Former ‘Project Runway’ star Rami Kashoú on his new ready-to-wear collection, Palestinian embroidery and being a design wunderkind at age 7
One look at a sheer, navy blue fabric with cream colored dots transported former “Project Runway” star Rami Kashoú back to a trip to Cuba he took with his best friend earlier this year. He pictured himself on Playa Varadero, a secluded resort town with crystalline waves and sunsets from paintings.
“At night, we would lay down on the sand and just look at the sky and it would be star-studded, like an endless amount of stars,” says Kashoú, in a short-sleeved denim button down and navy chino pants. “That fabric reminded me of that moment.”
The silky, speckled material is just one highlight of Kashoú’s first-ever ready-to-wear collection that launched with his new online shop in June. Ahead of the launch, we sat down with him in his Brooklyn apartment to get the scoop on the new line, coming up in Ramallah as a child prodigy in fashion design and his couture work with Palestinian embroidery.
WRITTEN IN THE STARS
Since his 2007 appearance on season four of “Project Runway”, a reality show for fashion designers, Kashoú has styled Penelope Cruz, Jessica Alba, Kim Kardashian and countless other women in evening wear with his signature elegant drapery. His Spring/Summer 2020 ready-to-wear designs are a change of pace from his custom red carpet looks but no less constructed, bold and expressive.
“This is more of a graduation from what I did on ‘Project Runway’ to what I'm doing now,” he says. “It's accessible to more women.”
Kashoú’s muse for his new collection is a woman in motion—urban entrepreneurs, young moms, busy creatives seeking both ease and edge. Each garment is named after Arab women in his life who he could picture wearing the style.
Named for one of Kashou's oldest clients, a fashionista chef who loves to dress up, the Ana ($1,350) was inspired by his view of majestic Caribbean starscapes on his Cuba vacation. With a single off-the-shoulder cowl-draped sleeve, a flowing high-low skirt, and a dramatic side slit, this asymmetrical cocktail dress is made to move in.
“When I think of whoever she is in the dress, she wants to seduce, but also she wants to be admired and respected,” says Kashoú, eyes lighting up as he talks about his creation. “It's soft, it's elegant, but it's also the kind of dress that surpasses a season or two. Kind of like a favorite dress.”
Like the Ana dress, Kashoú is often inspired by nature, which is illustrative in his new line, comprised of 18 pieces and 12 looks. Powder pink, amethyst purple and olive green shades stand out from the daytime wear, while frenetic patterns and extravagant shapes define the evening looks.
A marbled lilac purple batik fabric reminded Kashoú of “precious stones like rose quartz,” which inspired the Hayfa ($545), a puff-sleeved top with an empire waist, bubbled hem and pistachio green piping.
The Lama ($625) is a simple v-neck jumpsuit in blush pink with gathering at the sleeves, hips and back evocative of a queen scallop seashell. Resembling a delicate iris, the inventive Shahrazad ($625) is an airy silk crepe de Chine blouse in soft purple with a flowy pleated cape.
Capes are a statement in the ready-to-wear line, but the cape on the Firyal ($1,495) cocktail dress conjures an entirely different feeling than the ethereal blouse. In the same midnight blue sheer as the Ana, this remarkably demanding number is Kashoú’s version of a “superhero dress.”
“There's something royal about capes, and it also feels like you have wings on,” he laughs. “You could fly anywhere in this dress. That's the fantasy behind it.
”The Noor ($1,265) shift dress with a scalloped neck and waist has wings of a different kind. With detachable pleated sleeves that wrap around the arms, the dress resembles a feathery bird. It is a bit of a wildcard in the collection, like the Reem ($665), a liquid-looking vegan leather skirt in olive green, accented with tie knots at the left hip.
“I really design classic pieces, but with a modern twist,” Kashoú says. “I don't like to overcomplicate it. I mean, that's really the true aesthetic of a Rami Kashoú piece.”
Bold patterns are a change for Kashoú, and he did not tread lightly into new territory. The Sahara Bodice ($485), a scoop neck with ruffles around the shoulder straps and hem, comes in a black and white Jackson Pollock-esque print, as well as lilac and purple marble fabrics. In fact, every item in Kashoú's new line comes in multiple color options.
He is also breaking into designing accessories with the Iman tote ($385), a vegan leather, oversized bag that comes in a rosy clay, forest green, midnight blue, black and chocolate brown.
Customers can order straight from Kashoú’s revamped website, RamiKashoú.com. Items can take up to 20 days to ship, but every piece is made to order—part of Kashoú’s philosophy on designing with the environment in mind, which includes avoiding overproduction. Additionally, sizing is not limited to the 2-12 range offered on the site, and sizing and other requests are encouraged.
Kashoú’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection is about reaching the everyday woman. It is coming full circle from his beginnings as a designer for his mother and her friends, his original muses, as a boy in Palestine.
