When the Syrian designer Rami Al Ali thinks of his homeland, he imagines the river than runs through the village that he grew up in, and the bustle of Damascus from his student days studying fashion.
The contrast inspires his collections to this day, he said, in the midst of a Paris photoshoot adjusting a refined floor length dress near the Louvre.
A stately looking figure, thin, poised, and wearing a blue sweater and sporting a small mustache and a Middle Eastern glow, he draped a kimono inspired cape over a bejewelled dress, worn by a lithe model posing demurely in an old Parisian salon—old-school couture. He has a growing client base worldwide.
As we watched the shoot, guests arrived, some in ostentatious fur hats, and inspected the gowns waiting on mannequins for their moment center stage on a live body to show his Spring/Summer 2015 collection. Then he took a moment to chat about his homeland: Over 200,000 people have died in the Civil War in Syria in the past four years.
When I first interviewed the designer last summer, he spoke of his designs doing more than providing glamorous attire for his customers, and also of giving hope for his compatriots in a war-torn homeland. These days, Mr. Al Ali is based in Dubai.
“I think a success story from anyone in difficult times gives hope,” he said. “If we all go in the same direction it is too negative and dark. I am trying to indirectly inspire people through my work. Children need to know there is more than war and to have someone to look up to.”
Indeed, Mr. Al Ali’s connections to his homeland extend beyond the embodiment in his dresses that hark back to a bygone era of glamor. He still has many friends and family living through the grind of war and they sometimes inform him on who needs help.
He has in the past worked with students for example, although with the ESMOD fashion school now closed in Damascus, he is having a hard time staying in touch and reaching graduates, begging the question of who might follow in his footsteps.
“The fashion school closed a while ago but I try to find out through friends and family who needs help,” he said.
The country has not always been this way.
The only boy in a family of five children, Mr. Al Ali became interested in fashion and style at a young age. He even produced a fashion show as his graduation work studying fine arts in Syria back in the early 1990s. He moved to the United Arab Emirates upon graduating to gain more experience and then launched his own label in 2000.
He has many happy memories of Syria. “I have great memories from my childhood. My best images from my work come from Syria. From my days studying in Damascus with its old streets and the oasis I grew up in in the desert. It is quite a contrast to where I spent my time in college.”
It can be challenging watching loved ones suffer, but Mr. Al Ali continues to produce beautiful work. And he is working in a growing couture world peopled now also with young designers like himself.
He has gone from strength to strength since he left Syria around eighteen years ago. “You need a breath of fresh air instead of seeing the terrible situation there,” he said.
He has been showing at Paris couture week since 2012. Last season, his collection was inspired by nature and models walked to the booming sounds of the rain forest down the old marble steps at Les Arts Décoratifs in a beautiful display.
These days he can count figures like Ivana Trump among clients. And he has been named one of the most influential Arabs in the Middle East by Middle East magazine, so his bid to inspire seems to have paid off.
“My heart goes out to the people of Syria every day,” he said. “We try and help as much as possible but there is a limited amount we can do so I try and inspire and we try to do something within ourselves to inspire. I hope that there is a better tomorrow full of hope. I am very positive.”