He studied under the legendary John Galliano and he’s got his sights set on global domination. Enigma’s Annelle Sheline meets Tahir Sutlan, the wickedest, wildest new designer on the block.
A serene face worthy of a boy band member masks the frenetic energy of Tahir Sultan’s precocious brilliance. Lounging on a sofa in HIP’s sunlit showroom in Mohandessin – where his 2009 collection is now available in Cairo – Sultan hotly describes the world of fashion; careening from disgust to pride in the space of a sentence. Like any artist, the work the rest of the world finds appealing (like the pieces currently being priced downstairs), he considers the daily grind. Instead he pours his real talent into sartorial works of art, many of which are un-wearable. “The stuff I want to do is going to be insane!” he crows, “Because I don’t like beautiful fashion.” Yet the genius of Sultan the craftsman is balanced by the calculations of Sultan the businessman: his spring/summer 2009 line is definitely beautiful, and it’s already selling out. “I don’t even have samples to show” he half-complains.
The protégé of John Galliano modestly credits the famous Gibraltarian- British designer with changing his paradigm of fashion. “It’s not about following trends anymore. No one with the money to pay for haute couture wants to look like the person next to them.”
For Sultan, snagging an internship in the fashion furnace of Paris took more than luck. As the son of a Kuwaiti father and an Indian mother, Sultan had previously worked for two years in the Indian fashion industry. He also had a degree from the world-renowned Central St. Martins College of Art and Design in London under his Gucci belt. So after undergoing trial by fire at Galliano, (“It was emotionally very hard; there was a lot of heartache” he admits), Sultan earned enough respect to tell Galliano that he wanted to work at Dior. But when he met with Catherine Rivière, Dior’s director of haute couture, she told him he had no business there, stating “I can sum people up in five minutes. You know how talented you are; go do your own thing!”
Sultan already knew he had a gift: “There are three kinds of people in an industry: those who are lucky to be there, the middlemen, and those who can rule it. I’m from the third category.” Yet even with the blessing of the world’s top couture house, the process of launching his own line stymied Sultan. “So I did what any normal person would do: I went to New York and partied for a month.” While in the Big Apple, a friend asked him to design a few pieces to show at an exhibition, and through fate his first line was launched.
His collections are often based on the pieces that evoke the strongest reactions. “The Annabelle Top is not supposed to be belted actually, I only did it that way for women. It used to be my father’s sleeping dishdasha. I wore it out and people went crazy, and I said fine, it’ll go into the collection.”
Sultan often provokes people intentionally, perhaps another trait he picked up from his famously devilish mentor. When asked whose dress he preferred at the Oscars, he scoffs, “I didn’t watch the Oscars. Celebrities are just marketing tools and models are clothes hangers.” He has no illusions about his industry, (“80% of the fashion world has less than half a brain”), and he follows industry rules only to the extent that they are useful to him. “Someone in fashion once told me, ‘Your clothes aren’t safe enough’ and I said, ‘I don’t want them to be.’ If I’ve learned anything, it’s the unsafe stuff that sells.” For all his devil-may-care attitude, Sultan displays acute awareness that fashion’s gauzy microcosm hardly represents the real world. He designed for the ‘Tees of Hope’ exhibition for abused woman at the Traffic gallery in Dubai, and collaborates with NGOs in India in the production of his knitwear: low-income women produce it out of organic wool. “Who says that couture fashion has to come out of a fashion house? It can be made anywhere, as long as it’s well-made and maintains the integrity of the design. We are helping people build their lives.” When asked about the often-charged atmosphere surrounding women’s clothing in his native Kuwait and across the Middle East, Sultan pleads the fifth. “I can’t get involved. I did my final thesis on the sari and the sexiness of hiding parts of the body. But it’s sad to have it imposed on people. I would never do a line that played with the boundaries of the hijab because it would be used for political reasons. My fashion is not a political tool.”
Sultan claims to have no aspirations to change the superficial and recycled world of fashion. “The better the line does, the more I shed that arrogance.” Yet the glimmer of ambition never goes out of his eye: “One of my teachers gave me an invaluable insight, that when you look at a badly-dressed person and your mind starts ticking as to how you’re going to fix their look, that’s when you know you’re a great designer.” When asked about his reaction to this reporter’s outfit, he gave no comment. Both a great designer and a diplomat: he’ll go far.