A certain select segment of Arab and Middle Eastern fashion labels has been catapulted to fame and has garnered sartorial glory for decades now. Lebanese designers Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, and Reem Acra, for instance, are some of the most recognisable names in the global fashion industry, and they have transformed the face of haute couture and reached millions of celebrities and fashion icons around the world.
Less known however, are the more recently established, smaller, ready-to-wear local Middle Eastern brands - and there are a treasure trove of them scattered across not only the region, but around the world. Many of these brands, whether they are based in the MENA region or headed by Arab founders or designers abroad, produce handmade and unique items of clothing - and are often overlooked. With the sweeping onslaught of the fast fashion wave in the past decade that ushered in the Zaras and Forever 21s of the world, coupled with the even larger wave of globalisation saturating economies, those smaller, local establishments are often buried, underneath heaps of Made-In-China garments, or on the other hand, beneath the glamour of Lebanese haute couture that stole the limelight.
These local brands also often strive to keep a human connection in that – often inhumane – cycle of consumption, either through aiming to empower certain minorities – like women and the LGBTQ+ community, for instance – or through empowering those behind the sewing machines, rather than just those on the other side of the coin – namely, the consumers.
From labels that reclaim rich Arab heritage through textile work and local manufacturing, to those that are reclaiming the present, here are 20 ready-to-wear fashion brands, founded by Arabs, that are both consumer-friendly and, frankly, really cool, and need to be on your radar.
Jeux de Mains
This one was shouted out by none other than the legend herself, not just of music but, one might say, more recently, in the age of Instagram, of modern fashion: Beyonce. In an Instagram post, she sported this emerging Lebanese brand’s matching suit, featuring its trademark colour-block pattern in a palette of blue, burgundy, and pink. Founded by Beirut-born Salim Cherfane in 2018, Jeux de Mains is a modern, “playful” brand that, in its latest collection, incorporated actual scans of the designer’s brain waves as he experienced different emotions. The idea of the brand – and this collection in particular – is to make a unique imprint on each item of clothing that is literally infused with the designer’s being – talk about intimate – and also to be “an invocation and a call to feel.”
Visit Jeux de Mains' website for more.
Gaza-based Meera Adnan, founded by Meera Albaba earlier this year, is a nostalgic nod to Palestine’s past. Drawing on the attire of Palestinians before the first uprising in 1987, Adnan’s pieces are timeless and chic. That put-together and classical vibe is juxtaposed with the setting of Gaza, war-torn and ravaged – a symbol of Palestinian people’s resilience amid the occupation. The eponymous brand is yet to release its first collection, but is already working on keeping the textile industry in Palestine alive and reclaiming the narratives around Gaza through its apparel.
Visit Meera Adnan's website for more.
Founded in 2016, Maya Eco is an environmentally-friendly, minimal Kuwait-based brand, making earthy feminine clothes – outerwear, sleepwear, and accessories – that considers itself a part of the “slow fashion” movement. The emergence of slow fashion, which is gaining momentum across the world and just as much in the Arab world, is about literally “slowing” down the consumption process, to think about how a piece of clothing should be made, and how it can be sustainable. It goes against the trend-craze of most fast-fashion enterprises whose labour processes are usually unethical and whose products end up mass produced and then discarded as soon as the trend dies down. Maya Eco, whose products are ethically manufactured in Egypt, upholds that practice of slow-fashion in its making of each of their items.
Visit Maya eco's website for more.
Palestinian designer and activist Yasmeen Mjalli has embarked on a whirlwind of a journey across the region since BabyFist’s very first jacket – with the words “#NotYourHabibti” stitched on its back – went viral two years ago. A brand designed from its inception to empower women and to fight all forms of gender-based abuse, violence and oppression, its clothes carry messages of equality and empowerment not only in its aesthetics, but in its very fabric. Mjalli is working with local manufacturers in Gaza in an attempt to rebuild its textile industry – which is suffocating due to the Gaza siege – while donating 10% of proceeds from sales to various food, clothes and school supplies drives in Palestine, as well as to the cause of women's self sufficiency. It also plays an active role in organising workshops and support groups as "the conduit for forging a support system between women who are struggling with or frustrated with the same things," as Mjalli told us in an interview earlier this year. That includes a full-fledged menstrual education campaign aiming to eradicate the taboo around menstruation in the Arab world.
