Matches Fashion

DESIGNERSFashion Trust Arabia Award: Best In Class

Introducing the five award-winning designers from 2019’s inaugural competition, who are working to diversify the fashion industry in the Middle East and beyond.

Words by Cat Tsang.

With a roll call that includes heavyweight names such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, the Middle East’s reputation is indisputable when it comes to red-carpet dressing. But while the region’s ultra-glamorous gowns receive the recognition they deserve, appreciation for the craft of emerging designers has been distinctly lacking. In 2019, a new initiative from the British Fashion Trust’s co-founder, Tania Fares, aimed to change that. ‘The international fashion world knows of a select few fashion designers that originated from the Middle East,’ explains Fares, who was born in Lebanon. ‘There was so little being done to highlight the talent within the region, and lack of representation. There was no platform to bridge the MENA region [Middle East and North Africa] with the international fashion industry, and I knew it was time to do something about it.’

Fares’s solution was to create the unique Fashion Trust Arabia Award, in partnership with Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, to shine a light on the region’s underexposed design talent. In addition to prize money, the winners were given access to a global audience through MATCHESFASHION, which is launching the latest collections from each label.

With a prestigious panel of 24 industry experts deliberating the winners – 2019’s judges included designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, supermodel Natalia Vodianova and journalist Sarah Mower – the awards look set to become a highlight of the fashion calendar. Fares is hopeful that the initiative heralds a new era, not just for young designers, but for the region as a whole. ‘Whether it’s international or MENA designers, I believe what everyone is looking for is creativity and hardworking individuals who can make a great impact on the fashion scene,’ she says. ‘I hope that [the Award] will encourage Arabs to come back to their roots and produce more in this part of the world because they feel more supported with more recognition.’

Last year’s competition, the first to take place, produced five outstanding winners across four categories – ready-to-wear, footwear, accessories and jewellery – thanks to their unique combination of innovative design, traditional techniques and ethical practices. Following in the footsteps of 2019’s champions are this year’s recently announced winners – Omer Asim, Yousef Akbar, Andrea Wazen, AMMANII and Zeid Hijazi – who will be continuing the Award’s legacy and will themselves be supported by MATCHESFASHION in the coming year. Until then, here’s what you should know about the class of 2019 and their labels as we introduce their latest collections.


Generations of storytelling and local village customs, conveyed through the humble stitch, lie at the heart of Lebanese designer Salim Azzam’s four-year-old label. With craftsmanship on the wane in his homeland, Azzam – who has no formal fashion experience, instead completing his master’s degree in visual communication – sought out women in Lebanon’s Chouf district to realise his vision. ‘My inspirations come from the mountains – that’s my people, my community. It made sense for me to look around and see what’s missing in my society and ask what I can do as a designer to push it further,’ Azzam explains. His clean-lined separates are offered in gently muted tones, intricately detailed with handcrafted embroidery and illustrations. ‘Each piece is made by a different woman, who has her own speciality and way of doing a specific stitch. There is so much soul and a personal connection in every single piece.’


Sustainability has never been just a marketing-savvy buzzword for Roni Helou: the Beirut native has campaigned for human and animal rights and environmental awareness throughout his life. Now, with what he calls his ‘activist brand’, he’s made it his personal mission to educate and inspire his customers by promoting the values of eco-friendly materials, ethical practices and conscious design processes (only deadstock and vintage textiles are used in his collections). Focused on giving back to his homeland and community (he donates a percentage of profits to different NGOs every collection), his production line consists wholly of local artisans and artists. ‘I want to start a programme to bring back youth to our industry, to get young people interested in becoming tailors and patternmakers, not just designers,’ says Helou of his plans for the future. ‘We need people who work with their hands.’


The starting point for Zyne co-founders Zineb Britel and Laura Pujol was the reinvention of the Moroccan babouche – updating the traditional beaded slipper with modern weaving techniques. Every season, the label offers two designs in different colours and shapes: one flat, constructed from sustainable raffia and natural dyes; the other a low-heeled evening style adorned with metallic threading, crystals and beading. However, it’s not only the continuation of their heritage that the duo is determined to protect. Calling themselves a ‘sisterhood community’, they employ local craftswomen at every stage; from the raffia weaving and sewing to the embellishment and embroidery. ‘It’s about creating a product that really empowers the women behind it,’ says Britel. ‘It’s giving them a job, an education, a sense of community. They’re part of a movement.’ The Fashion Trust Arabia Award will enable the co-founders to further invest in their own skilled co-operative, bringing their female artisans together while also providing training and education.


The mysticism and allure of ancient Egypt is where Ahmed Sabry and Daki Marouf, the duo behind Sabry Marouf, began their design story. ‘There are thousands of years of history and artistic expression in Egypt, but it hasn’t been properly modernised for today,’ explains Sabry. ‘We’re really trying to synthesise East and West.’ Working with a small pool of artisans in Egypt, Italy and Spain, the pair are pushing the boundaries of traditional design in terms of shape, colour and material innovation. Weaving a narrative of unearthed artefacts and mythology (they describe their woman as ‘a thought leader, a non-conformist, a female Indiana Jones’), inspiration comes courtesy of everything from hieroglyphics and archaeological sites to Tutankhamun’s mask, resulting in bags that tread the fine line between quiet luxury and attention-grabbing sculptural pieces. ‘We’re very much storytellers,’ says Marouf. ‘We use the culture and inspiration we’ve been left with to create something new, to define our Egyptian identity through design.’


With their grandparents and parents in the fine jewellery business, Indian-Lebanese siblings Maya, Meena and Zeenat Mukhi believe that following in their footsteps was ‘written in the stars’. Working from their Beirut studio with gold, silver and platinum, as well as precious and semi-precious gemstones, each covetable, conversation-starting Mukhi Sisters piece has its roots in the trio’s personal experiences. ‘Our collections are inspired by what we are going through in life and our stories,’ explains youngest sister Zeenat. ‘We don’t follow trends; we stay true to ourselves.’ Each of the sisters has her own domain within the company: Maya is a designer and executive director, Meena is head of PR and Zeenat also designs and oversees the label’s website, making for a dynamic, female-centric spirit that resonates with the label’s loyal clientele. ‘Our clients are working women, just like us,’ says Zeenat. ‘Our pieces have stories behind them – by sharing them, we create a community.’