Ali Kiblawi

A productive interview with creative director, Ali Kiblawi

Ali Kiblawi, one of the art directors at Highsnobiety, is a thriving creative mind who has collaborated with renowned fashion brands. Born and raised in South Lebanon, he made the decision to leave his hometown at the age of 18 for the fashion capital of Milan, Italy. There, he pursued his studies in architecture, before swiftly venturing into the fashion film industry. Indeed, last month, he secured a major project with the artist Charli XCX.

Deeply connected to his roots, Ali Kiblawi established Wasl in 2019, a professional hub aimed at bridging Arab creatives with Western industries. Today, he resides in Berlin, filled with hope and taking on a multitude of projects for Arab creatives. KHAMSA had the opportunity to sit down with this ambitious artistic director for an exclusive interview that offers an exciting glimpse into his inspiring journey.

١. You did a master’s degree in Science of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano, and now work as an art director at Highsnobiety. Why did you choose to study architecture, and how has your background in architecture influenced your approach to artistic direction?

I left Lebanon at the age of 18 to move to Milan, where I pursued my education in architecture. I completed my master’s degree in the Science of Architecture in Milan, which allowed me to explore my other passions, such as cinema, media and fashion, which is something I always aspired to do. I spent nearly a year working in the fashion film industry, where I assisted directors, collaborated as a creative consultant for commercial directors, and contributed to several significant fashion films projects that have made a notable impact on the industry today. My background in architecture was very useful in developing my artistic approach to conceptualizing, executing, and bringing creative ideas to life.

٢. What inspired you to pursue a career in creative fields?

It is undoubtedly the element of storytelling within the fashion and media industry that resonates with me the most. Artistic direction is one of the most expressive ways to express yourself and share your personal narratives that might otherwise remain hidden. I come from Lebanon, and my journey has been a complex one. Moving to Europe, I embarked on a profound exploration of myself and the communities I became a part of. As an Arab living in Europe, it’s crucial for us to discover mediums and avenues for self-expression, especially because we are often marginalized and underestimated due to systemic racism and the pervasive bias that exists in Europe, placing us at a disadvantage compared to our white peers.

٣. How has the fusion of Italian and Lebanese cultures, along with living in Berlin, influenced your artistic work?

I would say that each phase of my life has its own unique background and set of experiences. I was born and raised in Lebanon, and it carries a deep sense of nationalism and pride, but it’s also intertwined with a complex political and social legacy that binds us as Arabs. It took a long time to mentally transition to Italy. For a long time, I was living in Italy physically, but my thoughts remained firmly rooted in Lebanon. At that time, my creative vision was heavily influenced by the societal and political dimensions of my life in Lebanon.

Living in Italy caused me to move away from the strong impact of political and societal factors, and led me to develop a close connection with popular culture. I was integrated inside diverse communities, allowing me to blend my personal heritage with various cultural influences. I had the chance to explore different communities in Europe, to connect with other minority groups, whether defined by race, gender or sexuality. This led me to a new phase of self-exploration, both in terms of my identity and my artistic creation. It significantly impacted my perspective on the world, the European continent, and Western culture as a whole, as well as how to balance the complex intersection of being Lebanese and an immigrant in a foreign land. Today, residing in Berlin, it feels like I am harmonizing these two phases, moving towards a vision of the future and post-society.

٤. How does Lebanese culture shape your artistic vision and influence your creative work?

Back in the day, I wasn’t living in a big city, I was in a small town where internet access and information were very limited. In Lebanon, you do learn about art, but mostly you learn about politics and about history. Lebanon is a very troubled country that always influenced and inspired me to explore more about my own journey towards survival and accomplishment. We were continually surrounded by the essence of creative growth and self-expression.

Source: Voyeurs Journal (Lee Wei Swee)

Seeing how female singers thrived in the Lebanese art scene, along with the achievements of architects and artists, was very inspiring. One of the main figures who deeply inspired me was the internationally acclaimed film director, Nadine Labaki. Her approach to music videos resonated with us all. All these female pop stars that gained global recognition inspired a lot of young people by showing that entertainment is an integral part of our lives. Before moving to Europe, Lebanese pop music, especially female pop stars, played a significant role in my personal and creative evolution.