Growing up in Ramallah, Kashoú loved watching the Lebanese singer Fairuz on TV. Captivated by her dramatic gowns in flowy chiffon with trains fit for royalty, he was inspired to dream up his own.
I used to secretly sketch in my school notebooks thinking that my parents were not going to be proud of their son drawing dresses,” he says.
As early as age 7, Kashoú drew elaborate outfits for handmade paper dolls that he hid in an empty chocolate tin. He kept his talent to himself, until one day, his older brother found him sketching. Playfully teasing him about drawing dresses, his brother grabbed Kashoú’s notebook and ran downstairs to show their parents.
“I remember that feeling of anxiety and fear that they might not approve of it or they might be ashamed of it,” Kashoú says. “Luckily they saw that this is something special, and they encouraged me. I was not expecting that kind of response.”
Each week, his mother and her friends—all wives of travel agents—gathered at Kashoú’s house for Turkish coffee. Between gossip and trading recipes, they called Kashoú from his room to preview his most recent work, dresses the ladies coveted.
On their travels, the women began collecting fabric—silks from Europe and vibrant rayons—and requested custom designs from Kashoú. When he completed his sketches, his mother and her friends whisked Kashoú and his sketchbook away to a local dressmaker.
As he directed the tailor, his designs came to life before his eyes. One of his earliest outfits was an elegant two-piece set for his mother. It was a knee-length pencil skirt and a short-sleeved summer jacket with fabric-covered buttons from white silk printed with tiny flowers in pinks, light blues and fuschias.
“They would actually wear these dresses for special occasions,” he says. “That was my first hands-on experience.”
From there, Kashoú went to design school in Cyprus, before moving to Los Angeles in 1996. Without the restrictions of a military occupation, Kashoú arrived in the U.S. with an “unstoppable flame,” determined to become a fashion designer.
“I've been told no in so many moments in my life just because I'm Palestinian, and this is the one thing that I'm going to have full and complete control of,” he says. “I wanted my creativity to thrive and I didn't want any restrictions on that.”
He bought two sewing machines and began teaching himself to sew. On weekends, he perused thrift stores for garments he liked and learned by deconstructing them and making them into something new.
“What does a jacket sleeve look [like] flat? What does a collar look like?” he recalls. “I really enjoyed spending hours doing that and just making one of a kind pieces from recycled vintage—tops and T-shirts and jackets.”
Kashoú began selling his pieces in Hollywood and Silver Lake. When his designs started catching celebrities’ eyes, he quit his retail job and dedicated his time to making his own collections that quickly made their way to the runway.
By 2004, stylists for Alanis Morissette, Ciara, Pink and Paris Hilton started pulling from his collections. That year, one stylist showed up at his house to borrow more than a dozen kaftans, pants and other wild garments for a celebrity photoshoot.
Hours after she returned them, she called him in the middle of the night.
“I woke up, I picked up the phone, and she said, ‘Oh my God, you're never going to believe this. Erykah [Badu] wants to buy all of your pieces,” he laughs. “And then I was looking on Getty images like a few weeks later and she was pregnant doing a headstand onstage in one of my kaftans.”
His career continued to take off from there. Three years later, he appeared on “Project Runway.” Kashoú, the only Palestinian-born designer to appear on the show, wowed the judges with the gorgeous draping that runs deep in his design DNA.
In the season finale, only three of the four remaining designers would be chosen to move on to show their collections at New York Fashion Week. But in a twist, Kashoú tied with fellow contestant, Chris March. All four designers were asked to create 12-piece collections, but prior to the show, Kashoú and March would face-off for the third spot on the runway.
Beating March's designs—featuring safety pins and human hair that appalled host Tim Gunn—Kashoú's Joan of Arc-inspired collection joined Christian Siriano and Jillian Lewis at Fashion Week.
Though runner-up to Siriano, Kashoú’s final look, a shimmery black strapless gown with layered pleats, made a comeback last year in rapper Mona Haydar’s music video "Suicide Doors.”
His later work has also appeared in Vogue, New York Times Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily and other publications. Celebrities including Jennifer Lopez and Heidi Klum have worn his red carpet gowns. Queen Rania of Jordan even has several Rami Kashoú pieces in her closet.
Kashoú says he designs for the “global woman,” and the timelessness and elegance of his garments allow the designs to be virtually limitless in who can wear them.
“I think all women of all color from all cultures and all walks of life appreciate elegance and poetic flow in design,” he says. “I aim to create designs that exude softness and femininity, and at the same time, a strong impact and presence. I can't imagine any woman in the world doesn't want to showcase both.”
When he came to the U.S., Kashoú took pride in his boundless imagination, which showed in the inclusivity of his designs. In the early days, his Palestinian roots were more present in the “spirit” of his creations, allowing his creativity the blossom under no limitations.
But as he has matured in his career, Kashoú has been craving more depth in his work. In his recent designs, particularly in his custom couture gowns, he’s inserting more of himself, one stitch at a time.
