Where Middle East Meets West

By Robin Givhan
Friday, May 13, 2005

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, a solo show called "Afro Muses" by the British artist Chris Ofili recently opened-- a series of small watercolor portraits methodically created over the years. They are playful portraits of people who exist only in Ofili's imagination.

Some of these personalities are elaborately dressed and coiffed in ways that suggest an Afrocentric costume. Others are decked in a freewheeling cacophony of colors and patterns loosely drawn from African tradition. The artist has said that his inspiration is imprecise, a blur. His imagined people, in their raucous finery, are simply the result of the to and fro that he witnesses every day.

That's the way it so often is with any creative endeavor, particularly fashion. Inspiration comes in a haphazard flood of visual snippets, overheard commentary, images from books, snapshots from a vacation, historical memories. It all merges in the mind of designers, and if they have done their job well, the resulting works capture the flood of information in a coherent and compelling way.

Designers have reimagined the streets of Harlem, African villages, Asian big cities and the Arab world. But in the course of their creative borrowing and exploiting, they often forget or ignore the source of their inspiration. As a result, bits of history are lost and opportunities to build cultural bridges are missed.

The Mosaic Foundation focused its efforts this year on mapping creative influences. The Washington-based charitable organization mounted a cultural project titled "Influences of Traditional Arab Design on Contemporary Western Designers." It has been a broad-reaching program of lectures examining Arab influences on architecture, graphic and interior design and landscaping. It culminated with fashion.

Sixteen designers created couture ensembles that were presented at a fashion show and dinner last night at the National Building Museum. European and American designers such as Ralph Rucci, John Galliano at Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Valentino, Emanuel Ungaro and Donna Karan donated ensembles that were inspired by traditional Arab attire.

Designers of Arab descent who work in a Western aesthetic also created garments, underscoring the constant evolution of style and the way in which creative inspiration moves in all directions. Reem Acra, who was born in Beirut, is known for her dramatic wedding gowns; Elie Saab, who is Lebanese, famously designed the floral embroidered dress that Halle Berry wore to accept her Best Actress Oscar in 2002.

The designers, who were first asked to participate about two years ago, were not given any ground rules. And so the Arab influences can be seen in something as obvious as the shapes or as subtle as the embroideries, says Princess Haifa Al-Faisal, chairman of Mosaic's board of trustees. "Each one of them has something. But it's also something wearable in the 21st century," she says.

Organizers plan to sell the garments through a New York auction house in the fall.

The Mosaic Foundation is an American nonprofit organization founded in 1998 by the wives of leading diplomats from 17 Arab nations. Their mission has always been to improve the lives of women as well as "bridging understanding between Americans and the Arab world by sharing our heritage," says Al-Faisal. The goal of this year's fundraising effort, the group's eighth, is to raise $700,000. It will be used to help the Children's National Medical Center launch a tele-health program in Morocco. The high-tech project will improve pediatric care there by making long-distance diagnoses and consultations possible.

Fashion has long been one of the most proudly global industries, but it has famously struggled to balance its creative freedom with both cultural and ethnic sensitivities. Chanel used verses from the Koran as decorative embellishments, sparking accusations of blasphemy. Jean Paul Gaultier used the traditional garb of Hasidic Jews, including their phylacteries -- leather prayer boxes -- as inspiration for his secular collection and observers declared it insensitive. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren put their models in blackface to underscore the exaggerated silhouettes of their all black clothing collection. The catwalk show called to mind minstrelsy. And just this spring, designers looked to Russia -- from the Bolsheviks to streetwalkers -- and came up with clothes that were at turns emotionally overwrought or desperately sexual.

Yet the industry also has used cultural references in ways that have been breathtaking. One of Gaultier's most memorable collections in recent years merged traditional African attire with Harlem-style glamour. Oscar de la Renta has found inspiration in Central Asia that resulted in a collection filled with embellished ikat weaves. And Yves Saint Laurent, who was born in Algeria, was famously inspired by the colors and patterns of Morocco.

Over the years, Al-Faisal has been a customer at many of the couture houses. She has been privy to the designers' most extravagant visions, had a chance to see a dress take shape from a basic muslin -- which Europeans brought from the Arab world -- to the final version in silk. She declines to acknowledge which designers' work currently catches her eye. But "Saint Laurent used to be my favorite," she says. (He is now retired.)

As a customer, she often saw Arab influences on the couture runway. "You can see it very well when you know what you're looking for," she says. "Not just me, but my friends, my family."

With a little education, others may also see Arab culture where they once only saw a pretty frock.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company