It’s Political but Let’s Face It

by Long Nguyen

Rad Hourani shows exhausting precision as the designer debuts couture
I think my unisex style has always remained the same but with a certain evolution that expresses how I feel,” Rad Hourani told me just a few hours after his second couture show in Paris, staged at the Centre Culturel Canadien. His assistants were busy unloading the racks of clothes at his showroom-store-atelier on rue Charlot, the narrow street off the Marais packed with small art galleries, vintage boutiques, and emerging designers’ workrooms and shops. “My first collection in Paris in 2007 is still as timeless as my latest collection in 2013. I want to free my collection from all trends or seasons or references from the past. My design will always be unisex, architectural, symmetrical and graphic, and this is what helps me to keep them timeless.”

Hourani showed a small collection during the Fall/Winter season in July of 2012, his first foray into Paris couture for members of Fédération Française de la Couture, a syndicate body that meticulously oversees the elite designation of the couture label. To counter a crisis of dwindling membership over the last decade and rejuvenate couture, the chamber relinquished many of its archaic rules—like the amount of hours of handiwork per garment or the required quantity of seamstresses in the atelier—to admit new designers.

A year after the recommendation by his mentor, Christian Dior’s CEO Sidney Toledano, Hourani was offered a guest designer spot on the Spring/Summer official calendar in December of 2012. He was the first Canadian designer invited to join the ranks of Parisian couturiers and the first ever to present a collection of entirely unisex clothes.

Born in 1982 to a Jordanian-Canadian father and a Syrian mother, Hourani spent his first sixteen years in Jordan with an older brother and three younger sisters before the entire family relocated to Montréal, Canada. Upon finishing high school, he worked as a scout for a modeling agency until, as he puts it, ‘one thing leads to another’ and he started doing odd styling jobs for fashion magazines and a few commercial clients. “I think I never been into ‘fashion.’ I have always been into ‘aesthetic.’ I was very aware of how I looked and how I wanted everything to look around me,” he says.

After moving to Paris in 2005 to continue his styling work, Hourani started to sketch and soon developed a keen interest in making his own clothes. The sketches and sample clothes that he made coalesced organically into a small collection that he launched with a show in January 2007 under his own name.

“I think that clothes are the first element that you can express yourself with. What we wear is what we are, in a way. I believe that looking for the exact thing to wear was the first step into designing my collection—I was looking for something very specific that did not exist: genderless, timeless, seasonless, and ageless…I don’t consider myself a designer or a photographer or a filmmaker or a writer; I am all of those in one to be able to express my vision through all mediums to have a complete communication of my unisex language.”

Set against the classic feel of a small French hôtel particulier with old wooden floors and moldings along white walls, Hourani’s second couture show displayed all the hallmarks of the clothes he created since he debuted. Males and females models with identical black bobs wore sharply cut, streamlined clothes – boxy, thin lapel jackets; short jackets with deep L-shape cut lapels and rectangular flaps across the back; mock-neck vests and high-collar long shirts; cigarette short-cuffed pants; sleeveless jackets; long rigid coats—all layered interchangeably. A sleeveless jacket became a shirt under a long coat, or was worn over a longer jacket to create a double layer effect.

With fabrics ranging from silk crepe to fine leathers, the twenty-two looks collection included all-white and all-black looks, and a mixture of graphic black and white garments devoid of any surface decorations—a welcome departure from the ornamentation and elaborate handiwork of couture heritage. Experimentation has always been central to couture and Hourani, like Alexandre Vauthier or Iris Van Herpen, proposed a new couture, one less encumbered with frivolity but fully entrenched in creating luxurious, wearable and functional clothes.

“My clothes have evolved since my debut exactly five years ago. The evolution is in the construction and in the complexity of the design but the style is still the same unisex style. It’s my forte, as I love to create something that looks minimal or simple but is extremely complex to make.  For me, this is the most challenging process of work. I also admire the craftsmanship of making something to the extreme luxury without screaming it loud.”

Without any formal training in design, Hourani approaches the design aspect of his work “like an architect,” which he says works to his advantage. “I have the freedom to create whatever comes to my mind that fits in my unisex vision. I am the first person to design a unisex high-end collection in the world and that comes from my ‘no background’ background.”

Besides producing fashion, Hourani has photographed all his look books and exhibited a multi-media installation at the Arnhem Biennale as well as directed video projects. “Art is an important element in our life. We need to break illusion and build new ones. We need certain design to be functional in life but we need certain language to be inspired and to move forward in society. I can’t live without dreaming.”

Asked if he considers himself a conception designer, he explains, “No, I prefer not to be categorized and I don’t even think of myself as a ‘designer.’ I am someone living on planet Earth who uses different mediums to express myself through them; design, art, film, photography, music, etcetera. You can call me a visualist if you need to give me a title.”

Dress is the perhaps one of the most significant signposts of gender differentiation and an anchor of cultural identities via visual communication, yet Hourani’s designs erase the possibility of gendering a garment. Still, he maintains, his work takes human form into consideration. “The body is super important to me. I took a full year to understand the different shapes of bodies and how I could make them longer, slicker, modern and comfortable at the same time. I don’t understand who put these codes of dressing by gender. It doesn’t make sense to me that a woman should dress in a different way than a man or vice versa. I am not trying to dress a man like a women or the opposite. I am creating a new way of dressing that makes people look modern without any limits.”

In 1993, Ruth Barnes wrote in Dress and Gender - Making and Meaning:

Social identity expressed in dress becomes not only an answer to the question of who one is, but how one is, and concerns the definition of the self in relation to a moral and religious value system.

Hourani’s fashion is a seismic shifting away from this perspective, offering a new approach to how we perceive clothes. His designs are not, however, a trend-riding experimentation with androgyny. “Fashion is a trend machine that makes no sense to me. It is a money business and I am not interested in fashion. My interest is in the world and the people who live on this planet, and I hope that my life will serve to communicate a message that can evolve our society and the way we live.”