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Hessa Al Falasi's Twist On Traditional Abayas

The Emirati designer Hessa Al Falasi is a self-proclaimed trailblazer. “It seems that I set trends that others follow,” says the 25-year-old Dubai resident. “Because I’ve noticed that some other designers have copied the styles from collections that I’ve launched.” Al Falasi’s breakthrough came seven years ago, when she began cinching traditional, loose-fitting abayas. The simple shift in silhouette was to launch her business and establish her name on the region’s fashion circuit. “I created the first ‘folded abaya’, gathered at the waist with a belt,” she says. “It was my first collection, inspired by the 1920s. It became the hottest abaya trend of the season and the past seven years. Even I’ve been surprised how long it has lasted.” Al Falasi’s fashionable journey began when she was a child, stitching together smock dresses for her dolls. Al Falasi’s mother was quick to recognise her daughter’s flair for design and encouraged her to put her ideas down on paper. A drawing of an outfit for a friend’s wedding was transformed into a dress when she was just 13 and this ignited a life-long passion. “I designed it myself, bought the fabric and my mother and I had a tailor make it,” she says. “It was a beautiful green chiffon dress, with two kinds of fabric and a pale lemon lining. Everyone kept stopping and asking me about it and, although I was young, I knew my first design had an effect.” In the years that followed, Al Falasi took courses in fashion design and pattern cutting and even employed a designer to privately mentor her through the early stages of her career. In 2006, she was ready to launch her debut abaya collection, a range born primarily out of necessity.
“Since I had been 15 years old, I hadn’t liked what was available in the market,” she says. “There weren’t many abaya designers around and many were really expensive, with pieces starting from Dh3,000. The designs were very simple and very boring. Everyone was wearing the same styles and I couldn’t handle not being different or individual.” What resulted was an abaya collection inspired by the Roaring Twenties, a decade epitomised by women shrugging off the more restrictive fashions of previous eras. Draping, gathered fabric and ruffles were to define Al Falasi’s designs and, of course, the humble belt brought everything together. “People loved the designs, no one was shocked by them,” she says. “I was telling them, they had to buy them, that belted and folded abayas would be the hottest trend of the season. But even I was shocked how quickly it became a classic cut.” While the form of Al Falasi’s abayas may have pushed boundaries, she initially remained loyal to working with classic black. After officially establishing her label in 2011 and becoming more widely travelled – which expanded her knowledge of art and music – her palette and creativity came alive. She’s a huge fan of not only classic Arabic music but tribal beats, too. She also travels regularly to Europe to study up close the paintings of her favourite artists such as Gustav Klimt. She was so taken with Klimt’s work in Vienna that she customised fabrics for a past collection, the details of which emulated the lines of his drawings and feather-light brushstrokes. Though she hasn’t entirely turned her back on monochrome, today Al Falasi’s dresses appear in mint green and tangerine orange. Kaftans, too, are a riot of geometric colours ranging from purples and blues to autumnal russet and minky browns. “I sometimes have a full-coloured abaya and then cover it with a layer of chiffon, muting the shade beneath a little,” she says. “I’ll also often use black lace over the coloured fabrics.” While the base colours and panels of her laser-cut garments can flit anywhere from navy blue to canary yellow on the spectrum, Al Falasi still holds fast to some traditions. “I try to use bright colours for autumn/winter collections, such as hot pink under velvet, and it looks really beautiful,” she says. “But colourful abayas don’t always have to be quite so bright, the colours should remain a little calm and a touch conservative. I do believe that, too.”

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