British-Jordanian designer, Omar Kashoura, takes a moment to reflect on a career that has taken him from West Yorkshire to the fashion capitals of the world.
His interest in fashion started while he was at school in the north of England, in the city of Leeds. His school was unusual in offering options beyond the usual academic subjects, and so he was introduced to the study of textiles at the age of fourteen. That was, he explained, “Quite weird at the time, as no boys did textiles.” But he found himself designing women’s dresses and enjoying the classes.
Asked where his passion for fashion came from, he said his mother’s sense of style had been an inspiration. But he added that he had a gut feeling that it was his ‘destiny’ to design.
The fact that he grew up in England wasn’t a given at his birth. His Jordanian father met his English mother when he went to Leeds to study. Upon their marriage, his mother converted to Islam, and the couple had twin sons, Omar and Salim. The boys were born in England, but at two weeks old they went with their parents to live in Jordan.
However, his mother missed her family, and she returned to England with the boys when they were three years old. His father had intended to follow, but as the eldest son, when his own father fell ill, he had to assume responsibility for the family. So he stayed on in Jordan. For this reason, Omar and his twin brother had only limited contact with their father while growing up.
While Omar maintains that he was happy and had everything he needed as a child, certain things he says point to a longing for a stronger bond with his father. “I want him to be proud of me and hope he might see me in some news,” he said. His father has remarried and has a new family. Omar is on good terms with his half-brother and sisters, who he says have seen his work and are proud of his success.
In terms of his career, winning the Best International Menswear Designer at New York’s Gen Art style Awards in 2005, was a turning point in showcasing his talent. He entered pieces from his final year collection at the London College of Fashion, from which he graduated with first class honors. His clothes were shown in Miami and Chicago, where they caught the eye of key players in the industry.
His career took off, but he explained, his start was a bit shaky. In 1999 at the age of seventeen, he abandoned the diploma course in fashion he was doing in Leeds, and set off for London. He took this step against a background of increasing tension between himself and his twin brother, who felt over-shadowed. “We were always fighting — I was always the higher achiever — I always seemed to be the favorite. He felt ostracized — so I thought if I left maybe it would make things better,” he recalled.
It was a decision, he said, “that broke my mother’s heart,” at the time.
His first priority on arriving in London was to continue his disrupted studies. He was advised to study at a higher level and was accepted at the London College of Fashion, which was then pioneering menswear design. He felt he was pushed somewhat in this direction in order to make-up the class numbers. “It wasn’t what I imagined but they said I was ‘no good at women’s wear’,” he said.
While studying he took a part-time job, and one day spoke to a customer who turned out to be a manufacturer for several designers for London Fashion Week. This contact led to a work placement with London-based fashion house, Preen, which was, as he put it, “really taking off at that point but small enough for me to be able to ask questions.”
At Preen he was introduced to all aspects of the fashion industry, an education he believes was vital in developing his business acumen. As a production assistant, he learnt about manufacturers, factories, fabric suppliers, quantities, pricing and dealing with the market. “So many designers,” he pointed out, “are catapulted into the limelight, doing collections and shows, and don’t know how to deal with production.”
From Preen, Omar went on to set up his own company, and started to consult for another label, ‘Unconditional’. He did two fashion seasons and began to appreciate, “How difficult the fashion world is.”
He started to look more closely at the careers of successful designers and noted that most of the big UK names had done a Master of Arts (MA) at Central St. Martins School of Art and Design.
He was accepted onto the MA program at Saint Martins, but this proved to be a time of mixed emotions. Relating to the other students, mostly straight out of college, was difficult after running his own business. He had his own studio and tended to work alone and not mix freely. “I knew what I wanted to achieve,” he said. “I wasn’t continuing studying just for the sake of it — I was already thinking about the bigger picture.”
In retrospect, he says, doing the MA “was the best thing I’ve ever done.” It was, he recalled, “A time to allow myself the freedom to be more creative and to use expensive fabrics, making my brand more luxury.” He also drove himself to “live up the reputation of St. Martins,” noting that some students cracked under the pressure.
His career has gone from strength to strength. He won the prestigious Deutsche Bank Pyramid Award in 2008, and received a New Generation Designer Award from the British Fashion Council. He has designed a capsule collection with Turkish Brand, Tween, and an international collection for Topman Lens. He is known for his use of luxurious fabrics, distinctive use of color and attention to detail.
Other successful collaborations are with Hudson Shoes (Purified collection) and with hat makers, Bernstock Speirs.
His latest inspiration is the ‘Beat Generation’ led by 1950’s writers such as Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The Beat Generation celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. This is in contrast to his previous collection which referenced the 1960’s and 70’s — Woodstock/Hendrix/soft lines/dropped shoulders/fluidity/ ‘washed’ look fabrics.
But at the end of the day, he observes, “In fashion it’s all about the attitude of the guy — as much as the clothes he is wearing.” He cites Robert Rabensteiner, fashion editor of L’Uomo Vogue (the Conde Nast magazine dedicated to men), as someone whose energy and persona is reflected through the way he dresses. Rabensteiner’s style tip is ‘Be yourself’. He combines a strong, confident masculinity with an insouciant flair and elegance.
Omar is now on good terms with his twin brother and his mother is proud of him, even though, he says, “She doesn’t really understand what I do!”
His line is carried by ‘Sid’ in Jeddah.