The Backstory: Omar Kashoura at his studio
Over the summer I’ve been meeting up with designers who presented, in my view, a really exceptional collection during the London Collections: Men weekend in June, to find out the story behind the collection, and the imagination that created it.
Omar Kashoura, SS13.
Omar Kashoura is a designer whose work I’ve admired for some time, as a creator of genuinely elegant clothing for men. Attending one of his presentations for the first time was a definite highlight of the Collections for me, and I’m really thrilled to be including him in this series of conversations.
Our catch up a couple of weeks ago now, happily coincided with sufficient sunshine for us to sit outside in the communal garden outside his studio in Bow, East London, so technically, our interview happened there rather than in his studio. As with my chat with Lou Dalton a few weeks ago, my aim here is to present the natural flow of our conversation through words and pictures, rather than a straight, Q&A transcript, though after listening to the hour long recording of our chat there are some lovely segments I’ll quote verbatim.
We started off by talking about my review of Omar’s collection, and how impressed I’d been by the attention to detail of his supremely elegant salon show, from the literary overtones of the invite, to the venue, casting and styling.
SL: I’m keen to find out a bit more about that particular SS13 collection, but I know it’s in the past now, so I’d also be really interested to hear what you’re thinking about right now…
OK: You say it’s in the past, it is in terms of… it’s very much the way the industry is. But for me, its still now, I don’t feel like I’ve even absorbed what it was that we were trying to do and say, and I find that with all my collections. I think the most frustrating thing for me as a designer is that the minute you walk out of a show they’re like… ‘What’s next’?
SL: Does that frustrate you?
OK: Oh yeah, definitely… All designers spend hundreds of hours creating a collection. Mine’s particularly built on feelings and emotions and characters, I like to tell a story with what I do. It’s almost like your writing a novel, say, but if you were to write a novel it would last, it would go on and people keep reading it. But in fashion, the book’s closed as soon as you’ve done your show, whereas it’s almost just begun in a way, that’s how I look at what I do.
On stylists and his relationship with Julian Ganio
OK: I got asked to go give a lecture at LCF not that long ago, and I said actually it would be much stronger to do it with my stylist, because the collections and the brand is built so strongly together that design students should understand that relationship between the stylist and designer, and how important it is. Even for you, [referring to my interest in interviewing stylists] it might be nice to interview the two together, the stylist and designer…it’s the relationship isn’t it?, the two of them together. But can you even get them together?!
On the influence of the Beats in his recent collections
Inspirational image of Allen Ginsberg with fabric swatches, from the SS13 moodboards.
SL: How did the influence of the Beats come about in your work?
OK: My summer last year was really looking at… I’m not sure what spawned me to go to this era… but real 1970s. And for some reason, I really connected with that whole freedom and liberation, of everything, in society, art and sexuality and all these things. Looking at Woodstock festival… I was really inspired by Bruce Nauman who was an artist, also quite big in the ’70s, and it was very political. That was very much the end of the Beat era so I’d skimmed through the Beat poets, and decided I’d really like to go a bit deeper. So I went back and that was really my last winter, I looked at Beat and the Beat generation, that whole period in America, before the liberation of blacks and gays in society.
Proto gay bohemian, the young Ginsberg.
SL: And has that influence continued?
OK: It did, it’s continued into this spring season. I’ve really begun to change the way I work over the last couple of seasons, I still like to tell a story, or a theory, a question I have. But I’ve started to focus on the guy, rather than just the story. I realise, actually, my customer that I’ve been developing, is this thirties to forties year old guy. I’m really, really inspired at the minute by Robert Rabensteiner who’s the editor for L’Uomo Vogue. Just everything about him, his style, his look, everything. He’s the older spectrum, he’s probably in his 50s now, but of my customer, my ideal, how he was in his thirties. And he goes with this real Beat thing, its a bit bohemian, it’s a bit my personality, my life, the people I hang around with. All my friends are this kind of age, its something I really connect with more, so I’m interested to keep pushing and developing that.
The bohemian spirit of L’Uomo Vogue editor, Robert Rabensteiner was a key inspiration for SS13.
More examples of Rabensteiner’s relaxed elegance.
I’ve always liked literature and to research in that way with my collections. I used to write poems every season, every season I used to write a narrative that was almost in the form of a poem. Beat was kind of nonsensical really, but it meant something to them. The way I’d written my narratives was also in that form, but it wasn’t about drugs, sex, all these things that Beat poetry is about. I connected with it in a few more ways than I’d expected.
Another inspirational image of a youthful Ginsberg, with swatches and sketches.
