INTERVIEW BY JOSEPH AKEL
Walid al Damirji’s fashion label is everything couture should be: handpicked, upcycled antique fabrics (see: 1920s linens, 18th-century embroideries, and 100-year-old prints) sold for a fraction of the price; his line By Walid isn’t just slow fashion but the anti-fast-fashion. From his studio in West London, the designer talks to Atmos on how he transforms historical textiles into intricate, one-of-a-kind ready-to-wear pieces intended to last several lifetimes.
Walid al Damirji loves fabric—historical, antique, distressed fabric, to be exact. For close to a decade, the designer behind the cult fashion line By Walid has been creating fantastical, handmade pieces sourced from a far-flung network of international textile suppliers. Patched and sewn-together, al Damirji’s pieces—which might include fabric from the court of the Ottoman Empire or 19th century French linens—give upcycling a decidedly centuries-old twist. It’s an approach to design that al Damirji considers slow fashion, an ethos which both rejects the seasonal cycle that has long dictated the fashion calendar as well as the culture of waste that accompanies it.
In many ways, when al Damirji launched By Walid in 2011, he was, along with a handful of other designers at the forefront of the fashion industry’s interest in the “zero waste” movement—a term described in a 2010 New York Times article as “radical.” But, for al Damirji, the insistence on zero-waste design has as much to do with sustainability as it does with a respect and regard for history. “My approach to design” he notes, “is to step back and appreciate what has already been created and should be maintained.” Here, he speaks with Atmos on his love of historic textiles, his belief in clothes that take time, and the fate of fashion’s seasonal cycle.
One of the central, defining characteristics of By Walid is your exclusive use of repurposed heritage and antique fabrics in the production of your designs. How did you come upon this practice? What was the origin and inspiration for this choice?
Walid al Damirji
I’ve always been an avid reader of history and historical personalities. This, in turn, encouraged the textile collecting. I think what I make is a natural progression. I had actually left the fashion industry—I’d sold my last business and I didn’t want to go back to it. I started a chocolate business, chocolate and bakeries. But, I had this one textile that I’d always wanted to use for a jacket. And it was basically a very rough hemp linen that had become so soft with age. I made a jacket for a friend of mine and then another friend of mine said, “I’ve got to have one of those, too,” so it grew from there.
All of a sudden, I was making these jackets for people, who were in the fashion industry, and they pushed and pushed me to show in Paris, and, well, the rest is history.
Speaking of history, it must be hard to find these textiles and I imagine there is a good deal of scavenging that occurs? How did you go about sourcing these? Or is there an ample supply?
There is a limited supply of antique fabrics. And I feel blessed because a lot of dealers have sought me out; they contact me and say, “I’m a specialist in this, would you like to take a look?” And it’s all been very word of mouth. I now have dealers from California, San Francisco, New York, and so on. And they all know that I love a good piece of distressing—the more distressed, the happier I am.
Prior to COVID-19, many of them made the trip to London. But, at the end of the day, it does take effort and time to source the textiles. I visit all the vintage fairs and auction houses. I never leave any stone unturned; there are opportunities everywhere.
The process by which you incorporate found and sourced fabrics are incredibly labor-intensive: each garment you create is a hand-sewn, hand-dyed creation that requires fastidious attention to detail. In many ways, your designs are the antithesis of fast-fashion—indeed, you call your process “slow fashion.” Why is it important for you to emphasize the couture-like quality of your designs?
It is a long process from start to finish—some of the panels take nearly a year to complete. Many are labors of love. These pieces are an extension of who I am and what I believe in.
You launched By Walid in 2011—a time when many fashion brands were not actively thinking about, or emphasizing, concepts such as sustainability and going “zero waste.” In many ways, you were ahead of the industry in making this central to your design philosophy. Indeed, you have been quoted as saying you do not want the pieces you create to be “seasonally disposable.” Why is it important to create pieces that aren’t so temporary?
I think it’s become a bit of a mockery when you have these super expensive pieces floating around—and they literally last for two weeks or two months—and then the next month they’re on sale, back on the heap. Throw-away, seasonal fashion has had a long run. This is now more evident than ever.
Many have compared elements of your design philosophy to the Japanese practice of Boro—the mending and repairing of textiles, resulting in pieces that are often passed down from generation to generation. Why is it important for you to use historic fabric and what is your connection to them?
As I have said, the passion for these repurposed fabrics is an extension of who I am. For me, there’s nothing quite like seeing an ancient textile that has been handmade and was obviously treasured by somebody else.
I’m often sold something by a dealer who will tell me, Well, this has come from such and such. And I’ll know that it’s not. I’ll be like, “Well, no, that hasn’t actually. It’s come from this part of Turkey or this part of the Ottoman Empire.”
I would also posit there is another Japanese concept that even more closely aligns with your design practice, Mottainai—a term that conveys a sense of regret over waste.
It’s true. I loathe waste and I believe that by reusing these textiles, I have given new purpose and respect to treasures that have, at times, been left by the roadside. A lot of the things that I’ve collected have just been sidelined to make way for newer, faster products. I just think, What a waste! My approach to design is to step back and appreciate what has already been created and should be maintained.
I mean, when you think about it, in the 19th century, a farmer’s wife made hemp linen sheets that she gave out to the workers in the field to soften for six months and sleep on. And, six months later, they returned them to her soft so that she could then sell them. And these things are still handed down, still available, and could still be usable.
I think I would be remiss not to ask about your practice in the current global environment, one that will, I think, change how we interact with each other and the world for some time to come. How has this period of isolation and reflection touched you, especially with regard to your practice as a designer and artist?
It’s given me the courage to continue in what I do. I never started this with a conscious decision to start a “movement” but now it seems so obvious. I was ill with the coronavirus and am all too aware of the sadness engulfing us all: the realization that we are waking up to a new world where hopefully we will all respect the planet in a very different way. Perhaps others will follow my example.