Confluence of cultures in the Gulf inspires wearable art

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Wearable art: Shaima Shamsi’s fashion focuses on the Gulf’s heritage, offering threatened traditions from Saudi Arabia to Syria and beyond a new lease of life. (Supplied)
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Wearable art: Shaima Shamsi’s fashion focuses on the Gulf’s heritage, offering threatened traditions from Saudi Arabia to Syria and beyond a new lease of life. (Supplied)
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Wearable art: Shaima Shamsi’s fashion focuses on the Gulf’s heritage, offering threatened traditions from Saudi Arabia to Syria and beyond a new lease of life. (Supplied)
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Wearable art: Shaima Shamsi’s fashion focuses on the Gulf’s heritage, offering threatened traditions from Saudi Arabia to Syria and beyond a new lease of life. (Supplied)
Updated 07 August 2019

Confluence of cultures in the Gulf inspires wearable art

  • Third Culture Co was set up by Shaima Shamsi, an Indian who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia
  • The 29-year-old entrepreneur has been expressing her third-culture identity via fashion

DUBAI: A “third-culture kid” is a child who grows up in a culture different from the one in which his or her parents grew up. In a globalized world, where such an experience of childhood is all too common, the combination of the two identities can be socially isolating — or conversely, as in the case of Shaima Shamsi, enormously inspiring.
The 29-year-old, Saudi-raised Indian expat has parlayed her experience of growing up in the Gulf into a venture in wearable art with her all-inclusive fashion brand Third Culture Co.
Instead of making her feel isolated, the mixed identity of a third-culture kid has given Shamsi inspiration for a wealth of fashion concepts.
“I came up with the idea when I was in university in 2010. The idea behind it was more focused on third-culture individuals, and kids particularly, because that’s my background and what I had experienced,” she told Arab News.
“I wanted to put together something that would translate people’s stories through any medium.”
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Shamsi lived in London and Dubai before moving to Bahrain. The sense of being a global citizen has been one of the few constants in her life.
“I perceive the entire world as where I’m from,” she said. “And I’ve pitched in to do my part to tell stories that any global nomad of the 21st century can relate to.”
Shamsi has been expressing her third-culture identity via fashion, which has become the medium through which she narrates her stories and expresses her emotions.
“I felt that writing, or just one form of expression, wasn’t enough because the experience was so diverse,” she said. “There are many different ways in which people identify themselves as third-culture individuals. For me, the medium has been social dialogue. This is one way to describe my designs and collections.”
Third Culture Co. is all about social dialogue, but in the form of wearable art. The company’s latest collection aims to raise awareness about the harmful effects of single-use plastic.
Other collections have highlighted issues closely connected to life in the Gulf, such as displacement, alienation and water consumption.
Shamsi completed her bachelor’s degree in international business in London, and earned a postgraduate degree in management and creative industries, during which she specialized in emotional intelligence in entrepreneurs within the fashion industry.
“Doing that research helped me realize that in university we’re told you can do what you want in life, but we forget to take into account the psychological dimensions, including the possibility that we may encounter failure,” she said.
“You’re trained to react in a more practical manner because you’ve witnessed it much more clearly, and you’ve been trained to understand how to deal with your emotions.”
Last year, Shamsi launched a six-year project in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries on a topic close to her heart. It is an attempt to educate and inspire individuals about sustainability. The focus of the first project, in Jeddah, was water consumption in the Gulf.
“We’re practically beginning to consume more water than we have, and we don’t have the awareness that it’s a non-renewable resource,” she said.
“So the entire exhibition was curated to it, where we displayed infographics on the issue and installed denim jackets as artwork. Denim takes a lot of water to produce, so a part of the artwork was placed on the jackets to convey the message that we have a problem, and that it’s only together that we can have an impact.”
Shamsi’s second project focused on single-use plastic in the GCC countries. An exhibition organized by Third Culture Co. in Bahrain featured a biodegradable bag designed to carry cutlery on the go.
The social message was one of self-responsibility. The next exhibition is due to be held in Dubai on April 22, 2020.
Two other subjects that are close to Shamsi’s heart are the Gulf’s heritage and dying traditions. One of her collections, “Syriana,” uses a type of hand embroidery traditionally used in Syria.


