Project Runway Middle East “And the Winner is...”

After a season full of hard-hitting challenges, imaginative designs, addictive drama, and never ending twists, only three of 15 competing designers in Project Runway Middle East, Season two made it to the live finale, with Palestinian Saher Okal taking home the prize. eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham caught up with Okal, and the two runner ups, Mikhail Chamoun and Abdelhanine Raouh to find out more about their life-altering journey with Project Runway.

Project Runway Middle East is the official Arabic version of the popular American reality show, adapted by MBC in 2016, and led by Lebanese international designer and fashion guru, Elie Saab. The panel of judges this season included Tunisian-Italian model, Afef Jnifen and Egyptian actress and beloved star, Yousra.

The Middle Eastern version of the show approached the selection process for the competing designers differently from the US program. They opted for a roster of experienced designers who wanted to develop further and make it big in the Arab world. From its first season, the show proved to be a huge success. Its highly addictive format sucks viewers in and makes them feel for the contestants. You can see the amount of stress the designers have to endure, some dealing with it better than others, and some cracking under pressure. With each new episode and each new celebrity guest judge, comes a new test of survival pushing the designers to their limits, allowing them to discover their true potential as future professionals in the real world of fashion.

Over the course of this season’s 13 episodes, the designers managed to express their true selves, went treasure hunting, traveled to Milano and London and had the time of their lives. At the end, the winner was Palestinian Saher Okal. “I never expected to win,” says Okal. “Arabs prefer crystals, beads and studs, while my work is very European and clean cut in style. My design takes a lot of sewing, but at the end of the day, it’s a tight fit on the female body.”

Saher Okal, who just turned 30, was born in Natra, Palestine, and went on to study at the Academia di Moda de Roma, Italy. Due to financial difficulties, he couldn’t continue his studies, so, he went to work for sewing houses, until he reached Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, where he became the youngest dressmaker there.  He later worked at Valentino, and then moved to cinema afterwards, creating outfits for historical films in Rome.

After seven years in Italy, he returned to Palestine where he opened his first atelier. A few years later, Okal would travel back to Italy, where he was able to build a name for himself. “I also taught a brief course in fashion design to Palestinian students when I was in Palestine. Then in 2014, I opened the first fashion school there,” says Okal.

At first, Okal was hesitant to go into Project Runway and leave everything behind. “It wasn’t easy to make the move, but I knew it would bring me exposure in the Middle East,” he recalls.

Okal enjoyed the friendships between the designers on the show, especially the one he shared with fellow competitors Zobaida and Zino. However, a moment that saw all the designers bonding was the time Egyptian designer Mohamed fainted and had to be transferred to the hospital. “Although it wasn’t all shown on television, we all cried when Mohamed fell. We all argued that he shouldn’t have to leave and made sure he got a second chance,” Okal reveals.

Okal was faced with several of challenges on the show, which helped him gain new experiences in uncharted territories. “The episode that really challenged me was the Menswear episode. I had no experience in designing for men. This definitely made me open a new door,” Okal says, cheerfully, adding, “I learned how to challenge myself before challenging the other contestants. It showed me how much power I have, and that not all people have the same strength.”

Winning the competition wasn’t a lucky strike for Okal. “They gave us two months to prepare for the finale. I went back to Palestine, and I wanted to leave a print, which is why I chose to do eye print theme. I took all of these details, printed them out, and applied them on fabric in 3D,” Okal revals.

In the meantime, 28 year old Lebanese runner up Mikhail Chamoun was also turning heads throughout the season with his own creative designs. “My last collection, “Ehkeely,” was a depiction of the things we see in Lebanon and the Middle East, from war and sorrow to hope and second chances. I also made sure to present the notion of hope in each gown, as it represents my very own disposition,” says Chamoun.

“I never felt like quitting. This competition is the fastest way to break through in this industry,” he explains.  Chamoun stood apart from the rest of his colleagues, refraining from socialising while working. “I am very work oriented and I’m not much of a chit-chatter and I had to remain focused. I learnt that from working and making it on my own from a very young age,” he says.

Chamoun started fashion school at the age of 15, and by the age of 16, he was already working for a fashion designer in Beirut. “I have been working for 12 years, until I suddenly stopped everything for the show,” says Chamoun, whose unusual bond with art and fashion came indirectly from his dyslexia. “As a kid, I was invested in art and drawing and I didn’t really care about reading. Lately, I started looking at it as a sign of my uniqueness,” Chamoun declares.

It is fair to say that 34-year-old Moroccan runner up, Abdelhanine Raouh, was a sleeper hit on the show. He started out quietly, but, in a matter of weeks he caught both the judges’ and the audiences’ attention with his special eye for detail. His style is notable for echoing Greek mythology and several definitive time periods as well. “My collection in the finale was inspired by the period of art nouveau, and specific artists who drew inspiration from insects. I aimed for the entire collection to give the feeling of a woman flying like an insect or a fly,” he explains.

Raouh was born in Rabat, Morocco. “As a kid, I always watched fashion shows on television, and when I was old enough, I decided I wanted to study fashion, and my mother was very supportive,” he recounts. He went on to attend fashion school in Morocco, and not too long after, he started teaching fashion design to eager students and launched his own fashion brand. “The fact that I originally studied fashion made me an expert patron. Elie Saab even commended me a number of times on that particular skill. Before joining the show, my atelier was mainly focused on designing the Moroccan kaftan, but I wanted to broaden my horizons,” he adds.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do the show was to design creative things that aren’t necessarily commercial, which is why I loved the bizarre challenges. They forced us to find something that isn’t normal or boring, especially when working under pressure. I had to design while being monitored by a huge number of cameramen and a dozen designers working around me. This taught me to be more patient, and I truly felt that my performance was on an upward curve with each episode. I was taking more risks every time and I’m so happy they paid off,” he says, proudly.

While Chamoun and Raouh stayed firm and kept their eyes on the prize throughout the season, for Okal, the winner, it was different. “In all seriousness, I wanted to quit every single day. I would call my friends and say ‘I’m leaving.’ What made me continue, however, is that I’m sort of an angry person and I’m very stubborn and persistent,” explains Okal.

After the once in a lifetime adventure that is Project Runway, each of the three finalists now has a clearer vision of what he has in mind for the future. “I am in the preparation process for a brand new collection with different themes. I’m going to have a number of showrooms and a jewelry line as well,” says Chamoun. Raouh, on the other hand, says, “I am preparing a new kaftan collection that will be showcased soon in Morocco and I will also have one show dedicated to the Project Runway collection. I want people to get to see the details and makings of this collection which they might have missed on the show. I’m also working on opening my very own fashion school by next year,” states Raouh.

As for the winner, Okal, he says, “I am planning on throwing a party in Palestine. We’re all going to take this moment to be happy. But very soon, I’ll be back into my regular lifestyle. Following the final collection, I want to find something even stronger than the eye concept, which I used in the competition. I also have a few plans for opening other boutiques in Palestine, and I will be expanding the academy’s perimeters. I wish to incorporate everything that I’ve learnt on Project Runway, so that Palestinian students can believe in their dreams,” says, proudly.

Project Runway did not only forever change the lives of its contestants; it is doing something much more valuable. It is changing the Middle East’s perception of fashion and opening the Arab world’s eyes to a whole world of art and imagination.

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