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Omer Asim

Omer Asim

Words by Jenny Pashkova
Photography by Johanna Nyholm

 

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Omer Asim is more than a mere fashion designer, he is a bona fide craftsman. His master-of-all-trades background might go some way to explain the artisan approach to his work. After arriving in England as a fresh-faced 17 year old in 1995 from Sudan, he embarked on a degree in architecture at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. He then turned his hand to a postgraduate degree in Political Science at London School of Economics before starting training as a psychoanalyst with the United Nations Development Program. However, all of these paths eventually led him to fashion, of which he says, “I wanted to do a PhD in visual anthropology and fashion was my interest, so after looking in to it for a year and a half, I wrote my proposal and everything – I decided I wanted to do this. I wanted to make fashion.”

Clearly a studious mind, he says he “learned everything from internships”. Three year’s worth of internships simply polished up what was obviously a raw talent in the making. One that appreciates the actual ‘making’ of each garment and sneers at the over-use of technology in our modern times. “One of the reasons why I think I ended up in fashion is because I always felt like I wanted to do something with my hands,” he explains. “We keep on using more and more computers and we are very far removed from nature.” Now, Omer purposefully uses natural, often hand-made fabrics to create his statuesque and minimal shapes.

Omer’s studio is a labyrinthine penthouse, tucked away just behind St Paul’s Cathedral in London. There is no shortage of space to work in and the view from the rooftop alone would provide any would-be artist enough inspiration. Omer himself is humble and oh-so-polite – apologising for the dust in the midst of the ongoing renovation. And as any gracious host he instantly offers a cup of tea. Dressed in a casual marl-grey tracksuit, high fashion he’s not, but that’s what makes him so fascinating. Underneath the soft-spoken exterior lies an uncompromising idealist.

“There are so many things that I could do that I know people would want to buy but I don’t do them because I don’t feel it’s what I do,” Omer says. There is a theme of going with gut instincts and doing what ‘feels right’ running throughout the interview, which reinforce the primitive nature of the clothes, approach and entire design process.
What were your first impressions of England when you arrived in 1995?
It was a long time ago and I just remember feeling that everything was new and odd. The first few months were very lonely. Everything was just very different. Everything. And living by myself for the first time was a shock. At first I lived in Bath – it’s a small town with I think 80% pensioners – and there wasn’t anything for someone my age. Everything shut after 6pm.

What made you interested in doing an architecture degree?
I think it was just because, where I come from, you don’t have as many choices. You were going to grow up thinking that you were going to be an engineer or a doctor. These were the options. I can’t be a doctor so it was engineering and architecture kind of felt natural.

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Your designs even now are quite sculptural. Did any of your training influence you?
I don’t think of it like that but maybe it comes out unconsciously. I never think that my aesthetic is architectural. In fact, I hate it when people compare architecture and fashion. I think it’s a very naff comparison. Also, I think there is a tendency in fashion to want to aspire to become something else. I think people feel that fashion isn’t good enough. And that’s why they try to desensitise it with technology and architecture as if it’s not a respectable enough profession. And the way that I design is with some very technical garment-making processes so I feel close to the process of making clothes.

What are the processes involved to make the garments?
Some fabrics, I make them myself. But if you are a small designer, you don’t have a lot of options so you come up with ways to make something out of nothing. So that is how the fabric-making came about. Because I felt I needed to make some interesting fabrics because I can’t buy them – so of course it turns out to be more expensive! But at least it’s my time. Of course I don’t make all of my fabrics, but a good proportion of them. I re-treat them to give them a new look, and some of them I make from scratch and attach to another fabric or do something else to it and ultimately come up with something that looks good.

How has your style evolved?
I think when I first started fashion I was quite naïve and it was mainly about what I would like to make. Now, I think about what people want to wear. And how I can compromise what I want with what they want and reach a point halfway between. I have come to accept the fact that I need to make clothes for people so I need to offer a service. It’s not really about me and what I want anymore. I don’t make anything that I am not happy with but it just pushed me more to think about what I like and what other people want. I think fashion has clichés: icons and muses, and inspirations and themes and I don’t really think like that. But sometimes you have to give people an answer because they ask you these questions.

Where did the colour palette for your new SS ‘15 collection come from?
Five years ago I used to hate black and I would never buy anything black – I didn’t even see it as a colour. And then suddenly overnight, I discovered black! And this is how my colour palette came about. So I feel like I still can’t get enough of black because it’s the new thing that I started to see. Also because a lot of what I do is based on cut and form of the garment and it just happens that it works best in black, white and neutral colours. It does the whole cut more justice. Colour always come last. I think first about the form and the cut. For SS ’15 I used green and it just came about naturally. So I didn’t start off thinking ‘I am going to have green this season’, it just felt right. Sometimes, during the making of the pieces, it just feels like it works.

What are your favourite fabrics to work with?
I like either very soft or quite stiff fabrics to work with. Any fabric with ‘body’ that will keep the form I quite like. But we are not really in to ‘techno’ fabrics like neoprene, more cotton and muslin and wool and silk. I always think that whatever I do is somewhere between primitive and post-modern because I find them to be quite similar in many ways. Anything natural feels right to me. Before I started to make fabrics, I used to use fabrics that are handmade and that evolved into me making some fabrics.

How do you go about sourcing your hand-made fabrics?
I get them from Ethiopia. Apparently, they have the biggest population of people who still make fabrics by hand. And they have these really, really old ways of making traditional fabrics. I have been working with this guy who has his own loom and it just feels better for me. I do it [work with local craftsmen] because I think the fabric looks really nice so it’s not a charity project; it’s like a lost art that I think should be rediscovered.

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Shot at Omer Asim’s studio in London WC1 on 19 October 2014. Thank you to Omer for his hospitality and time.

Art Direction: Johanna Bonnevier & Peter Ainsworth
Make-up: Louise O’Neill
Hair: Anna Cofone
Hair assistant: Kerri Ewart
Photography assistant: Johanna Lundqvist
Casting director: Rebecca Knox
Models: Iara and Nora at Next