Every year, a select five brands of the Arab fashion world’s crème de la crème are handpicked for what currently stands as the largest and most coveted fashion award in the Arab world. With financial support of up to $200,000 and a one-year mentorship from MatchesFashion.com to up-and-coming designers, the Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA) prize is the unequivocal stamp of approval that has the power to launch everyday brands into stratosphere-level success—and for good reason.
The competition is far from easy. Contestants aren’t only competing against virtually every other brand in the Arab world in their category, they’re being judged by a panel that would threaten and overawe even the most established of designers.
The 2020 judging panel was a star-studded and intimidating affair, hosting the likes of Elie Saab, Christian Louboutin, Diane von Furstenberg, Olivier Rousteing, Giambattista Valii, Marc Jacobs, and Aimee Song, the godmother of Instagram influencing. To any individual even minimally well-seasoned in the fashion world, these names are close to gospel.
The trust prize was imported from the UK in 2018 after Lebanese fashion writer Tania Fares teamed up with Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, both of Qatar, to bring the award concept to the MENA region.
The final result was a contest comprised of five categories and judged by the international gods of style. Over a series of Zoom conferences held last month, the judging panel met each and every designer up for a winning slot before coming to their decision. “Our Advisory Board reviewed over 500 applications in our second edition, representing 18 countries in the region. They looked for creativity, identity, and brand goals,” Youmna Kreitem, FTA’s project coordinator tells us.
We decided to dig deeper into the blessed brains that were granted the winning spots.
Evening wear: Yousef Akbar
Hailing from Jeddah, the winner of FTA’s evening wear category, Yousef Akbar, is a designer who translates sentiment directly into clothing. Basing his collections on themes like heartbreak and domestic abuse, the purpose of fashion to the Saudi designer is to create stories that evoke emotion in the person wearing his clothes.
“When I was a little boy, I would dress in a Batman or Superman costume and feel like a superhero. That’s exactly the effect I want the women wearing my clothes to feel,” Akbar tells us. Drapey and feminine in design, Akbar’s pieces tell a powerful story on womanhood, embodying a feminine spirit even in their outward presentation.
The brand prides itself on creating ethical, sustainable evening wear through supporting local artisans and using dead stock fabrics, recycling materials, and maintaining a low waste policy.
Photographed by Dan Hilburn.
Currently, Akbar is working on releasing a dedicated bridal line, with the help of the new support his brand is receiving after winning the FTA prize for evening wear. ”It’s a dream come true. It’s strange to have a dream come true—these things are so rare. I’m overwhelmed with happiness because this will truly boost my career. I am very grateful for this. And I want to thank Fashion Trust Arabia, and the founders and everyone at FTA for their endless belief in us and for their support to all creatives,” Akbar tells us.
Ready-to-wear: Omer Asim
What is arguably the most competitive category was awarded to Sudanese designer Omer Asim, who started his label back in 2013 after having worked at womenswear giant Vivienne Westwood and studied at the acclaimed Central Saint Martins in London, the ‘it’ school for any designer hoping to break into the industry. “The work I produce is more a point of view than a mere aesthetic. The aesthetic is an embodiment of values, attitudes, and an outlook on life,” Asim tells us about his inspirations.
“My work isn't driven by theme inspiration. I am more keen on substance and craft to un-design a solid silent aesthetic,” Asim told us. Asim’s designs demonstrate a heavy emphasis on geometry, sometimes structured and sometimes shapeless, but always with a clear linearity—perhaps his only ongoing theme. He seldom opts for colours outside a neutral palette, translating into a bare, stark minimalism a mere stone's throw away from his background in architecture.
On the exterior, Asim’s designs are a tasteful, intellectual, and even somewhat intimidating gateway into ready-to-wear. At its core, his label is a celebration of “humanity, with all its flaws and aspirations.”
Based between Cairo and Los Angeles, Amany Shaker is a designer who leaves a lot less room for questions. Leaning less on intellectuality and more so on, well, making undeniably chic creations, the Egyptian designer — and former women’s counsellor in conflict resolution and peace education — has built a luxury brand spanning continents.
Though she only started her jewellery label four years ago, the designer has already started to carve out a name for herself in the big leagues. Her pieces have adorned the likes of Shay Mitchell, Sofia Vergara, Demi Lovato, Normani, Yara Shahidi, and a handful of other Hollywood A-listers.
Laced with Egyptian motifs, the cultural poignancy in Shaker's designs hits right in the gut, and with it the ‘I need this’ factor. The brand’s pieces don’t shy away from snakes, evil eyes, stars and crescents, and other motifs that are practically second-nature to Arab jewellery but, in Shaker's hands, are anything but cliché.
Egyptian actress and model Salma Abu Deif in Ammanii's Sa'maa collection.
“I’m trying to tell a story of empowerment, love, and self-assurance. The jewellery is not meant to make you beautiful, but to trigger and tickle that inner beauty that every woman possesses. I want them to feel like the queens they are,” Shaker tells us. It’s true; in fact, at first glance her designs strikingly present as what a modern-era Nefertiti would wear: unforgivingly feminine, and emboldened in pure drip.
Accessories: Andrea Wazen
Undoubtedly the most established selection of this year’s winning lot, Beirut-based designer Andrea Wazen's shoes have been rocked by a slew of LA darlings including Kylie Jenner, Jennifer Lopez, Scarlet Johansson, and far too many more to name. The popularity is owed to a handsomely buzzed about brand launch thanks to the designer’s influencer status prior to kicking off her label (note a certain Wazen celeb sister). Nonetheless, the footwear label’s designs are worth the hype and a half.
Known for its signature strappy sandals and bright, statement colours the brand’s aesthetic walks the line between targeting the fashionably literate Instagram girl willing to take on the challenge of a lime green cowboy boot, and the general Aldo-treading public who need a good pair of black stilettos every once in a while.
Franca Sozzani debut talent award: Zeid Hijazi
The first-ever Franca Sozzani debut talent award went to fresh-faced Zeid Hijazi, an up-and-coming Jordanian designer still completing his studies at Central Saint Martins in London. The Amman-bred talent has already had his work featured in Dazed and Confused Magazine, and, at only 22 years old, is now the first to snatch the title of FTA debut talent.
“The complexity of your sketches was stunning especially for a debut talent. You have a personal vision that is really interesting,” said Giambattista Valli of Hijazi’s work during the selection process. Although the prize does include financial and business support, according to Hijazi, the recognition he found in the competition process is the most important part.
“The true win for me is in the validation I just received. Elie Saab, Diane Von Furstenberg, Olivier Rousteing, Giambattista Valli, Thom Brown, Yoon Ambush—all these people sat together and decided to give me the title of the first-ever recipient of the Franca Sozzani prize,” Hijazi tells us. “These are legends that I looked up to when I was a kid. I even told them that in the middle of my session.”
For the young designer’s future, he hopes to be able to live up to the name of the prize. Strapped for opportunities in the middle of a global pandemic, he’s hoping to kickstart the next step in his career after the Coronavirus wave subsides.