On his heritage
SL: I’m interested to hear what influence you think your cultural background has on what you do…
OK: It’s a question that always gets asked. People are always interested, more so because I’m ‘Omar Kashoura’ and I talk the way I do [he has a strong Leeds accent] and don’t necessarily look so…Mediterranean, Arabic. I’m Arabic, I was born a Muslim, my Dad’s from Jordan, my mum’s English, I did live there only for a few years as a child. I had a very English upbringing, but I do believe, somehow, the make up of every person helps to build their… natural tendencies, let’s say. I’ve got a natural tendency towards rich things and I think that comes from my heritage and my background, which, in my brand, you see very much in the choice of colour and choice of fabric. But my design is very much Western, I trained at Saint Martin’s and London College of Fashion, so that then is the mix, which I think works quite nicely.
As a brand, as a young designer in London, no one is doing the type of product I’m doing, Lou [Dalton] is probably the closest, but hers still has a younger feel to it, a more British feel somehow, what I do is maybe a bit more Mediterranean, more European. The other designers, James Long, Christopher Shannon… it’s very London. So it’s quite interesting, I have a little niche, the tailored look. Baartmans & Siegel, I think they’re on a similar level to what I’m doing.
On the elegance of the Omar Kashoura brand
SL: I always think of what you do as being very ‘elegant’, not just how it’s styled, but the fabric choices, the way it flows, its not sportswear or just about shape…
OK: It a real natural thing for me actually. As the seasons develop you become more assertive about what you’re doing, and about yourself. I’ve been doing collections since I was twenty-one. You realise that it’s an extension of your personality. Everything in the clothes is about the way I am. I’m a little bit poetic, I’m a little bit flamboyant, but I’m still very masculine.
You’re completely right in what you say about it.. it can be very swish but it’s still really raw. I can’t explain how it comes, it’s my taste. It’s what pleases my eye, and as a designer you hope it pleases other eyes.
On the appeal of salon presentations
SL: The presentation had a real salon feel to it, very select…
OK: Just more initimate, yeah. I’ve done bigger shows. Two seasons running we were invited to show in Barcelona, last Spring/Summer I had the biggest production I will ever do for a while. We were showing with the biggest models, the catwalk was ridiculously long: it was in a university in Barcelona, the models walked fifteen metres, then down another five metres into a chapel. I think it can work with the product I do, but personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily what menswear is about.
Menswear for me is about colour, it’s about shape, it’s about quality, it’s about finishing. How can you connect with that when you’ve got five seconds?
In the past, we’ve done presentations which were even more salon style, where the guests can talk to the models and touch the clothes.
Most of the editors and press are the sort of age range I’m targeting, they want to be able to experience it, rather than just it flash by. I think its a much stronger way, because I believe that’s how menswear should be but it’s also how I want to build my brand.
On selecting materials
SL: How do you go about selecting your fabrics? That sounds really crucial to you, how does that happen?
OK: Just fabric shows. I heavily over research everything, I think that’s my personality, I always see way too many mills, I see way too many fabric shows. I have to cancel out every single option until I find that one thing that I’m really, really looking for. Most of the fabrics I use are from Italy, some from France and the wools are English. Fabric is so important for menswear, because it’s less about shape. Fabric informs the design. You can only come up with a slight idea for what you want a piece to be, but until you know the fabric it’s going to completely change. Once I have the fabric, I design then around the fabric and the finish. This season we used a thin shirting, so you had to form your design around the fact that sometimes you can see through it, you can see through the fabric.
SL: It feels like with Spring/Summer 13 you were really experimenting with texture, and also with print, the way you blew up some of the prints so some of them are larger versions of one another, and so on… How did that come about?
OK: I’s all about texture. This is something me and Julian have developed as a personal style. Whenever we meet, whenever we talk about menswear, it’s texture, it’s about colour, its about great colour, great texture, great fabric. This season especially, because it was the first fashion week for men, we both said, lets push the texture. It has to make an impact when it walks past, so playing on colour, playing on texture, playing with scale. What I do is very simple, a jacket’s a jacket, a shirt’s a shirt so a guy has to want to wear it.
Textures and different colours, its very easy to do. Everything we do, it’s important that it’s going to sell. We work ten till two a.m most days, for at least six weeks before a show, and all designers work so hard. There’s no point if its not going to resonate, for people to appreciate it. It’s like writing your novel that’s published, and nobody buys it It’s quite sad, you just put it all in a box and then do it all again…
SL: And what’s the reaction been like?
OK: We had the best reaction to date. It’s kind of weird. Every season you think ‘how do I do it better’? I’ve been really lucky, something seems to get better every season, down to experience and knowledge and all these things. The reaction has been really good from stores and press.
