Lama el Moatassem, creative director of Toujouri, looks both east & west to fuse Middle Eastern aesthetics with the manufacturing nous and technologies of Europe & Asia.
“I think luxury will always be associated with heritage and having been around for a long time,” explains Lama el Moatassem, creative director of demi-couture label Toujouri. “The biggest challenge for me has been gaining that level of credibility and getting people to understand that we are doing things right. I started Toujouri when I was 24 – you can imagine the reactions – the constant question was what do you know about luxury?”
Lama remained unfazed and went on to launch Toujouri’s first collection in September 2009, after completing studies at London’s Central St Martin, London College of Fashion and working for Chloé and Matthew Williamson. The collection drew heavily on the designer’s Qatari and Palestinian heritage, but launched in Paris at the Vendôme Luxury Tradeshow. An international luxury brand from day one.
“ The world is now so open. Why not get the best of everything you can from different places? ”
Lama’s enthusiasm for true luxury becomes infectious as we speak. Her personal philosophy seems simultaneously old world and enthusiastically modern. On one hand there is an inherent focus on craftsmanship, in that everything is handmade, embroideries are designed in house and fabrics are dyed to her specifications. But as a modern luxury brand, designed by a Middle Eastern designer, garments are conceptualised with an international woman in mind, where manufacturing is driven by logic over provenance.
“I felt that I didn’t’ fit completely into the Middle East, I didn’t fit completely into London,” she explains, “so instead I live in between these two places and take the best from both worlds. The world is now so open and you can get anything, anywhere at any time. Why not get the best of everything you can from different places?”
Toujouri’s first boutique in Qatar, designed by Peter Marino
In launching her own boutique, the Middle East was the obvious choice. “Qatar presented an opportunity where the market is still very young,” she explains. “People are developing more and more of an interest in the arts and in the fashion world. There are some amazing projects that are happening here and I wanted to be part of that change, rather than hang onto something existing. I wanted to bring together what the West has to offer and what the Middle East has to offer and fuse these two opportunities together.”
“And in the past few years – and I think especially where our store is located – there has been a huge exposure to the fashion world and to world fashion and brands and trends. So the Middle Eastern woman is very much aware or as much aware and educated about fashion as a western woman. For me personally it was important to come back and do something in the Middle East of a high standard and of a luxury standard.”
“ We are presenting something that is beautiful, that is finished to a very high standard. We are not going to cheat customers; you cannot make this in Italy ”
Her quest for quality has led her to cut her patterns in London and manufacture her garments in India. And eventually to chase down Peter Marino in New York, in the hope he would design Toujouri’s first boutique. When I ask if she is challenged by retailers or consumers about her choice to produce luxury fashion in India, she thoughtfully deadpans “I’m not looking to beat around the bush, the product speaks for itself.”
“We do face prejudice from certain people but once they see the product, I think it completely changes their point of view. I spent a year travelling around trying out factories, we then spent a further six months training our chosen factory in our finishing standards. I think among young designers there often isn’t that real appreciation or that kind of focus on detail, on quality and that is certainly something that I wanted to change.”
“These days it’s about the hitting the right price point and minimising on fabric quality. Whereas our quality is top level, our finishing and specifications are very particular, our fabrics are of the highest quality and it’s not cheap for us to manufacture. We are presenting something that is beautiful, that is finished to a very high standard. Most of all, we are not going to cheat customers; you cannot make this in Italy.”
Toujouri’s first boutique in Qatar, designed by Peter Marino
The same international, quality driven mind-set led to Lama’s collaboration with Peter Marino, whom she describes as “the go-to guy” for luxury retail. A designer perhaps best known for his work with Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Fendi, Lama was adamant that he was to develop the concept for the store, despite his suggestion that they work together only when Toujouri found bigger premises.
“I just said no, I don’t want to open a shop and have someone put together a concept that will not be continued. I am very forward thinking and I want this to be long term. I was very persistent and kept going back and forth, suggesting that he see the range or meet and discuss things in person and I eventually was invited for a meeting in New York.”
“He was a huge deal for us and for me personally, I was determined,” she laughs. “I have very high expectations of what we can do and I think a lot of people get put off because I’m a young designer and they tell me its going to take time, but I understand that. I’m not looking for overnight solutions. When it came time to invite people into the world of Toujouri to bring this life and bring them the full experience, I said this also has to be on an international level’ This also has to be of a top luxury quality and its our first concept and we want to get it right.”
“ People are sometimes put off because I’m a young designer. They tell me it’s going to take time, but I understand that. I’m not looking for overnight solutions ”
Eventually the concept grew from Lama’s desire to draw from the name Toujouri, which in Arabic means Treasure Chest. The store went on to reflect the ideas of hiding and revealing and creating an exploration, which was achieved with moving screens that can create a VIP area within the store.
“The store works with the qualities of the garments. It takes the qualities of texture and works with the idea of colour in a neutral space, and everything is very customised, like Toujouri. The marble is honed and the screens are hand painted. We even have a textured wall where each block is hand moulded, which took three months to create with one artisan. It had to be done with one artisan as it had to be done with one hand. So everything is very labour intensive in a way but also very delicate and sensitive and working with the qualities of the garments.”
“For me really that was the challenge, getting people to look at through my eyes and understand that we haven’t been around for twenty, thirty or one hundred years, but we are in this for the long term and we have been doing things right from the beginning. And Peter Marino has helped me achieve this in our boutique.”