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Reviving Moroccan Heritage Through Fashion, Salimane Couture

Ayat Salimane is a luxury fashion designer specialising in modest evening wear. Born and based in London with a mixture of Arab and South-Asian heritage, she grew up surrounded by glamourous caftans and attending glittery weddings. She taught herself to sew after her mother gifted her a sewing machine. Soon after, she launched Salimane Couture and has been handmaking extravagant modest gowns infused with hints of her Moroccan culture ever since. Now aged 26, Ayat has run various workshops on pattern cutting, circular fashion, and how to make haute couture more sustainable. She has made bespoke made-to-measure gowns for clients around the world, designing, sewing, and shipping the gowns all by herself from her home studio.

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you learnt the skill of sewing?

Ever since I was a little girl, I was so gripped by fashion. My mother can vouch for how stubborn I was when it came to my clothing and shoes. I knew what I wanted to wear, how I wanted it styled, and exactly which shoes would go with it (although naturally, at the age of four there were more misses than hits with my wardrobe choices).

I had very little exposure to sewing as a child. My father was in the fashion industry, but he left us when I was relatively young, so I never really explored my interest in fashion with him. I think that made me shy away from it for quite a while because of the association it had with him. I do remember, though, how he left behind a Juki sewing machine in our garage which I would secretly inspect: I’d spin its hand wheel and watch the empty needle bar rise and fall.

But like most things in your nature, you just can’t suppress them. I recall being as young as nine years old, sketching bridal gowns and hand-sewing little items of clothing for my Barbie dolls out of old scarves, then growing into adulthood and flicking through pages of Vogue while I was studying my Law degree at the LSE.

I never actually used a sewing machine until after I had graduated university and my mother bought one for me at the age of 23. That’s when I thought “no more stalling, I’m teaching myself to sew,”. Within months I had made myself my first ever gown for a friend’s wedding.

Why did you create Salimane Couture?

Dressmaking for me is not just a creative outlet, but a massive emotional outlet. My designs reflect what I love: details, beauty, modesty, and art. The whole process is incredibly therapeutic. Seeing women wearing something I made and feeling beautiful wearing it fills me with so much gratitude and joy. So with a huge push from my husband, I finally decided I was going to offer my design and dressmaking services to the world. I knew I wanted them to forever be an ode to my mother who worked so hard to give me that joy growing up, despite being left alone to raise the three of us, and Salimane is her maiden name. There are other family members who also share that surname and had a huge impact on my upbringing and life in general: my uncle and grandfather. They went out of their way and beyond their duties to help and be there for us. Salimane is more than a family name, it defined love and security for me as a child, and it made Salimane Couture just feel right.

How do you unite British couture and Moroccan traditional clothing in your designs?

When I’m designing and making a dress, there’s a huge mixture of influences and inspirations that help develop the final piece. I find myself greatly influenced by western haute couture when it comes to the use of delicate fabrics combined with extravagant quirks that give a gown personality.

I then also find myself drawn to the silhouette of a Moroccan caftan and the detailing that can be found in its handmade jacquard knot buttons that I taught myself to make, and the symmetry created by its sfifa (the trimming detail that runs down the middle of a dress). Each of my designs is always formulated using some sort of combination of these influences, resulting in a unique genre of modest fashion.

Is there an interest in the revival of traditional clothing?

Considering Salimane Couture is a revival of traditional clothing combined with modern twists, the younger generations of women and girls are, as a result, incredibly intrigued by this neo-Maghrebi fashion. It fits their desire of wearing a gown without losing touch with their heritage, and that’s what made me want to sew in the first place. I struggled to find traditional-wear that really fit my vision. A full-on takchita (a heavily embellished two-piece Moroccan dress with a structured belt) is fine to wear to a traditional wedding in Morocco, but would look overdressed if worn to a less cultural wedding here in the UK. That’s when I saw my place in the market of modest fashion.

What are some of the aesthetics of Moroccan traditional?

Details. Moroccan traditional, in my opinion, is the perfect combination of intricate detail and symmetry. It’s also incredibly feminine and elegant too. ‘Aqaad are the handmade jacquard knots that traditionally run down the middle front of a dress, the sfifa (trimming) runs like train tracks on each side of the line of ‘aqaad, and also around the neckline, cuffs, and hem of the dress.

I frequently take these two elements and use them in untraditional ways: for one of my pieces, I put ‘aqaad on the shoulders and in another, the sfifa featured on the back of the dress instead. Moroccan traditional wear also has a very specific silhouette: a flowing A-line dress paired with a structured waist-belt to give a soft, modest, feminine silhouette. This is something else I often express in my designs, although I have experimented outside of this silhouette too.

Do your designs reflect your identity as a Muslim?

I chose to wear my hijab when I was very young. I remember really struggling to find clothing that suited my age as well as my need. There was a lot of layering – way before it was cool – and it was definitely extra hard in the summer months when no item of clothing seemed to be made with more than half a meter of fabric. So I knew when embarking on this adventure that modesty had to be the crux of each of my designs. I get quite a few messages on my page from non-Muslims asking if only Muslims can wear my designs because they’re modest, and that warms my heart. I am always happy to talk about how modesty isn’t an exclusively Muslim thing, it can even look different from person to person, and there’s so much that plays into it.

Another element of my identity as a Muslim that I try to express in my fashion is sustainability. I have run various workshops about slow and circular fashion. I taught people how to create a pattern using a t-shirt that they already own; that way they can sew their own wardrobe more easily and thus need to tap into fast fashion less. I also source my fabrics from deadstock suppliers. These fabrics are brought from high-end and high-street clothing companies like Alice Temperly, Zara, River Island, etc. and would have otherwise ended up in landfill. Finally, I make-to-order, meaning there isn’t a stockpile of hundreds of pieces that have been shipped half way across the world. Each of my pieces are handmade in my studio by me, and this is a huge way to reduce waste.

What is your process for creating a piece from ideation to execution?

Fabric vs idea is my version of chicken vs egg. Which came first? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. At times, I see a fabric and I immediately picture a gorgeous design for it. Other times I envisage a design and have to hunt for the perfect fabric for it. If it’s a custom order, of course, the design and fabric is discussed and agreed upon in the first consultation with my client. After this, I sketch my design to solidify it on paper and I get making: using my client’s measurements, I cut my pattern, cut the pieces, and then sew, sew, and sew some more.

After this comes time for the details: depending on the design, I could be doing hand embroidery for three weeks straight, or attaching by hand ten meters of feathers, either way, by the grace of Allah, it’s at this point I get that Cinderella moment and feel my dress come to life. The final stage is boxing and shipping: I attach the Salimane Couture label, and I also love adding a personalised note, thanking the person for entrusting me with this venture. And off she goes to be worn and adored by her new owner. This process can take anywhere between four and twelve weeks depending on the intricacy and design of the gown.

What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you, and how can fashion design contribute to its development?

The modest fashion industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the fashion world today. To me, fashion is art. It is an expression of heritage and culture as much as it is a statement, and if fashion is all of these things, then fashion has a major role in the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture. We see western art and fashion across the world, but Islamic art seems to still be reserved somewhat to our home countries and museums, so the future of Islamic art is in the more mainstream appreciation of it. Comparing modest fashion now to what it was when I was a young hijabi, I’m so excited for where we are headed. High street brands are trying to pierce the market, and the unprecedented acceptance and representation is a great improvement to see, but I am yet to see haute couture truly embrace modest Muslim-owned fashion, so when you see Salimane Couture and other modest fashion brands at a London Fashion Week, I’d say Islamic art is fully making it.

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