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Russian-Kurdish designer Lorin Mai talks about her brand Vertigo, childhood spent in Syria and comin

This piece originally appeared in Strand Magazine’s Young Creatives Issue, February 2020.

A self-proclaimed 'Syrian spice'—fashion designer Lorin Mai—doesn't only have good taste in metaphors but also has an understanding of how influential a sense of national belonging can be. Being half Russian, half Syrian Kurdish, she is a child of two cultures. Yet, growing up in the Post-Soviet environment, where people's cultural heritage is often lost or repressed, made the designer quite ignorant of her Middle Eastern origins. She has recently graduated from British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow, where she was finally able to dig into her roots and express them through creativity. While showcasing Vertigo's debut collection ‘Tribute’ at Moscow Fashion Week last October, she made a political statement raising awareness about the Rojava conflict. Her strong opinion, styling that defies gender norms and skilful engagement with forms have earned her a reputation of one of the most promising and original young designers in Russia.

Instagram: @vertigo_brand by @lawreanmawhee

Lorin Mai and an extract from her sketchbook

Tell me about your brand Vertigo.

Vertigo is my graduate project at British Higher School of Art and Design (a top fashion school in Moscow—ed. note). As fashion design students, we were asked to create a collection that would reflect our visual identities and branding. In my previous projects, I would often address themes concerned with minorities, racial discrimination, cultural patterns, questions of identity and its formation within particular environments. This is also how Vertigo was born—out of sociocultural research. In my work, I support the idea that we live for the sake of cultural experience, learning about ourselves and enjoying the trip into the depths of human nature. I believe that self-development is more important than influence and power. My debut collection ‘Tribute’ explores themes of jazz and migration. It's a homage to my relatives who were greatly affected by the Syrian crisis. Jazz—the music of migrants—became the moving force for visualisation of my silhouettes. At the same time, tools such as improvisation, rhythm and disharmonious harmony defined the construction and the form of my garments.

Vertigo SS20 'Tribute' Campaign

Photo by Olesya Asanova @olesya_asanova, Style by Carolina Pavlovskaya @selfinterestblog, MUAH by Aina Adamova @mua_ainora

How could you describe your connection to your roots? If you didn’t choose to explore them, what kind of direction would your collection follow?

I’m half Russian and half Syrian Kurdish. Kurds are an ethnic group; my people live around four countries, where we are constantly being pressured to assimilate, sometimes violently. ‘Save Rojava’ became the slogan of my debut show during the October 2019 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia (Rojava is a de factoautonomous region in northeastern Syria—ed.note). The message was displayed at the end of the final walk to call for awareness about the current situation in the Syrian Kurdistan region (in October 2019 Donald Trump ordered to withdraw the U.S. troops from northern Syria in the run-up to Turkey’s invasion, which has been happening since and is known for large numbers of civilian casualties—ed.note).

It’s only during the last five years that I’ve seriously been thinking and learning about my identity as one outside of Russia’s Post-Soviet context. Before that I wasn’t interested in my background, it felt unnatural. Sometimes I even rejected my sense of national belonging of what I perceived to be Syrian Kurdish culture. It’s embarrassing to admit now, and I can’t imagine what creative outcomes I would have gotten without this personal journey. Perhaps, I would be looking for inspiration on the surface, without ever discovering things that actually matter to me.

Vertigo SS20 'Tribute' Campaign

Photo by Olesya Asanova @olesya_asanova, Style by Carolina Pavlovskaya @selfinterestblog, MUAH by Aina Adamova @mua_ainora

Let's prolong the homage to your relatives in Syria. I know that you have used their photos in mood boards and even printed some of them on your clothes. What role does family play in your life and work?

