Matches Man talks with Walid

“My Desk”

As featured by Matches Man

Walid Damirji, creative director of By Walid, invites Matches Man into his west London studio to discuss the process behind working with restored historical textiles.

Words by Dal Chodha.
Photographs by Trent McMinn.
Styling by Chris Hobbs.

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Fashion is so much about the new. But what if that newness relied on the artisanal relics of far-flung dynasties? Early 19th century ecclesiastical robes. Victorian silk taffeta? Walid al Damirji has made it his business to restore, reimagine and recycle the ethnographic fabrics that have lain forgotten and often damaged, unloved in cupboards and trunks all over the globe.

At his west London studio, large tables swallow the room whole. Towers of shoe boxes block the sunlight; three pattern cutters arch their backs over historical textiles, soon to be renewed. Upstairs, shelves brim with glowing piles of antiquity. In a time when disposable seasonal fashions beg to be replaced every month, Damirji’s one-of-a-kind separates improve with age. Slow fashion is picking up pace.

What is about to happen to all of these neatly rolled textiles?
‘Behind you are 19th century piano shawls that will go into the spring/summer production. In the other corner are the French crochets, here you have 18th and 19th century Chinese fabrics and theatre backdrops, and some ecclesiastical pieces and so on. Every week they are moved out and new things will come.’

Will all of the textiles here be re-worked, over-dyed and embroidered before you use them?
‘The materials I tend to buy are all distressed, so they all have to be worked on. That’s my feel-good factor, because I’ve rescued something. There isn’t a single time that I have bought something that has been in immaculate condition – it’d be in a museum then.’

What was the first thing you made?
‘This all started by fluke. In 2011 I made a very Neolithic-style jacket out of 19th century hemp linen that had gone very soft with age. It was lined with recycled fur. Two friends of mine bugged me to show it in Paris and I honestly don’t know how the buyers made their way to me as their apartment had no buzzer and a grumpy concierge. I came back with 800 orders for that jacket. I was gobsmacked.’

You talk a lot about rescuing these materials – what are you rescuing them from?
‘Extinction! I am cherishing the skills of centuries of craftsmen and women. Most of these textiles were bought and sold for European export, so when you think about China and the Cultural Revolution and how much was destroyed, much of this is only preserved because it didn’t stay put. Sometimes the dealers roll their eyes because they have no idea why I’d want such distressed pieces but slowly they know to save them for me. At the moment we’re making sneakers and sandals using 17th century Flemish tapestries.’

Have you noticed a change in how people see what you do?
‘I think people are sick of having the wool pulled over their eyes, buying cookie-cutter fashion that costs so much money. It’s so disposable. I am sick of seasonal fads. I suddenly realised the other day that what I am doing is what everyone is now talking about – sustainability. I never really thought about it in those terms but the other day I was meeting someone at Central Saint Martins and these two boys came up to me and asked if I was Walid, as I was stood in the reception. They said: “You know we couldn’t afford one of your jackets, but we share one half of the week.” I was so touched. It’s wonderful that this philosophy is becoming aspirational to a younger generation.’

Your clothes are invitations for conversation. Do strangers come up to you and talk to you when you are wearing something you’ve made?
‘People are interested. They ask “What is it?” – men love it because it has a story to tell. I remember when I took a trip to New York with my parents, every day I would wear one of my jackets and every day, I’d get a compliment or someone stopping me in the street to ask about it. On the seventh day I wore a jacket that had been gifted to me by another designer and no one said anything to me.’

Is your home as full as your studio?
‘No. I am no longer a hoarder – I think you spend the first 50 years of your life accumulating and buying and then you suddenly stop and spend the rest of your life editing, editing, editing. It will happen, I’m telling you! Now I can’t wait to get rid of it all.’

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Zoe Willis