With every stitch of Hindamme, his ready-to-wear fashion line, 32-year-old Mohammed Khoja inches closer to a global spotlight. Khoja launched Hindamme—an Arabic word he explains refers to “perfect form and harmony”—in 2016 for the youthful, playful and heritage-aware. His most recent streetwear collection blends contemporary textiles with bright patterns inspired by Nabatean architectural and epigraphic motifs, as well as other patterns now visually synonymous with the Arab world.
Self-taught (he gives YouTube credit for teaching him to cut patterns), Khoja was born in al-Khobar, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. At 6 years old, his family moved to Houston, Texas, and he returned to the kingdom with them at 13. His father’s work relocated the family again during Khoja’s teen years to Paris, where he enrolled in the American University of Paris and in 2011 earned a degree in business. It was there in Paris that Khoja received encouragement for some of his early concepts from the owner of a now-defunct boutique called clvii.
“It was my first real taste of the industry, and I loved the process of taking an idea and making it a reality,” he says, noting his desire to launch a fashion line was years in the making, something he dreamed about as a child.
Khoja’s latest collection of 23 pieces, Al Ula, was inspired, he says, by the history and desert colors around the city of that name in northwestern Saudi Arabia. There, starting in the sixth century bce, Nabateans—most famous for their carved-stone architecture in Petra, Jordan—founded a trading center at Mada’in Salih and there, too, carved distinctively styled architecture into the desert’s abundant and dramatic sandstone outcroppings. Early this year Khoja showcased the collection on Instagram in connection with the Winter at Tantora Festival and the exhibition Desert X Alula 2020.
Vogue Arabia Editor-in-Chief Manuel Arnaut is a fan. Writing by email, he says Khoja “creates designs that are connected with the times we live in” and “capture what is in the air, [not only] style-wise but also socially.”
So where are you now?
I’m in the Eastern Province of Saudi, in al-Khobar. It’s a small city, and I have a small studio in my own home, so that’s where I basically work and design and prototype. I still live with my family—as you know, that’s very common [here]. I was fortunate enough that we had this space, and they were like, “you can convert it to your studio.” My production, unfortunately, has been disrupted. I currently can’t produce anything. Everything’s been put on hold.
When did you first know you wanted to be a designer?
It started off with painting, and looking back, I have old sketches of me attempting to design—not just clothes, but cars, homes and furniture—when I was really young. I was fascinated with the process of design and taking an idea and making it a reality. So I’ve always known I was a designer from a very young age. I grew up in different places across the world, so I wanted to challenge myself to create work that had elements that represented my culture but was also universal, something that could be worn by anyone in the world, that’s contemporary but also had elements of my heritage.
Was studying business in Paris helpful when you started your own label?
It was, and just to put things into context, the fashion industry is relatively new in my region. It’s starting to blossom now, but years ago it wasn’t, and my parents never discouraged me from designing. It’s competitive and risky, but it’s definitely worth the risk. If you can do what you love, it never feels like a job.
You’ve mentioned inspiration from Mona Khazindar, who was both the first woman and the first Saudi to direct the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
I met her when I was a student in Paris. She knew how to communicate Arab culture in a way that was very intriguing to so many different audiences. I felt like I wanted to do something similar with my fashion table. I wanted to create something that was inspired by something that I grew up seeing but wasn’t represented or being angled or packaged in a way that was made for international audiences.
What challenges did you face when you first were starting out in 2016?
The main challenge was producing some of my concepts. I hate to use this word, but it was very diy [do it yourself]. I learned everything I could. I Googled everything and tried to understand how to make a good pleat or how to color match the Pantone color with the printing. Production was also a challenge. Saudi is changing rapidly at the moment, so resources for designers such as factories will open up, but that still hasn’t happened fully yet.
Did you initially want to produce everything in Saudi?
Yes, it would make things so much easier. But there are certain things that are hard to do here, like printing, and I use a lot of prints in Hindamme. We don’t have the technology and machinery to do sublimation or digital printing yet. But it’s going to happen soon because they’re establishing different entities that are focusing on design. At the moment I produce between Istanbul and Portugal, and I’ve made a few local pieces that didn’t require prints, so I think it just depends on the content I want to create.
When are you at your most creative?
That’s a good question. With my last collection, Al Ula, I designed the collection within a week. So creativity for me comes in spurts. I need to be in a good place mentally to come up with ideas. It’s important to surround myself with people that inspire and encourage me. Listening to different types of music and researching archival collections from different designers helps too. When I was in Paris recently, I got the chance to visit the Azzedine Alaïa studio. I was able to see his archival pieces and touch them. Being able to see the work of someone as iconic as he was and looking at what he did was incredibly inspiring to me as a designer.
