What do you do when you’re a passionate storyteller but find that words are not enough? If you’re Oman Salam, you go into fashion design.
This week on the podcast, WERKIN founder Hayley Sudbury talks with Omar Salam, founder and creative director of his global fashion house, SUKEINA. Salam has outfitted fashion icons like Naomi Campbell, those who speak a common language of breaking barriers and the status quo. Salam shares his story from film school to the catwalk.
STORYTELLING: A FASHION STATEMENT
Born in Nice, Salam describes his childhood traveling around Europe and listening to stories told by his grandmother. Motivated to turn his love of storytelling into a career, Salam entered film school to study screenwriting. He soon learned that he was drawn more to movement, the ways in which characters and the clothing they wear shifts, as a means of narration. He decided to change course.
I realized that the highest form of speaking wasn't necessarily words, and that's when I started massaging the idea of dressing as a way of addressing.
After studying at Parsons School of Design, Salam found inspiration in the way fabric accentuates an individual’s unique style of movement,
What inspires me is the rhythm around people, the way you’re sitting there looking at me, the way you would gaze at that thing, hold your arms and what not. The things that you are doing on a practical level to just get around, and we at one point no longer see them because we just do them.
So I spy the rhythm around them, the way they move, the way they gaze, and I find it quite beautiful, their grace, and also their spirit.
What my clothing tends to do, instead of connecting to the body, in what it is, but the body in what it does, so it is a rhythmic feel that by just watching women come by, walk away, move around, kind of outline that and affirm it, develop it. That's usually how it starts.
It’s not just women’s movement that inspires Salam. At the start of his fashion career, he was frustrated in the way many designs seemed to limit women, to shape them rather than allowing space for women to shape the clothing they wear,
At the beginning of my career, I felt that women were forced to morph into something that was more limiting than freeing. So it felt for me important to bring that voice in women's wear.
THE WOMEN WHO HAVE INSPIRED AND MENTORED
How do his clients (including Naomi Campbell) inspire his designs?
By their way of thinking, by their way of going about. I'm extremely moved and inspired by someone like [Naomi Campbell] and many others that have been buying the clothes, supporting us and looking good in it, which is a great source of pride for us.
Their belief system. How can I support, armour them, and harness them to push the envelope forward.
So for me, a woman that wants to speak a language of strength, of breaking barriers, finding a way to accentuate their shoulders, I want to make them feel like in wearing that outfit, it pushes them forward. I find a great source of pride, in having a role in doing that.
Beyond the people he dresses, Salam describes the many women who have mentored him along the way. He describes a turning point in his career when Sonia Rykiel walked into the boutique where he worked,
A beautiful woman called Sonia Rykiel at almost the end of her career, at the beginning of mine, in a completely serendipitous way, was in New York. She hadn't been here for 30 years. She walked into the boutique, where I worked. On her way back to Europe, made the decision to say to my boss, “Let Omar play, it should remain a game.”
This is a small sentence that could mean so little. But that was really what compelled my boss to let me play, designing and visuals, and a number of things that today, has led me to where I am. So that sentence had literally keyed and opened the gates for me to be who I am today, and I will be forever grateful for that.
The art of play has propelled Salam’s career ever since,
In play there is discipline, commitment and dignity. We look at play as that break away from serious stuff, when actually if you are serious about play, it's quite inspiring. I didn't know it then. She did. I know it now.
DIVERSITY & INCLUSION IN AN INDUSTRY DEFINED BY EXCLUSIVITY
On the question of supporting a more diverse and inclusive culture within the notoriously exclusive fashion industry, Salam sees a puzzle,
Today more than ever, the leaders of the world, whether it is in technology or fashion, are understanding what I call a puzzle. Everyone matters. And if you are missing, the picture isn't full.
We are starting to understand that the opinions of all, the viewpoints of all, need to come together, as pieces of a puzzle. When we come together as 100 percent, you have a full picture. I love the Democratisation of that. I love the inclusion of that, and I love the fact that whether you are a man, a woman, black, white, tall or short, your sexuality, your viewpoint, your travel, your upbringing and personality have to be included in a way that fits into this puzzle for the world to benefit as a whole.
Finally, what’s Salam’s advice for anyone considering a career in fashion design?
Do it for the love of it. There will be hurdles, difficulties and obstacles. Those are going to really help you develop the right muscle to do it the right way. So if it's just for the fun of it, if it's just for a minute or a second, if you don't believe in it, don't even bother. You have to really, really fall in love with the concept of beauty. Beautifying. And affirming other people in that art form.