 “It’s a dying form of art and I wanted to re-innovate it. I use ‘Syriana’ in fashion to help inform or educate people and do my bit to keep the tradition alive,” she said.
“I love museums, but there are many things that get tossed aside by the passage of time and the march of technology. I wanted the embroidery form to be available to future generations, for people to be able to touch the product and not just see it in a museum.”
Shamsi’s interest in cultures has driven to explore them in depth so they could be expressed through interesting narratives. “It was very fulfilling because something so simple, when put together, can truly have an impact on people’s lives and on public perceptions of Syria, Syrian artisans and Syrian heritage,” she said.
“We also used Syrian fabrics, which brought back to life something that was almost extinct.”
Another project of Third Culture Co. is “Najrani,” which is inspired by the Saudi region of Najran, where Shamsi collaborated with four grandmothers to explore the nature of the environment through their stories.
“They were powerful women, and the way they spoke of themselves and their childhood was inspiring,” she said. “It was all about the feminine spirit among the women of Najran. We took inspiration from a book, the landscape and their stories.
“The idea was to bring to life a particular kind of heritage, but in Najran the exercise had more to do with the stories and the landscape.”
Shamsi believes the potential for Middle Eastern narratives are endless. “For me, it’s not about picking up just any story. It’s about understanding, experiencing and then translating that experience so it can be felt the same way,” she said.
“The Third Culture Co. brand now focuses on heritage, with the emphasis on expression through meaning, purpose and value.”
Shamsi’s next project will zero in on Bahraini weaving and embroidery styles, including the tradition of palm weaving.
“I’d love to explore these elements within the region because I feel we’ve buried them below us,” she said. “It’s our duty to know more about the Middle East. I’d love to be able to work with organizations that can provide the support for discovering more about the region.
“As a small brand, there’s only so much we can do. We need to appreciate the value of what we have in this region and make the most use of it before sticking our heads out to see what’s trending in the world outside.”


‘Najrani’ collection

• Recognizes the strength and confidence of the women of Najran in collaboration with the eclectic fashion house Otkutyr. • Najran city is famous for its archaeological significance. • Old Najran was surrounded by a circular wall built of square stone with defensive balconies, and contained unique buildings. • Najran enjoys three different geographic landscapes: oasis, mountain and desert. ‘Syriana’ collection • Involves elements and materials of Breem, a hand embroidery form that has existed in Damascus for more than 120 years. • In collaboration with Saudi designer Nasiba Hafiz, Third Culture Co. explored innovation in the traditional ways of using Breem embroidery.

The MENA fashion designers dressing up social causes

Updated 24 August 2019

The MENA fashion designers dressing up social causes

  • How designers in the MENA region are making a different kind of fashion statement
  • The ethical fashion movement is spreading to the Middle East and North Africa

CAIRO: Fashion is about far more than just trendy outfits. The growing demand for ethical clothing is one example of how designers are seeking to leave a legacy beyond the runway.

The ethical fashion movement is spreading to the Middle East and North Africa. Recent initiatives include Talahum by UAE-based designer Aiisha Ramadan, who created coats that transform into sleeping bags for disadvantaged and refugee communities living without proper shelter.

In 2016, Cairo hosted ICanSurvive, an event to commemorate World Cancer Day. As part of the project, 32 cancer survivors were paired with fashion designers to help them create the outfit of
a lifetime.

“I consider this to be one of my biggest achievements,” said Egyptian couturier Ahmed Nabil, 28, one of the volunteers at ICanSurvive. “I still can’t let go of the moment I saw her crying from happiness when she got to wear her outfit at the event.”

Though a transformational experience for Nabil, this was not his first attempt at thought-provoking designs. He was only 23 when he launched his company, Nob Designs, in 2014 to begin a journey of exploration by designing clothes for unconventional causes and experimental concepts.

The company sells a diverse set of fashion pieces with designs that aim to inspire conversation. Nabil’s creations are much like art pieces at a gallery, but instead of being displayed on canvas, they are exhibited on t-shirts, tops, dresses and abayas.

His latest collection combines street fashion inspired by underground culture with Arabic calligraphy. The Halal Project endeavors to blur the lines between conservative and edgy to demonstrate that fashion designs can be accessible to anyone.

“It’s all about the idea of accepting one another regardless of differences,” Nabil said. “My main aim for this project is a call for all people to peacefully coexist.”

Nabil added that the shift towards tolerance is not something that just the general public needs to work on. Fashion designers themselves are sometimes biased in their perceptions.

Many millennial designers, particularly in Egypt, remain wary of exploring modest fashion, despite the trend’s rising popularity. Sometimes it is because they want to avoid defining themselves as conservative instead of being considered modern and trendy.

Fellow Egyptian designer Sara Elemary, who has been running her Sara Elemary Designs label for nearly a decade, agrees.

“Modesty is a big thing in Egypt. I can’t understand why they are neglecting it,” she said. “A woman doesn’t have to be in a headscarf to wear modest clothing. There are so many famous designers for whom modesty plays a big role in
their work.”

Meanwhile, events such as Dubai Modest Fashion Week have been promoting the concept and encouraging budding designers in the region to consider this trending domain.

“I believe that there’s a problem with modest fashion, but over the past two years, that issue has started to diminish as designers have incorporated more modest designs in their collections,” Nabil said.

The next step for him is getting into the couture domain with his long-awaited project, Nob Couture. The look of the new collection is still a mystery, but he seems determined to continue sending messages and starting discussions through his designs, which he said are inspired by his life experiences.

As for designers in the region, the time is ripe for them to start supporting the causes they believe in through their work. Whatever topic or fashion style they decide to pursue, they need to be fearless in triggering conversation in the Arab world with their creations.