Visit Babyfist's website for more.
Anwar Bougroug founded this label in 2016 after moving back from Norway to Morocco and re-discovering his love for artisanal craftsmanship. A genderless, unisex brand, bougroug celebrates diversity – of all kinds. Blending Scandinavian minimalism with Moroccan craftsmanship and aesthetics, bougroug’s driving force is bridging worlds and staying true to the fluidity of reality – be that gender, sexuality, or culture.
Visit bougroug's website for more.
Coded Nation started with two Saudi sisters, Instagram influencers Thana and Sakhaa Abdul (a.k.a. the Abduls) who launched an online boutique as a platform for emerging designers to show and sell their work. By 2018, it had snowballed into an 80,000-follower-strong platform on Instagram, and a bold, somewhat chaotic fashion brand – a reflection of Arab millennial experiences. Partnering up with the region’s diverse, creative talent to create eclectic, expressive clothing, the Abdul sisters made their brand into a much-needed platform and podium on which Arab youth can express themselves.
Visit Coded Nation's website for more.
Tala Barbotin Khalidy
French-Lebanese designer Tala Khalidy developed an interest in embroidery from a young age. She then grew up to create unisex garments that utilise different fabrics (most notably upcycled denim, which for her, signifies a tool of independence, especially for women) and the healing power of embroidery. Founded in 2018, her brand, with collections such as Sira – drawing on the Arabic word meaning biography – is deeply personal and reflective. It also draws from workshops that she organised in collaboration with Womankind, an NGO that caters to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, that brought together women of different backgrounds and ethnicities to practice embroidery as a tool for healing trauma.
Visit Tala Khalidy's website for more.
Late for Work
Moroccan designer Youssef Drissi’s boundary-pushing brand prides itself in being everything at once – both formal and informal, “classic and modern, and masculine and feminine,” as he describes it to Mille Magazine. Drawing on the aesthetic of work attire, but then flipping it on its head, Drissi’s label is refreshingly subversive and versatile.
Visit Late for Work's website for more.
A pioneer of the socially - and environmentally - conscious brand, Lebanese designer Roni Helou established his brand in 2016 by first, digging through dead stock of old factories to avoid creating more waste than what is already produced out of the fashion industry. Taking that eco-friendly vision even further, he captured his fashion line in one of his shoots against the backdrop of Lebanon’s looming and ever-growing “garbage mountain.” His clothes - inspired often, as he says, by "sports [which] unite us," as he told us in an interview - are also characterised by their "tailored constructed/deconstructed androgynous aesthetics."
Visit Roni Helou's website for more.
MaykaThis brand, founded by Egyptian designer May Orfy, and based in Dubai, is an endearing ode to sisterhood. Drawing on her own experiences with her twin of styling similarly then getting upset about it (an experience universally relatable to most siblings), each product of hers comes paired with a “sister” product that is similar but not identical – a playful nod to her own childhood. With variations of blazers, coats, and other fashion-forward staples, Mayka is definitely one of the labels with a very promising future ahead of it.
Visit Mayka's website for more.
Founded by French-Moroccan influencer Sofya Benzakour and her sister in 2018, after feeling a bout of nostalgia towards their native Morocco on a day by the beach, Bahaar (meaning sea in Arabic) is a bohemian chic label that aims to bring the aesthetics of their homeland to other places around the world. A label that merges cultures and pays homage to multiculturalism, Bahaar seamlessly blends Morocco’s traditional caftans and bohemian outerwear with the “cosmopolitanism and effortless elegance of the French,” as they put it on their website.
Visit Bahaar's website for more.
Lama JouniLebanese designer Lama Jouni started her label from a studio in Dubai with the aim of “filling the gap between fast fashion and high-end brands,” as she writes on her website. Since its launch, Jouni has been sported by fashion model Bella Hadid and other celebrities on multiple occasions, and the designer later relocated to Beirut, her hometown, where she now works. The brand, though, aims to be universal - “I don’t want to confine to a region; I want Lama Jouni to be global and to speak to women of the entire world, who appreciate both luxury and streetwear, while struggling to fit in to a single identity.”