My relatives are people who inspire me from a distance. I'm talking about my extended family, not the close relatives. With a considerable distance between us, I'm able to fantasise about their lives that are so fundamentally different from mine; about lives that originate from my memories of the recent, yet already quite forgotten childhood. I treasure my memories a lot, but some of them are impossible to visualise in my head. They are a combination of smells and vibrations: a horizon rushing before my eyes; a splash of noisy phrases; rose stickers in my cousins’ school notebooks with scribbles in Arabic, carefully hidden in the nightstand—their only private space; grandmother's false teeth in a yellow glass; sleeping outside under a mosquito net only to be woken up by the heat and then going back indoors; everyday dose of swear words, always rolling off the tongue, but never hurtful; the sense of hot pavement on my feet; driving around in a pickup truck singing Massari with my cousins; fried eggs for breakfast, disappearing from the pan with the help of eight children's hands. But which of these memories can be visualised in real life? I try to experiment with these. The photo and video archive is only a small part of what I'm yet to work with, but it facilitates my narration. In my collection I used the most straightforward, yet self-sufficient tool—pictures from the bright, somewhat ascetic life of my relatives in Syria. I've used some of them as prints on linings of the garments and silk scarfs.

Vertigo SS20 'Tribute' Campaign

Photo by Olesya Asanova @olesya_asanova, Style by Carolina Pavlovskaya @selfinterestblog, MUAH by Aina Adamova @mua_ainora

Since your Kurdish relatives inspire you from a distance and don’t live in the same country as you, do you know much about the Kurdish community in Russia? Do you feel like an active part of it?

The Kurdish community in Russia is something that I would call ‘an artificial utopian story’. It exists and flourishes, but in reality, it doesn’t contribute to solving the global problems the Kurds are facing. We do have quite a big celebration of nowruz (an Iranian New Year celebrated worldwide—ed.note) every year at the end of March. Apart from that, the community consists of united political parties, whose ideology is communicated by the family elders or patriarchs. As a young person, I'm not sure how much my voice would be heard if I were to adopt an active political position within the community.

Vertigo SS20 'Tribute' Campaign

Photo by Olesya Asanova @olesya_asanova, Style by Carolina Pavlovskaya @selfinterestblog, MUAH by Aina Adamova @mua_ainora

It seems like we are only discussing one half of your ancestral DNA. What’s your relationship like with the Russian part of you?

I don't deny my Russian roots. Both of my identities are equally important to me. The Middle Eastern mentality has always prevailed at home as my Russian mother accepted my Syrian Kurdish father's religion and ways of living. My dad is the patriarch of the family; he would always come back late. My mom is the one who raised me, so I grew up watching Russian fairytales and cartoons, never in denial of my Russian identity.

I guess that whenever I think about the environment in which I evolved, it becomes clearer where the ignorance and somewhat refusal of my Kurdish blood came from. It's common for children who are considered minorities to feel this way in our country. In school you learn a lot about yourself through communication with other people that create labels for you. I faced discrimination, stereotypes and bullying based on my non-Slavic looks. I would often be called a churka (a derogatory racist term used towards non-Russians, especially towards those of Central Asian and Caucasian origins e.g. Armenian, Azerbaijan—ed. note). This word was in the air. My schoolmates just lacked education on ethnicity and race. I don't think they realised what it meant to be non-Russian, even though we had quite a diverse body of students including Georgian and Armenian kids. I believe that at that moment I didn't have enough self-awareness to speak about my roots. Last year, after a visit to Russia, Azealia Banks posted a picture of a t-shirt stating 'churka' and said that she could be called this, and she would ‘feel like a cool and dangerous girl.’ I personally think that it's a way to deconstruct such term and raise more awareness about how it’s been used to eliminate the negative connotation. But many of my friends disagree with me. I think she went against the system, but I don’t believe she didn’t know the true meaning of the word.

When I graduated high school and went to college to study fashion construction (before British Higher School of Art and Design—ed. note), I became more interested in the history of the USSR. The institution itself had a very Soviet spirit. When I learnt how to research, I found a lot of beauty in the past of Russian Federation. I even made a traditional Russian dress. My graduate project was called ‘Tricolour’ and focused on protests happening in the 70s and 80s in the USSR, France and America.