More on the target audience for Omar Kashoura
SL: What I noticed in the last season, both in the models being used and in magazine editorials, is that there’s a much wider age range, and also body types. With your collection it seemed like you really picked up on that zeitgeist…
OK: Well, five, ten years ago, it was all about this Dior guy, and I never liked it. It’s just personal taste. When I was sixteen I was hanging around with thirty year olds, I’ve always associated myself with this more established man, it’s what I’ve aspired to and admired, and that’s come about in my product. I’ve always wanted to push towards this customer, this target audience, but naturally as a young designer you design young.
I’m growing up now and that’s started to come across. This season I wanted to do a presentation where I really wanted the guests to feel ‘that could be me’. Because that’s what it’s about, you could see yourself being that bloke, walking that walk, wearing those clothes. I’d love to just have all my friends walking the collection, because it works. I think that’s how we got such a good reaction, all of it came together.
Summer’s quite a hard one, to keep an older image. Winter’s easy because it’s dark. I never work with black fabric, it’s too harsh, so I always work with chocolates or navy, but with summer I’ve generally gone a bit younger just because of the natural case of the lighter cloths. Consciously this season, I went for the richer tones, so rather than red go for a real good salmon, so it’s a slightly more mature palette. That teamed with the guys…
On using Christopher’s as a venue
SL: How did that venue come about? Is that somewhere you’d had your eye on? I thought it worked brilliantly, even the name Christopher’s was perfect…
OK: It’s one of Julian’s friends who owns the venue, so we were lucky to work with them… It’s got good history, it used to be a men’s club that was doing casino, before that it was a papier mache factory, its a really interesting building, ‘number one’, ‘Christopher’s’. It’s quite a difficult thing to find a venue that works with your brand. The venue really promotes the image of your brand, but it’s really hard as a young designer to find a venue that’s within your reach.
Meet Me in the Black Rock Desert.
On the influence of the Burning Man festival
OK: The collection was about meeting this poet in the Black Rock desert, it was about a Beat guy who went to the Black Rock desert. There’s a big festival called Burning Man, which it was inspired by, for it’s values and what it’s meant to stand for, which is about art and freedom of speech and expression and experience. I loved the idea of how people from all walks of life, bankers, to artists to lawyers, will meet in this place in the desert and build a city of fifty thousand people and then burn it down as if no one was ever there. But when they go back to their life, they’ll still take that sand with them…because everything is sand-covered.
I’ve never actually been, I’d really like to go, but I’ve done a lot of research. Even from people leaving messages, the whole idea was this guy, leaves this message, the collection’s called ‘Meet Me in the Black Rock Desert’, and then someone will find it, and you connect like that, that was the story, between the guy and his journey. Which is how we incorporated the knitwear, the textures, the broken up print, so it was almost like the journey that he went on and then came back into society. But all of that is really personal, mostly, in fashion, people just want the ‘wow’ factor, but for me the most powerful art is art that you can connect with emotionally.
The collection traces a link from the Beats to Burning Man festival.
More about his collaboration with Julian Ganio
SL: So it feels like your collaboration with Julian is really crucial?
I’ve known Julian one of the longest, we’ve been friends for years. We met in Trade [legendary London gay afterhours club, hosted at Turnmills]. He was at LCF as well, a couple of years above me, we just bumped into each other at Trade, we used to go every week, we were like brothers. I had a flat near Old Street so I had the base. We used to party, LA3, Trade, all these places. We’d run straight into college. He did parties, he ran Chunk, I used to do the bar for him. We’re very close, we’ve got a lot of history, we’ve always built everything together from the start. He’s so busy now as the Junior Fashion Editor of GQ Style that we’ve had to find a new way of working, we can’t just go for a beer and feed each other’s minds in the same way.
On being on the door at Horse Meat Disco
SL: It seems like being on the door is a great opportunity to see lots of men, how they look, how they move, how they dance. Do you think it influences what you do?
OK: Oh it’s so interesting that job! It’s like I’m at the theatre. Beyond the entrance there’s another entrance with curtains, and I just look on it like I’m at the theatre. It’s so interesting to watch… men. Men in general, about their duty, whether they’re having fun, or what mischief they’re getting up to. Most people are regulars, Horse Meat’s got a real diverse crowd, from the local Vauxhall people trolling between venues, to designers, like Wolfgang Tillmans, big photographers, big editors, a lot of students, fashion designers, its so interesting to see the different characters.
SL: Does that influence you?
OK: Yes, it does, it makes me question things. I can’t say the style does directly, half the time they’re wearing very little, or not quite… My team and my partner say I should wear more of my clothes, but it’s very hard in that environment. These characters, Holly Johnson… they don’t come in their day wear it’s their night wear. But that’s fashion for me, now, you can adopt these different characters. You can be a banker, you can be a club kid at the same time and nobody knows. I find that more interesting, looking at people and wondering where they’re from, and what they do in the day. A lot of them can’t go to work on a Monday as they’re there on a Sunday.
