I recently had the chance to get in touch with Sonya Ahmed, the director of new British label Nahara. It's fair to say I'm pretty excited by what this company has to offer; read on to find out more about it all started and the inspiration behind the designs.
Sonya: I had been travelling in Turkey, Kenya and Pakistan, and had come across many examples of beautiful Islamic art and architecture, as well as traditional textiles. I started to feel a sense of personal loss that here in the UK, I had little access to this rich culture. I also felt a little disappointed that in so many countries, fashion was taking a fully Western direction, while millennia-old legacies of art and design skills were being disregarded. Many of those traditional skills are still alive, of course, but often put to the task of creating low quality tourist-friendly items.
There is a sense that to modernise fashion, designs have to be fully Western or quite revealing. This tends to suggest an inherent belief that your own art and your own cultural aesthetics are inferior, static and unable to evolve. I think it is much more interesting and challenging to see how these traditional skills and designs can be ‘re-presented’ in a contemporary style, to create something new and relevant, but without all the stereotypical associations of ‘Eastern’ and ‘ethnic’.
As well as creating beautiful and high quality clothes, Nahara is also intended to be a vehicle to explore contemporary expressions of traditional art and what that means for us in a modern European context. I have always had an interest in fabric, although I have been practicing as a doctor for last 13 years. So, for me, this is an opportunity to engage in some creative work and to create something of value. I am in my element when I am choosing fabric for a collection or wandering round a fabric fair!
It took a long time to decide on the name! It is probably one of the most agonising tasks in starting a new business! Nahara, in Arabic, means river. A river can change its appearance quite dramatically, from a trickling mountain stream, to a raging torrent near the sea, and yet amazingly it is the same river all along. Similarly, I think there are traditions and values that remain constant in any spiritual tradition, even though the expression of it can look very different in different times and places. So it seemed a nice fit for what I hope to express through Nahara. It is also my mum’s middle name!
Jana: You collaborated with artist Samir Malik on your launch collection; tell us more about how that went?
Sonya: Working with Samir has been fantastic. Samir’s work is very contemporary in appearance yet built on the foundation of an ancient art. Samir and I both have a passion for producing designs which are authentic and meaningful, and which create a sense of contentment and spirituality through beauty. I feel that the style of his art really encapsulates what Nahara is all about, and so, collaborating with him has been a great way to introduce the label. We are working on some videos to show the meaning behind the art, and they touch on some issues around modern calligraphy and its links to classical training. You will be able to see these videos on the Nahara website.
Jana: Your designs are clean cut and contemporary, yet modestly fitting. What challenges did you face in trying to achieve that balance?
Sonya: This is a great question! Nahara is very much about a quiet luxury, where the focus is on the quality of the fabric, the tailoring and the subtle expression of artistic traditions. Many of the Asian clothes that are imported to the UK are often very highly embellished but poor in quality. They are not designed specifically for a European context, so they are usually reserved for weddings and parties. With Nahara, which is based in London, I wanted to create European clothes with a hint of that other identity, designs that transcend the idea of having two separate wardrobes, neither of which fully expresses the blend of cultural influences that most of us have. I think there are still a lot of stereotypical and Orientalist associations with all things Eastern, and a certain expectation that clothes must be brightly coloured, flouncy and dripping in sequins and mirrors. Yet there are far more sophisticated ways of expressing the artistic values of a culture, for example, fluidity of movement, traditional patterns, and hand weaving techniques. So one challenge is to express accents of traditional art and culture in a contemporary and minimalist way. The second challenge is to convey luxury through fabric and finish rather than through heavy embellishment. A third challenge is in creating styles that make women feel confident and attractive without being overtly sexual. But actually this is not so difficult if you to look to historically traditional styles and see the draping and weaving techniques that were used throughout most of history.
Jana: What was it like showing your designs on the runway at the Urban Muslim Woman show in June? Will you be continuing your off-line as well as online presence?
Sonya: The UMW show was Nahara’s first show. I was very pleased to be in the show this year, alongside other well-known British and international designers. It was a little overwhelming to see something that was just an uncertain idea two years ago, to be on the stage in front of hundreds of women! I knew that my designs would be more European in style than the other designs in the show, so I was a little nervous about that, but the feedback from women during the show was great, with a lot of interest in seeing the rest of the collection. For an online brand, without a bricks and mortar presence, these events are very important to build awareness and to convey the quality of the materials. I would have liked to meet the other designers, but we were all busy preparing our collections, so there wasn't much time to do that.
Jana: Where and when can customers purchase Nahara clothing?
Sonya: By mid-July the website will be available for online orders. Initially garments will be made to order, and will take 2 weeks for delivery. All garments will be made in a studio in London. Women interested in particular items, prior to the website launch, are also welcome to contact Nahara on contact [at] nahara.co.uk, or via the Facebook page, for information and to place orders. I will consider stocking Nahara in department stores later in the year or early next year.