Visit Lama Jouni's website for more.
This Bay-Area-based label is credited to being the first modest streetwear brand. Founded in 2017 by Pakistani-American Shazia Ijaz, who lives in Dearborn, Michigan – which houses the largest population of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. – the label came from a desire to empower Muslim women like her. It is also a social enterprise that helps other marginalised communities, namely, refugees; 10% of the label’s proceeds go to the International Rescue Committee. Most of its clothing is daily wear, such as denim jackets and sweatshirts, often branded with Arabic typography and calligraphy.
Visit Seek Refuge's website for more.
Founded in 2017, Jerusalem-based Darza Studio, incorporates in all of its products the traditional Palestinian art of tatreez (embroidery) a very intrinsic element of the culture that women are keeping alive to this day, across the diaspora and from the confines of occupation. Founded by sisters Waad and Ahd Hammad, the brand produces each garment (and handmade tote bags) with distinct embroidered details – another striking example of slow fashion, from a space of occupation and oppression.
Visit Darza Studio's Facebook for more.
Launched in 2016 by designer May Balacci, who grew up in Qatar and was exposed to garment making at her sister’s shop, this label draws heavily on Arab influences, despite being based in London. Another nod to the multicultural life of many Arab millennials in diaspora, the brand combines sleek British fabrics with Arab aesthetics (abayas and kaftans are some of their characteristic garments) – and is, at its heart, an ode to the founder’s Arab heritage.
Visit May Balacci's website for more.
Suzy Tamimi’s brand is a freedom-fighting, Palestinian label, powered by the designer’s desire to preserve her indigenous culture – and she does so using tatreez. Her collections are manufactured by Palestinian female migrants, and comprise of athletic wear, suits and dresses that are practical and beautifully patterned with different Palestinian textiles. One trademark item is a boxing robe, embroidered with a coat of arms that contains three emblems: doves, symbols of peace; branches from olive trees, cornerstones of Palestinian agriculture and heritage, and poppy flowers, honouring the lives lost in the pursuit of freedom for the Palestinian people.
Visit Suzy Tamimi's website for more.
Amna Al Salem
A Kuwaiti brand driven by the free-spiritedness of its designer, Amna Al Salem exudes confidence and feminine power. Launched in 2016, the brand has an ethereal and futuristic aesthetic that makes it both fashion-forward and unique. Inspired by her childhood, growing up as the daughter of an art collector, Al Salem drew on her heritage as well as her present-day experiences to create a brand that is a reflection of her individuality and accumulative experiences.
Visit Amna Al Salem's website for more.
Children of Revolution (C.O.R. Project)
Iraqi designer Yesawi, left Baghdad a year after the Gulf War had broken out. With war remaining a forcibly close reality to him over the years, he used his designs in this label, launched this year, as a cathartic expression and a call of remembrance to those still going through the violent reality of war. With military-inspired, uniform-like garments, the label pays homage to revolutionary youth, and is also driven by an intrinsic desire to help communities in need. Yesawi worked with a collective supporting Berber women and children in the Rif mountain region helped to craft the fabric for one of the shirts, and continues to search for ways to integrate the work of local communities in his brand.
Visit Children of Revolution's website for more.
With the tagline, “minimal, subliminal, and gender invisible,” Lebanese-Brazilian designer and stylist Amine Jreissati’s label was born out of a need to fill the gap that exists with practical, everyday clothing that lacks imaginative design. First and foremost a gender-neutral brand, Boyfriend is a call to disrupt the gender binary evident in most fashion traditions and labels in the Arab region.
Visit Boyfriend's Instagram for more.
This Moroccan label, founded by Sofia El Arabi in 2017, flaunts a cowboy-western-aesthetic while integrating Moroccan and Arab motifs and colours in its garments. Producing everything from outerwear and accessories, to accessories and homeware (yet to be released), Bakchic is an ambitious and well-rounded brand that brings to light Moroccan culture in all of its shoots and production, in an attempt to find a space “between the East and West,” both of which she was influenced by as she grew up and until the present day.
Visit Bakchic's website for more.