Backstage at MBFW Russia SS20

Photo by Olesia Merso @olesiamerso

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I’m inspired by everything that isn’t directly related to clothes creation. I’ve always wanted to make art that would exist as a marriage of my perceptions and my past experiences. Last August, my coursemates and I organised an exhibition of our fashion projects. For my installation I collaborated with Errring Studio—a design studio specialising in construction of hand-made furniture from both used and new materials—and with World Wide Treasures, which is a project deconstructing stereotypes about the Middle East. The centrepiece was an upcycled chair—our interpretation of an epitome of the Middle East. Such chair can often be found in Middle Eastern cafes, bars and backyards. It’s a cheap product of mass consumption easily made from plastic. I like to think of it as of a reflection of bright ascetism in a furniture piece. To update the image of a chair we installed a noise generator inside of it. When a visitor interacted with it, a multifaceted sound pattern was created. For me, audio as a medium contributes to a deeper immersion making the viewer a participant of what's happening. One of the audio samples was the speech of Moaz Al-Khatib at the Arab League Summit 2013 in Doha. He’s a part of the political opposition—he has liberal views and fights for the freedom of Syrian people.

Another source of my inspiration is music. I handle my digital archives with care, constantly adding new sounds to them. My latest discoveries include electronic music intertwining with traditional Eastern instrumental melodies to create insane sound textures. Hopefully, this spring I’ll go to Irtijal and Space 21—experimental music festivals in Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan.

A collaborative installation by Vertigo, Errring Studio and World Wide Treasures. Photo by Errring Studio @errring_studio

Thank you for such vivid responses! Could you also throw in some names that influence you?

I’d say that my favourite musicians are King Krule, Hamied el Shaeri, Solange, Egyptian Lover and Acid Arab. I adore the song ‘Galvanize’ by The Chemical Brothers and its music video! It features a sample from Najat Aatabou's song ‘Hadi Kedba Bayna’. It definitely brings back memories of the days I spent in Syria. If we are talking about inspiration coming from fashion designers, I like creations of Wales Bonner, Palomo Spain, Richard Malone and John Galliano for Dior.

An extract from Lorina Mai's sketchbook

Demonstration of jazz as the moving force behind visualisation of Mai's silhouettes

Describe your style, please.

Freaky deaky machine (a reference to the eponymous song by Egyptian Lover—ed. note). I love playing around with details, but at the same time, I usually wear basic clothes with intricate fits. I tend to dress at thrift stores and online vintage shops. I haven't bought new items for a while though, and I try to do so only when necessary. Clothes come and go from my wardrobe on their own.

An extract from Lorina Mai's sketchbook

Fashion is a powerful tool of expression of one’s views. You have demonstrated this with your ‘Save Rojava’ message during the MBFW Russia. Are there any other ways in which you like to make political or activist statements?

There are social projects, in which I would like to partake. For example, there are charity organisations aiming at changing attitudes towards migrants and refugees. One of them is a Moscow-based centre for refugee children Takie zhe deti (‘The same children’), and another one is called Grazhdanskoe sodeystvie (‘Civil assistance’).

I want to mention this great project that is, unfortunately, currently inactive—Conflict kitchen. As you can guess, it wasn’t about clothes. It was a restaurant in Pittsburgh where they served food from countries with which the United States had been in conflict. They also organised events, performances and discussions to engage the general public with culture, politics and problems of certain regions of the world. Conflict kitchen used to change its design in accordance with the cuisine served—Iranian, Afghan, Venezuelan, North Korean, Haudenosaunee and Palestinian. I find this kind of social and cultural enterprises relatable as a way of expressing my opinions.

I also feel like today a lot of food coming from different cultures has become a part of international heritage. Yet, we shouldn’t forget about the nations where those recipes originated from and the problems they have or had to face. In December 2019 I was invited to cook a national dessert for a big brunch that took place at a Moscow cafe, concert venue and art space Dom Kultur (‘The House of Cultures’) under the guidance of my friends @kebab.masters. I chose to cook baklava—a dessert uniting Eastern countries with its unique taste; something that doesn’t always work the same way with people. I decided to cook baklava after the recent Rojava conflict. My mother taught me the recipe, which she learnt from my father. The light texture of the layered dough and nut filling soaked in rose water brings me back to my childhood spent in Syria—a place I cannot physically come back to because of the current military actions

'Save Rojava' message displayed during Vertigo's fashion show at MBFW Russia SS20