Darmaki: the Sultan of sole

Sultan Al Darmaki is photographed by Stephen Lock at the V&A, August 5 2011

I try to stay fairly impartial when it comes to the people I meet in fashion, although it can be hard because it’s one of those industries in which people are your gushing best friend as soon as they meet you (but will happily blank you if you have nothing to offer). Generally I tend to like virtually everyone – you have to do something pretty mean to stay on my s**t list – but as someone who laughingly calls themselves a journalist, I’m not too pally-pally with people in the industry: it makes it too hard to be honest and independent when you need to be. Perhaps that’s old-fashioned.

About one designer who I’ve met, though, it is impossible to remain entirely objective. The lovely Sultan Al Darmaki is a shoe designer from the UAE who I first met about 18 months ago in Abu Dhabi, after he sent a business plan or sponsorship request or something corporate of that sort in to our marketing team at The National. At that point he had no shoe collection at all – just a lot of chutzpah, some pretty sketches and a command from his friend the artist Patricia Millns to “think big”. Still, always on the look out for high-achieving artsy Emiratis for our Arts & Life pages, I got in touch and arranged a meeting where, over coffee, he explained his big plan.

It helps that he’s a very warm person, gathering friends everywhere, but beyond that, he seemed incredibly driven to take this huge risk – leave the Emirates for London, design a shoe collection, get one of the best manufacturers in the world to make it, and launch into the market at the same price point as Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, Giuseppe Zanotti et al – while also being pretty upfront about the fact that he hadn’t been to fashion school and was doing the whole thing in his spare time.

He’s also one of those inspiring people I’ve met in the Emirates who are daring to break away from the roles assigned to them by tradition, custom, culture or circumstance to follow their own paths, whatever the cost. Good luck to him, I thought, and I asked him to keep me posted on his progress, with a view to doing a few pieces in the run-up to the launch, if launch there would be.

Less than a year later, I was talking to him in the Vendôme trade show in Paris, where his shoes were attracting much attention. I interviewed him for The National, and that was that – except it wasn’t.

He is a compulsive social networker, so I’ve involuntarily kept up with his news (and learned the power of Twitter in business), which means that when he posted on Facebook that “we just made it in history”, I demanded an explanation. I got it a few days later, when he told me that one of his shoes, the Lydia, had been bought by the V&A’s textile department to be held permanently as part of their incredible collection of fashion history.

Just to recap: this is one of the shoes from his first collection, which launched, ooh, a whole six months ago. He has also been invited to contribute some shoes to a planned exhibition of shoes at the V&A, where his pieces will sit next to those by his heroes – Ferragamo, Blahnik and so on.

It’s an incredible achievement, and I’m genuinely thrilled for him. Even better, when I met him on Friday to get the details for a piece in The National, which went online today, he showed me, under strict promise of secrecy, a few pieces from his spring/summer collection and personally I think they far outshine his current collection (yes, that’s the collection that’s good enough to have been picked up by the V&A). They are genuinely gorgeous. I don’t say that lightly: I’m extremely fussy about shoes.

Anyway, well done Sultan – really looking forward to seeing what you do next!


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