٥. You founded the creative hub Wasl Creative Lab in 2019. Can you tell us more about this initiative, what it aims to achieve, and why you decided to create it?

In Arabic, Wasl means ‘connection’. It marked my first solo creative project, initiated shortly after entering the fashion industry. Wasl served as a creative hub which aimed to connect Arab creatives with the European market and European clients. Our mission was to spotlight Arab talents in Western industries and give them more opportunities. I mainly collaborated with Arab creators hailing from Lebanon, Egypt, (and) from the broader Middle East. Some remarkable projects emerged from this hub, especially the Esquire Italia cover, created with the photographer and creative director from Temple Management and Temple Studio in Cairo, Ämr Ezzeldinn. Regrettably, after a year of vibrant activity, Wasl stopped breathing due to the pandemic.

٦. Do you want to take Wasl Creative Lab back, or do you think the situation in the creative industries regarding Arab artists has changed?

No, it’s a finished project for me. It was a very important chapter in my career, albeit a brief one, but it is not something I intend to pursue again, because I now find myself in a different creative space. My vision on the connection between Western and Middle East worlds has evolved completely. Today, I feel like Arab creatives are thriving more than ever. While we still have a long way to go, we have made significant progress compared to four years ago.

Source: Highsnobiety (Osma Harvilahti)

Discovering the success of those working in the Arab fashion industry was truly enlightening. Today, the Arab world is witnessing a significant surge in fashion entities and agencies, which are achieving international recognition. I feel delighted to see this growth, but I also want to avoid perpetuating the narrative of victimization within our industry. I’ve come to realize that, despite good intentions, it is a very Western-centric perspective to measure Arabs against Western standards, whereas we can actually establish our own standards and live up to them.

٧. In 2020, during the pandemic, you founded the docu-editorial digital platform ‘Voyeur Journal’, which aims to support Lebanon’s queer communities. What motivated you to start this project, and can you share some significant accomplishments or stories that have come out of the platform’s work?

Voyeur was born during the initial COVID-19 lockdown in Milan. It started as a digital and editorial magazine aimed at shedding light on various social and political aspects of communities that often go unnoticed. It served as a kind of societal observatory, focusing on voyeurism during the lockdown period.

The first issue was dedicated to raising funds for creative individuals involved in the same issue. Initially intended as a one-off project, we worked on a second issue, collaborating with amazing artists to raise money to support the queer community affected by the Beirut explosion. Major talents and artists, including Mykki Blanco, photographer Slava Mogutin, and some fashion brands, contributed to the project. Unfortunately, the project gradually died down during the pandemic. However, I’m currently working on reviving it in a new format.

٨. What wisdom would you share with your younger self, who had yet to achieve their goals?

If I could advise my younger self, I would suggest building a stronger connection with my own culture and delving into various other cultures before moving to Italy. I would encourage myself to be more curious about the world beyond the confines of the region I was raised in. To think more outside of the little bubble that we were raised in. I can’t speak for my female peers, but even for a male, creative expression in our region is still not wholeheartedly celebrated. So I would definitely recommend dedicating more space and time to self-exploration and self-expression before venturing out.

Source: Highsnobiety (Aidan Zamiri)

٩. What are your next projects?

I am currently working on a new project aimed at reviving some of the opportunities I lost during the pandemic, utilizing new mediums and fresh perspectives. I am determined to re-establish a connection with my roots and the personal experiences I have cultivated in recent years. I want to be the creative director of my own projects and regain control over my creative journey, rather than working for large entities and agencies within the industry.

Selma Chougar is a French independent journalist of Algerian origin who writes for several magazines based in Paris, London, and Dubai. Culture and societal phenomena in the Arab world are her areas of expertise. She contributes to both French and English-language magazines.