The visionary empath pioneering his way through sustainable design.
Meet the talented 2020 Fashion Forward winner, Yousef Akbar, who launched his contemporary evening wear brand in 2017. Born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Akbar went to Australia to study logistics, however quickly realized that fashion was his calling. After completing his Bachelor’s degree in Fashion Design, he debuted the Yousef Akbar brand for the first time in 2017 during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia.
The Yousef Akbar brand is renown for its sustainable efforts in the region as it was built on the spirit of collaboration; creating ethical and responsible couture and ready to wear. The garments both make the wearer look good but also feel good. “Before I begin designing, I don’t really think about designing clothes, but I think about creating something beautiful. To me this is truly beyond just a profession, it is something I deeply connect with and feel it gives me a sense of purpose,” states Akbar on the brand’s website.
With Vision 2030 well under way, Contributing Editor Saja Elmishri had a virtual chat with Akbar to find out more about what sustainability in Saudi Arabia looks like today and the influences that inspire his progressive brand.
1. Your background first started in logistics then you went into fashion – tell me more about this?
I always liked art, painting and drawing and I was also interested in fashion but I never thought having a career as an artist or a designer was possible. When I was younger I was a good student – I got a scholarship from the Saudi government to study abroad. Of course, my parents wanted me to graduate with what they would call a ‘normal’ degree, so I went ahead and studied a bachelor and masters in logistics. Towards the end of my master’s degree, I had more free time so I joined a fashion course to learn how to make my own clothes just out of interest but I never imagined it would be my career. I then discovered that fashion was a way I could express myself and I completely fell in love with the creative process. During that time I realized I couldn’t do anything else.
2. When designing a new collection, describe the idea of designing for a specific type of customer. How does that process go in your mind?
It usually starts with a general emotion or story or a message that I want to express. Further, it begins with thorough personal research from books, films, music, history, the internet, basically whatever I find relevant. The process of research itself is like a journey; sometimes it takes me into unexpected places and it evolves as I go along. Later I would gather all of this information and look for interesting points that I want to focus on, and then I narrow it down more and more in a way that would make sense to me. Once I am done with the initial stage of research, then I would try to translate those references by sketching and draping to get my shapes and cuts for the collection, where I would continue to refine it. From there I would also use my inspiration to develop textures and colors and finally bring the entire story together. Generally speaking though, because my work is always personal to me, every collection or piece is a continuation or a reaction to the previous piece of work.
3. In your Blood Witness collection you mentioned the experiences of witnessing women being oppressed – is this firsthand experience the motivating factor that you take with you as a designer?
This is an important part of my inspiration and the message. However, generally speaking my work is inspired by issues that I care about and connect with emotionally, and the story I want to tell.
4. How is sustainability influencing you as a designer and the work that you do? Tell us more about it.
I don’t believe sustainability influences me as a designer because this implies that it’s something extra or optional. I don’t believe it is even an option not to be sustainable. Anything that is being made now, whether it’s fashion or anything else it has to be made in a sustainable and ethical way. And I don’t mean just using a sustainable technique or a fabric that’s maybe recycled. I mean brands should look at every single thing they do and do it sustainably. If I can’t do it sustainably and ethically I will not do it. And for us at Yousef Akbar it is at our core; we start by creating products that are timeless and long lasting, because I believe the essence of sustainability is longevity. For us it’s not about just pushing products out to the customer – it’s about telling a story and the creativity behind that.
When it comes to our process, we ensure that everyone we work with is paid a fair and livable decent wage. All our supply chain partners are mostly family businesses and they are like family to us. We also source everything locally to where it’s made to minimize our carbon footprint. Our design process is paperless. And we use cutting techniques that also help minimize waste. When it comes to our materials, we use stock, recycled and biodegradable materials. And we are continuously working on doing better, because it is not enough. Also we are also working currently on being completely transparent in showing exactly where everything is made and even how much it actually costs us.
"I don’t believe sustainability influences me as a designer, because this implies that it's something extra or optional."
5. What does sustainability look like in Saudi Arabia?
Over the past two to three years people have become more aware and conscious about what they buy and how they consume and dispose/recycle their materials. However I believe the fashion industry as a whole in Saudi is still at its very early stage in general. And specifically in the area of sustainability.
6. What can specifically be done to improve the sustainability fashion market in Saudi Arabia?
Simply put, two things: 1) education, for both the designers and the consumers. Because unless both believe and acknowledge the problem and want to change or are willing to change, it won’t work. 2) government to drive and fuel this movement by facilitating this education and providing the resources and infrastructure for this to be possible.
7. How have you found the response of your sustainable brand among Saudi retailers and consumers versus those in different GCC countries like UAE? Is there any difference?
I believe there is still a long way to go, in general in the Middle East as I mentioned previously. People are interested and it will take time as with any other behavior change to resonate with people, but I am generally positive about it.