You’ve rejected the regular fashion cycle of two or four collections a year. Why?
It’s been working out well for me so far, but I am looking to get on schedule. I think it’s important. The industry is slowly changing, but in the past, fashion shows were shown to journalists, buyers and people in the industry six months in advance. Now a lot of people have the ability to quickly copy what they’ve seen so it doesn’t make as much sense.
What do you think are the next big changes?
Sustainability and climate change, and the fashion-week model seems to be very wasteful. I don’t think it’s going to be as relevant anymore. I’m curious to see what will happen going forward. As people can’t travel, then brands are going to have to do online or closed shows. It could change the industry completely.
What do you think of presentations, where models are stationary and positioned for the audience, versus runway fashion shows?
I like how presentations showcase the clothes as a form of art and form of culture. It makes it looks like an exhibition, and it’s a museum setting. Fashion design is a very similar process to art in terms of generating ideas and translating them, and I love how presentations and exhibitions elevate the clothes. So far I’ve been focusing on presentations. I’m fortunate enough that some of my pieces have been acquired by museums. The V&A in London bought a jacket they plan to display, one of the driving jackets.
You’re talking about one of the 2018 driving jackets featured in three colors, you made to celebrate women driving in Saudi. They were critically praised, weren’t they, as an example of fashion breaking stereotypes? Is this something you’d like to explore more?
It was very organic. I was genuinely inspired. It wasn’t something that I did for marketing. I wanted to create a tribute in my own way to mark the occasion. Funnily enough, a lot of the orders for this jacket came from the United States and the United Kingdom, which I was happy to see. There’s another major exhibition that’s going to be displaying the collection I recently launched inspired by Al Ula, but I’m not able to share the details yet.
Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the Al Ula collection?
Not a lot of us grew up knowing the [Nabatean] history of al-‘Ula, and I think efforts like the Winter at Tantora Festival in December were incredibly important because they highlighted the area. I found it inspiring and I started studying. It took a while to read about the Nabatean civilization because there aren’t too many sources on it. I contacted the festival, and a few researchers there were very helpful, and I decided I wanted to pay homage to it. I’m proud to say that a lot of the clients that bought into the collection were European and American. It’s cool to see people around the world wanting to wear something inspired by al-‘Ula in New York City. It’s an East-meets-West moment for me.
What’s the key to interpreting culture for people who aren’t familiar with yours?
I want to emphasize the word interpretation. There is currently an argument surrounding cultural appropriation, so we need to be mindful of that. As a designer I need to be very conscious, and I think that it’s very personal. It’s my perspective of how I’m inspired. I think you just need to be very respectful of it and you need to interpret it in your own view. You need to be genuine about it. I think the key word is interpretation.
Your work blends couture with streetwear. Where did this concept come from?
I’m very influenced by streetwear. Growing up, I wore the latest nba Nike sneakers with Versace or Armani, and I love the idea of both those worlds. It’s incredibly interesting to me. In my collection, Season iii, I combined both, so I used a lot of sequins on bomber jackets. I wanted to create something that was current but also had an element of craftsmanship and luxury.
Have you incorporated sustainable practices?
I try not to overproduce because I don’t want to be wasteful. As a business I want to sell, but your question brings me to a perfect point because I wanted to talk about my next collection I’m currently designing. With everything that’s going on with covid-19, I’m looking into becoming more sustainable by way of using different innovative materials. I’ve been looking at antimicrobial materials that are antibacterial. I was designing something completely different but then I shifted the theme.
It sounds like you think there’s going to be some interesting art coming out of this time.
For sure. I think our global mindsets are going to shift. We’re going to be more conscious of the environment and look to ways to create something more meaningful. I think now more than ever people are looking for value. That’s incredibly important to me as a designer—to present value and have some kind of message, to create pieces that spark conversation.
Saudi Arabia is going through a rapid cultural transitional phase. How has this affected your creative process?
I’m definitely inspired. It’s a glorious time to be in Saudi because there’s such a growing appreciation of the creative field and of designers and artists.
What has been your proudest career moment so far?
My work being taught at universities, because I’ve always wanted to inspire other people, and my pieces being acquired by museums. I’ve always wanted to bridge the gap between fashion and culture. I don’t want fashion to just be a consumable retail business. I want to be able to generate business, but I try to balance that with something that’s meaningful.