THREADING A STORY
On a recent trip to Jerusalem, where he was born, Kashoú recalls wandering in and out of hole-in-the-wall fabric stores tucked away down narrow streets. Inside the shops, he found layers and layers of vintage fabrics and antique thobes, some with embroidery that has gone out of fashion.
“This is old because it has the birds and the flowers,” he says, pointing to red cross-stitching on a dress he recently made from a 100-year-old thobe. “Nowadays, some ladies are not willing to do bird embroidery because they say it’s bad blood to embroider anything with a spirit.”
Kashoú has always wanted to create a collection featuring Palestinian embroidery to celebrate the art that’s so deeply rooted in his culture. However, when he launched his brand 15 years ago, artists with the skills were less accessible.
Now that social media has allowed him to connect with independent entrepreneurs still practicing the dying art by hand, he has created 30 custom pieces with Palestinian embroidery in the last three years.
“I have yet to have a celebrity wear this one,” he says, holding one of his first embroidery designs, a nude tulle evening gown with a bodice of embellished with hand stitched wheat head in sunburst orange, magenta, earthy green, mustard yellow and aquamarine.
Kashoú created the dress for the United Nations’ “Threads of Continuity” exhibition in November 2016, using custom embroidery that took women in Ramallah more than a month to produce. He knows exactly who he can picture it on.
“I really want Solange to wear it, but I haven’t gotten to her people yet,” he says. “I feel like it's going to have it's moment.”
Traditionally, a completed thobe with Palestinian embroidery is an “identification card through thread” with symbolism that tells a story of the region it was made in, Kashoú says.
Using both custom and vintage embroidery, he communicates who he is through his work and his designs.
“It's in a way letting people into who is Rami and where does he come from a little bit more intimately,” he says.
Palestinian embroidery is nostalgic for Kashoú. As a boy, he was dazzled by the ladies moving about the Ramallah markets in stunning thobes of black and deep blue velvet cross stitched flowers in every color imaginable.
“It was like a frame into a vibrant, beautiful garden, like a garden of Eden,” Kashoú says.
The visuals were a symbol of hope that inspired him in the midst of the occupation. When Kashoú was cooped up in his home for days on end, his imagination was all he had. Palestinian embroidery allowed him to disappear into whimsical scenes handstitched into the fabrics.
“At times, our outside reality was very dark, unfair, often restricting and unjust,” Kashoú says. “So in a way, seeing this dress that almost looked like a walking painting, I always thought it was beautiful.”
Kashoú was fascinated by the conversations about embroidery his mother and her friends had during their coffee dates. As they debated their own stitching techniques, he admired the language of the artful needlework that was all around him.
Each town and region has its own embroidery language defined by certain stitching techniques, color palettes, and symbolism, such as flowers, birds, and trees found in the area.
Bethlehem, for instance, is known for bright colors—oranges and golds—with metallic threads that curl around the designs. Ramallah is recognized by red stitching on a cream background, while Gaza is more vibrant and courageous, with a multitude of colors.
Traditionally, the techniques were passed down from generation to generation. Young girls learned from their mothers and grandmothers while creating her wedding dress. Ladies spent months, sometimes a year, working on a dress.
But what makes the historical art form important to Kashoú is more than the craftsmanship. The thobes he collects are also artifacts.
“[Embroidered thobes] were ways to document the visuals of that surrounding, and some of those towns have been wiped out and are now part of Israel,” he says.
Human rights activist and attorney Noura Erakat, author of Justice For Some: Law And The Question Of Palestine. modeled one of Kashoú’s most recent creations as a guest of honor at The Institute for Middle East Understanding annual gala in June.
The fitted tea length cocktail dress is made from an electric blue fabric and adorned with hand cross-stitched flowers in springy green, pink, purple and orange.
“I think of the sky and a field of flowers,” which mimics Erakat’s vibrant personality, Kashoú says. “This design is part of her story, it's part of my story, it's part of the Palestinian story.”
For Erakat, the dress represents what she refers to as Palestinian Futurism—reenvisioning Palestinian tradition and history to create something new.
In her book, she discusses what the future of Palestine looks like. It is not a “return to a pre-1948 moment but is an unknown future that we have yet to create and meld,” through tapping into a “radical imagination.”
“That's what that dress is,” she says. “Rami is doing that work of radical imagination and should inspire us to think about it in other ways, politically, socially and economically.”
Kashoú hopes the dress tells a story about beauty in every culture and every person. The artful, delicate hand technique exudes a richness in Palestinian culture that is often hidden by the occupation and biased media.
“Those ladies who sit and hand-embroider, that's a form of couture in a place that's often misunderstood and misjudged,” Kashoú says. “It's really about showcasing the beauty of the culture that I come from…beyond the layers the pain and the sadness and the injustice and the occupation.”
Follow Rami on Instagram to keep up with his work: @ramikashou
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