Introducing Omer Asim
Born in Sudan, Omer Asim graduated from The Bartlett School of Architecture before completing a postgraduate degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science. But it was ultimately the world of fashion that would hold most fascination for this quietly spoken intellectual.
Comprising limited-edition seasonal collections, his eponymous clothing label was born 10 years ago and operates between London and Sudan. Androgynous and modern yet marked by distinct ‘primitive’, ‘undesigned’ elements, it has been featured everywhere from The New York Times and Vogue Italia to Milan Fashion Week’s CNMI Fashion Hub Market. Most recently, Omer scooped first prize in the ready-to-wear category by Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA), 2020 Edition, a platform founded by Tania Fares that offers significant support to designers from the Middle East and North Africa.
We caught up with the designer, a current recipient of mentorship from The Bicester Village Shopping Collection, to talk style, serendipity and selfies…
It was during your training as a social psychologist that you became fascinated with the way in which we consume visual imagery, so much so that this became your topic of interest when you researched for a PHD in visual anthropology. Tell us a bit more about this motivation.
I think anyone can recognise the increasing impact of visual culture on our perceptions. Personally, I am more fascinated by the misperceptions, appropriation, misappropriation, and ‘sense of doubt’ generated by this endless stream of imagery. I think there is something unsettling about the urban totem of the ‘selfie’ – it speaks volumes of our existential pickle. To take a photograph of ourselves taking a photograph of ourselves… on a daily basis! Are we searching for affirmation in an otherwise ambiguous world? Or perhaps re-examining ourselves and relevance?
I am very conscious not to commodify my own heritage. I think it serves a much higher purpose – my own humanity.
You have always enjoyed making things and are trained in the technical side of fashion, interning for four years in London for Maurice Sedwell of Savile Row and Vivienne Westwood. How does an understanding of technique shape both your design process and your work in general?
Yes, absolutely. I have always been a maker before being a designer. The making process has always informed my work and end product. I feel a strong sense of obligation towards the processes and crafts of garment making. I strive to capture all the chances and mistakes I encounter to develop my own way of doing things, be it garment construction techniques or developing fabrics in my studio from what’s available.
You are known for your experimental deconstruction of traditional Sudanese draping techniques. Is this marrying of traditional and contemporary an important design consideration or more, as you say, a serendipitous result of your particular working method?
I started experimenting with techniques – making fabrics pleat and drape in interesting new ways. And, yes, I was inspired by the folds of the Sudanese thobe – a garment that wraps around the body and is made from a single piece of material, 4.5 metres in length. In Sudan, these garments – the way they’re folded – indicates everything from tribe to social status. Sudanese women literally wear their identities on their sleeves.
However, in the first six or seven years of my work, I wasn’t following any formula. It was certainly serendipity. Then I started to examine my own work in retrospect so I might better understand myself and my ‘codes’. Now I try to balance both ways of working for the sake of my creative endeavours and market positioning.
I feel a strong sense of obligation towards the processes and crafts of garment making.
How important is it that your work be rooted in Africa? What differences exist between these markets and how do you translate these into a body of work that has universal resonance?
As an African designer working overseas, I always find myself in a position where a certain ‘identity performance’ is expected of me. I am very conscious not to commodify my own heritage. I think it serves a much higher purpose – my own humanity. I prefer to engage with my creative impulse and let nature take its course. My heritage will come through my work, it is part of me, but I want it to manifest at the right junctures with relevance and decorum, not as a performative caricature.
Tell us about the FTA judging process and what the award means to you and the future of your brand.
All FTA 2020 finalists were supposed to meet the judges and advisory board in March in Doha to present our work in person at the National Museum of Qatar. Due to Covid-19, they swiftly moved the judging online in May. Before the interviews on Zoom, we had to send a short video presentation to support the application material previously submitted. It was a surreal and humbling experience to be interviewed online during lockdown by 16 industry giants, and have them review my work. The FTA award provides me with much-needed financial support and mentorship; equally, it is a great beacon of hope for my generation of African and MENA creatives.