From Baghdad to Britain: the Iraqi designer who started her own fashion line after working with Stella McCartney and Karen Millen
‘What on earth am I doing?’ Reem Alasadi thought to herself while booking a ticket to her hometown, Baghdad, three years ago. ‘I hadn’t been there for 30 years,’ she says. ‘I have three kids at home. I have short, shaven hair. I don’t look like your average Iraqi – you know what I mean?
’At her desk at Winchester School of Art, among the cosy, creative academia of the fashion department, Alasadi recalls the misgivings she felt ahead of a trip to the Iraqi capital – the first since her childhood. ‘I could only imagine it as it was when I left at the age of eight,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to have a look, really.’
Alasadi was returning to Iraq to collect research for an academic publication. ‘I had an idea of writing about how things have changed there with regards to the fashion industry – how fashion has moved since the regime,’ she says. ‘It’s something I want to do. It means a lot to me. Actually, my dean keeps asking me what’s happened to it, but I’m still researching.’
Alongside her post as an associate professor of fashion practice at the university, Alasadi also runs her own vintage-inspired fashion label, The House of Reem. ‘It’s quite a long story,’ she says of her three-decade career span, which has seen her consult for Stella McCartney, offer inspiration to Dior and show her own designs in Tokyo.
Born in Baghdad, Alasadi’s parents, both doctors, left for the UK when she was a young girl. ‘We were always going to go back to Iraq, which I guess is why I had to go to an Iraqi school in the UK – to stay in the system. I still understand Arabic fluently,’ she says. Her parents decided to stay in the UK, however, and the family settled in Maidstone – a historic British county town known for its cobbled streets and 1960s office blocks.
‘On the way home from school I used to pass a shop that I thought was so incredibly beautiful. I was desperate to go in, but I was so shy and it felt so out of my league,’ she says, recalling her inspiration to become a fashion designer.
The shop was Karen Millen – the first ever boutique opened by the off-the-peg British designer. ‘I wanted to be like her,’ Alasadi says, remembering how, at the age of 15, she plucked up the courage to write Millen a letter asking for work experience. ‘She became my mentor, basically,’ she adds, explaining how each day after school Millen taught her to draw, merchandise and sell fashion. ‘By the time I was 20 years old, I thought I was ready to open my own store. I felt like I knew it all,’ she says.
Declining acceptance to Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, Alasadi launched her own two-by-four metre boutique in a suburban Maidstone shopping mall at the age of 21. ‘I remember the first day of the opening. It was a Saturday and I took 400 pounds selling what I had made. I always remember that figure – I was so excited that people wanted to buy my stuff,’ she says. The popularity of her designs led Alasadi to open a larger concession in Hyper Hyper – ‘the trendiest and coolest place to open up in London if you were a designer in the 80s.’
It was a false start. ‘I was too young to own a business and made a lot of mistakes. I had to close after three years or so,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want anything to do with fashion after that. I was desperate for money and just wanted something really easy. I started to hunt around charity shops and rag merchants grabbing bits and pieces and took them to Portobello Market to sell. Really, I would say that that was the start of the career that I’m in now. My label really began from my love of vintage.’
Alasadi ran her stall at Portobello Market for more than a decade, reworking and reselling garments she had unearthed during the week. Her designs began to attract and inspire a crowd of stylists and designers. ‘I was selling to people from Gucci, Dior, Prada, Marni – everybody in the business bought from me. I would do a lot of really crazy things just to get my look out there,’ she says, recalling one Sunday she flew to Las Vegas to pick up 1950s-style dresses to sell the following Friday.
‘I haven’t missed a single day at the market for about 15 years,’ she says. ‘Every Friday and Saturday, my partner and I would go and set up at four in the morning. We would be the first ones there and the last ones to leave.’
Hesitant to be labelled ‘another stylist who starts her own brand’, Alasadi decided to launch her label in Japan, following a holiday there with. ‘I had this mad idea. I said, “This is where we need to start the brand – it’s away from everybody and nobody knows who we are.” What I wanted to do was bring Portobello to Tokyo.’
For Alasadi, it was a great success; she returned year after year, and began to show her collections at Tokyo Fashion Week. ‘I don’t follow trends at all,’ she says. ‘I don’t sit and go through magazines or go to the library or get a theme. I get inspired just walking around and looking at people – from life itself.’
Although living happily in suburban Maidstone again, Alasadi’s daily life is as fast-paced as ever. The dash to source garments has now been replaced with what she calls the ‘mad rush’ – getting her kids ready for school.
‘When I’m not at work, it’s all about the kids,’ she says. ‘My most amazing memory of Baghdad is having a family unit. I remember my whole family would gather around every Friday at my grandfather’s house to have these family picnics on the river. My uncles would go to catch fish and we’d have a barbeque,’ she says.
‘I moved next door to my mum so that my kids can have the experience that I had with my own grandparents when I was in Baghdad. It’s what I remember most of Iraq, and what I loved most.’
This article appears in the issue55Buy Now