Al Mulla, known for her bold and graphic dresses, kaftans and accessories, often stamped with ironic Arabic phrases.
“The beautiful language has words with such deep meanings that in some cases they cannot be translated – they are rooted not only among Arabs, but also among Muslims around the world.”
Custom pieces for a personal touch
Al Mulla’s latest designs fuse his Arabic pop culture aesthetic with decadent calligraphy.
“Being a brand born in Dubai, I am forced to have the language printed in my designs,” she says. Her customers can customize their dresses with dazzling oversized lettering or initials, making them conversation starters.
“Embroidered letters take a lot of work, usually three to ten hours, depending on the size the customer orders,” she says. “They are padded, fabric is added for support, and then the beading begins. Bead colors are also fully customizable for the customer.
Personalization is proving to be a popular service, given the power of words; Toukan also personalizes its Plexiglas pouches with Arabic and English letters.
The universal appeal of language
While Arabic calligraphy may naturally resonate with speakers of the language, all designers say they are happy to see their work attracting non-Arab clients as well.
Masri believes the calligraphy, being a statement in itself, “magnetizes” those who encounter it, whether or not they can read it, while Toukan describes it as “catchy” and “intriguing” to non-Arabs. “It leaves the consumer wanting to know more about culture, norms and heritage.”
Krimed echoes Masri when she says that Arabic, in its tangible, calligraphic form, offers an authentic and accessible dose of culture to non-Arab consumers, concluding that “the aesthetics of calligraphy allow it to be the one of the easiest ways to immerse yourself in a cultural experience, even if you don’t read or speak the language”.
Updated: August 17, 2021, 10:57 a.m.