Hatem Al-Akeel – Taking Tradition To New Places
Who are you?
I am a human being but not from this planet. My name is Hatem Al-Akeel.
What do you do?
I am a Designer and Entrepreneur.
Please tell us about your brand, the idea behind it and what it offers in today’s world.
My brand is called Toby. The idea behind the brand is to change perception about tradition and demonstrate how tradition can also be relevant, high fashion and international.
You culture obviously has been the integral part of your ideas, how have you instilled modernism while maintaining the integrity of the traditional Thawbe attire?
I offer various lines that cater to a different type of gentleman but the but the main goal is always to demonstrate a contemporary side to tradition, Whether it’s at the Golden Globes on the red carpet, to a serious more corporate look for a board meeting, to lounging around the house with a more casual look.
You mentioned that the brand’s message surpasses culture regardless of nationality, language, race or creed. Can you explain that?
Fashion is a universal language that everyone can relate to. What is appealing to the naked eye is appealing regardless of any background, culture or creed. Fashion is like art, subjective.
Forbes, Esquire and not several celebrities have lauded your work, did you always envision this future?
I have been quite blessed but I assure you, it did not all happen overnight. I still try to pinch myself sometimes. But in spite of the pinch and many reality checks, I always try to stay grounded and appreciative.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?
To have additional international presence and to see myself getting more out of my comfort zone.
Tell us your inspiration behind Toby Arts.
Is your production based in Saudi? Where do you source your fabrics from?
I indeed have my own atelier in Jeddah with very carefully selected tailors and master cutters, who have been selected over many years. I source most of my fabrics from Italy and Japan
How often do you visit Dubai and where can the Dubai customer find your brand?
I am between Dubai and KSA on a regular basis. I literally do 2 weeks in Jeddah, 2 weeks in Dubai every month systematically. I currently sell at O Concept in Jumeirah, my own boutique in Jeddah and sell online.
‘East Meets West’ seems to be one of your strongest taglines, or brand identity. Can you tell our readers how that happens with your thawbes.
It started off that way because I am a product of the East and West. I am Saudi but grow up in Europe and the States for most of my earlier years . Although I am very proud of my culture and heritage I still have a very European/Western side to my mentality and personality. My design ethos now is more than just ‘East Meets West’. It is more about a Global Fusion.
With Toby Junior, your brand is not only shaping a new trend but also instilling a strong sense of culture in the youth, maintaining the modernism aspect. How important is it for the Middle-East to retain its identity and culture? Do you feel it’s losing its touch?
My junior clients are tomorrow ‘s trend setters. Maintaining tradition, heritage and culture is a vital to ones identity. We do however need to understand to become more relevant and innovate, so that those that are not familiar with tradition can look at it more objectively and can relate to it.
One of your most famous signature collections, the FW13 fondly known as the 007 or BOND collection, really broke barriers for the regular conservative attitude that people have towards a Kandura. What was the idea and motivation behind it?
The motivation behind it was do show a very polished, suave and James Bond homage to the traditional gentleman. I feel 007 is the epitome of what a cool, slick gentleman should dress like. I can’t think of any guy that did not at one stage of their life, want to become James Bond.
Social Media has turned out to be a force to be reckoned with, what are your thoughts about it? Recently at Milan Fashion Week, one of the famous designers advised people to not Snapchat, Instagram or take any pictures during the presentations. As a designer of this age, what are the Pro’s and Con’s of social media for your work.
With every pro, a con must accompany it. That’s just life I guess. However I do think that additional exposure can be instrumental in getting the message across. Let’s not forget that in design the craft, actual quality and execution of the work is the most important aspect in fashion. Social Media gives that platform to all, as it was much more one sided prior to social media.
Although you grew up between 3 extremely diverse regions, UAE – Europe – KSA. Do you identify yourself as a Saudi? If so, why?
Absolutely and a very proud one. If not for Saudi I would not have been able to be part of Europe, UAE or the States. I have been quite blessed. However I do not think that ignorance is bliss. It is everyone’s duty to learn, explore and educate themselves on different cultures and understanding diverse mindsets.
A dynamic nation like KSA filled with powerhouse talents and personalities, who in particular has remained etched in your heart and mind as your idol?
My late father, may he rest in peace. A true intellectual and humanitarian who was indeed ahead of his time and the perfect role model for any generation.
Let’s talk a bit about the TOBY FEMME, you must tell us how the idea came about.
I attempted to do womenswear in the past but did not get it right the way I wanted it to. I realised that I had to be true to my brands DNA. When I realised that, Toby Femme was born. All I had to do was understand women’s proportions and translate what I do best into women’s and it started to come naturally. I am finally very happy with the results and with the fashion direction I have taken for Toby Femme.
Speaking of your collection for women, the Saudi Woman has dared to dream and a lot of them are out there achieving, like your friend Deena Aljehani Abdulaziz, among many other fabulous fashion designers. Does the TOBY FEMME persona have something to do with this revolution or evolution that Saudi is going through? Is there a message?
What many don’t realise is that behind the veil, Saudi women have been at forefront of fashion dating back to as far as our mothers generations. I had the privilege of knowing the late Isabelle Blow while she worked for Tatler Magazine, she told me that Saudi women are the pioneers in Haute Couture. She described a Saudi wedding she went to in Riyadh and was amazed by all the Haute Couture she saw in abundance, which had literally been on the catwalks of Paris 24 hours earlier. Deena is the epitome of what the modern and sophisticated Saudi lady represents and is a great role model.
You seem to have a very clear vision of where you are going, and whom you’d love to dress, Christian Louboutin is your fan too! Is there one celebrity on the top of your ambitious list of dressing?
I have always loved Cate Blanchett and find her personal style immaculate, I would not mind dressing her one day. I also find Emma Stone, ravishing. I do think that craft, design and authenticity should be the main focus and what every designer should be recognised for. Of course the celebrity wearing it is like the cherry on the cake. I have been very blessed with stars such as Christian Louboutin, who is also a dear friend and mentor. Snoop Dogg‘s ‘Here Comes the King’ music video and his concert in Dubai was all dressed by Toby.
You were quoted by the NY TIMES as a ‘trendsetter in Islamic menswear’. That’s a brilliant achievement. How did you feel when you saw your name in there? Were you expecting it? Also, this growing recognition, does it make you feel further responsible to continue bearing this torch and go down in history?
Thanks so much. I am humbled by your kind words. Designers are always expected to up themselves from previous collections to creative messages. After all, designers are not just people who create clothes, they also create jobs, trends, moods, attitudes, discussions and change perceptions. So the pressure is always on, However in spite of that, the passion and joy of liking what you do, numbs everything. The best feeling is to see the end result of your work and seeing it turn out the way you envision it. I only hope that what I do will empower the younger generation, to keep raising the bar and know that if I can do it, so can they.
What are your plans outside of Middle East?
To continue exposing my work to different markets and bridge the many gaps, for all of us to become one market. Thanks to Social Media the world is much smaller and accessible today.
What’s on your playlist this week?
Sade, Sade and Sade.
What is the last app you downloaded?
You can see Toby by Hatem’s full collection online here.W