On selecting the music for his shows and collaborating with Luke Howard
SL: So this time you used Luke Howard for the music, is that something you’ve done before?
OK: Luke helped with the music last season, it was in Kettners, it was over two hours, we had somebody reading poetry, I was serving whiskey and ginger in coffee mugs, it was that sort of event, we just played jazz, which he helped put together. I’ve worked with Horse Meat for over five years now, they’re very happy to support us. I sometimes make things especially for them, they go around, they do a lot of events like for Chanel. All of them last season did a party for us as well, at East Bloc, with Lou [Dalton]. That’s London isn’t it? Nightlife is as important as day life.
SL: How does the show soundtrack come about? Dd you give Luke free reign or did you show him images?
OK: With the show I don’t control too much, its not my skill. Luke is a Burning Man fiend, he’s been about three times. We had to work with how it was going to be at a ten a.m Sunday morning slot, what would work with that venue. Take Me Home was our middle track, that comes from Burning Man. Luke gave me a whole list of music and [Baker Man] was such a sexy, masculine, interesting song, it was a really good ending song.
On casting the SS13 presentation
SL: And the casting of the models?…
That was just between me and Julian. I actually used three non-models. I had teams of people looking for models, I had a very specific brief. It was hard for us, because most of the models were out in Paris and because I didn’t want the young boys. One of the guys I’d met on Facebook, who was from Paris but was in London, another guy we met looking for venues in Covent Garden (Graham, the larger guy) and then a guy I saw in Horsemeat, I quite cockily said, “I’m gong to ask him to model” and it happened. It’s really important building that image, we’re looking to rework the same guys next season.
You want everyone to look easy, natural, whether they’re a model or not. A couple of them have already been picked up to do shoots in magazines from our show. That’s the thing when you do street casting, I know Julian has done it with Agi and Sam, another brand he works with, all of the guys are on model books now.
Looking ahead to next season
SL: What are you thinking about now?
OK: I’m thinking about a holiday! Actually, we’re really busy with production. This is the first season that we haven’t had the show in September, it’s brilliant. We did the first collaboration footwear line with Purify, they’re very ahead and on the ball. I’ve already seen new fabrics for next season, but I don’t want to get complacent. We have to have the new collection ready before Christmas.
An incredible fabric, woven from horse tails.
On the collaboration with Bernstock Speirs
SL: You did hats in the last collection, how did that collaboration work?
OK: I did it the season before as well, with Bernstock Speirs. I like to just go there for a cup of tea and a chat. They are legendary, their brand started when I was born, 1982. I feel so lucky to do a range with them, with all the things they’ve done and their history. It just finishes it off, when you’re doing menswear it’s about the wardrobe, the package. This is the thing Julian’s always said as well, it’s about your shoes, your accessories, your bag, your hat, but it’s so hard as a young designer to bring all that in together, the only way is to collaborate. Bernstock’s such a good one because they’re hat makers but not in a traditional sense, it’s very cool, very edgy but they can still make quite a traditional looking hat, but in a new way.
On the retail scene
SL: Did you pick up new sales this season?
OK: We had a lot of interest from Japan, China and Korea for the first time in a while. A store in Canada this season. Liberty, Browns and Harvey Nichols are the best places for us to be in London, at Liberty that whole room is our customer. London’s not got any shops to sell in. Traveling a lot with work, New York has so many independent shops, it’s such a high street culture here. It’s quite frustrating, especially as an English designer, at our level we can’t self sustain. It’s perceived as such a fashionable city, London, but people don’t wear what people think London creates, a lot of it is down the stores, they’re buying Italian brands.
My ideal is to have my own store, and sell direct to customers. That’s the dream, really for me. But not many young designers get their own store… We are routing for some millionaires, lottery winners!
Omar is clearly inspired by bohemian spirit for living, whether that’s directing the flow of dancers beyond the curtain at HMD or gazing into a heat haze at an imaginary Burning Man, but this love of bohemianism is firmly linked to a mature sense of style. These aren’t clothes for club kids, but for men with youthful spirit, who don’t need slogans to bring the journey home with them. I love the stories behind the clothes, the richness of the fabrics, and Omar’s eye for colour. There’s also an essential sexiness to an Omar Kashoura piece, a knowingness about dressing men that his collaboration with stylist Julian Ganio makes pitch perfect. Like Omar himself, his brand is very individual, a bit romantic, a bit poetic, and refreshingly free of the too-obvious codes for ‘masculine’ that some designers might overuse.