It’s been 10 years since the Canadian interdisciplinary artist Rad Hourani first made waves with his namesake unisex line in Paris. All these years later we are still feeling the aftershocks as the rest of the fashion world finally catches up. You don’t have to look far now to find contemporary brands playing with notions of gender-bending, fluidity, and androgyny, and merging men’s and women’s collections on the runway. In those years since
2007, Hourani has perfected the technique behind his original philosophy that we should be living existences that are, above all else, limitless. His work and unwavering quality have not gone unnoticed—in 2013, he designed the first unisex haute couture collection recognized by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Now fully devoted to his couture collections, collaborations, photography, and fine-art projects, Hourani tells all as he challenges us to see the world as he does: as one of neutrality.
MARK BENJAMIN: Hey, Rad. How are you? Where are you right now?
RAD HOURANI: All is great. How about you?
MB: It was madness this summer. No vacation. What about you? I’m sure you’re working like crazy for the collection.
RH: I’m going to have a vacation next week, but with family and friends in Montreal. I’ve been traveling a lot, so I decided to do a family thing this month.
MB: Nice. The thing I’ve always thought about, following your work over the years, is your background. You were born in Jordan to a Canadian-Jordanian father and your mother is Syrian. Then you relocated to Montreal. How did that affect the way you saw things when you were growing up? The way you may have been influenced by two quite different places?
RH: Yep, different societies. It definitely influenced my way of observing how society functions in different countries, in different cities. And also religion, gender, and many other aspects. Living in different societies and cities, and traveling around the world over the past 12 years—Europe, USA, Asia— made me observe all these limitations that we have around us at different levels. I found that there is no society that has evolved to its maximum or to its best. I think there are different levels of conditioning.
I grew up in a very Catholic family when I was a kid in Jordan. My grandpa was a priest. I used to go to church every Sunday. I was quite a believer in religion. I had a quiet life. I was in a private Catholic school there. When I moved to Montreal and continued high school at a public school, I noticed there was less religion. I think observation in general in many areas in these societies inspired a lot of my work and my ideas of neutrality and where I want to take my design and art.
We Are Nationless, Genderless, Raceless, LimitlessRad Hourani
MB: You’re talking about high school and I’m thinking about something that’s seen a lot in your work—nonconformity. I have to ask, especially now that you’re talking about your Catholic upbringing—was there a moment when you were really rebellious, when you rejected the norm? In high school or around that time?
RH: Definitely. Before I was 13 I used to be a really good student, one of the best, actually. At the age of 13 I became uninterested in learning things by heart, programming my brain with all this information and not necessarily living the experience or learning something that I was enjoying or having to relate to in real life.
That was a big part of it. My mom used to be very ashamed of my notes. I used to be one of the best students, then all of a sudden, from 13 until I finished high school, I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to live and learn, and experience things on my own. Now I’m more interested in history, I’m more interested in politics, I’m more interested in geography—now I’ve become more interested in all of these things that
I was kind of just programmed to learn by heart. As an adolescent, I didn’t want to be that product of society, just programmed to work later, pay taxes—I didn’t want to be that conformist. It was not for me.
Then, concerning religion, when I was 18, I was with some friends on a plane to New York from Montreal and there were all types of religious leaders on the flight—I think there was a religious convention on in New York. I started looking out the window at the houses below and thinking, “In each house there’s someone following a different religion. Each believes theirs is the right one.” I turned back to the religious leaders and wondered, “But who made me believe that mine is the right one? If we crash, which god will save us?” When I arrived in New York and deplaned, my religion was over. My beliefs were gone in one moment. It was that short flight that made me release it all. It was just done for me.
MB: That’s incredible.
RH: Even before that, I would have arguments with myself about which religion was the right one and I always believed it was my own. It’s great to have had that moment of clarity to understand the limits that I was imposing on myself and society, and
how I was participating by limiting myself based on someone else’s say-so. All of that was gone in that moment of observation.
I love observation. It’s not love—I live by observation. I think it’s a tool for evolving.
MB: At 23, you moved to Paris, right? You began your career in photography and eventually design and fashion. That stuck out to me because it sounds very scary and daring—how did you decide to make the leap?
RH: I used to do art direction and styling in Montreal, many projects. I became very successful very fast. I arrived at a point where I was not bored, but I had reached my limits. I was successful, comfortable, I was working every day. It was a great career that anyone would want to keep.
I didn’t like that comfort zone and I wanted to experiment more and evolve more. I decided to move to Paris. Most of my friends and the people I used to work with thought I was crazy. They said, “You’re going to leave all these clients? This career that you built is great, and Paris is so difficult, so slow, and people are not very welcoming, and blah blah blah.” So many limits that people were giving me based on their experiences, beliefs, or projections. I didn’t care. I’m… I won’t say adventurous, but I don’t have fear. I’m not scared of doing things. If I were scared of things, I would never have done unisex 10 years ago.
So I moved to Paris and the responses were quite great from the beginning. I had a few magazines that wanted to start shooting with me as an art director and stylist. At one point, I just lost interest. I started to want to go back to what I wanted to do, what inspires me. I felt that I could express myself more, so using my video camera and my photo camera, I started doing these art projects with paint and different stuff.
Then I designed my first collection. The purpose of it was actually to use the clothes as part of a projection that I wanted to do in this art gallery, but not as a runway show, as an art show. The pictures and videos were not ready on the day of the event, so I did a runway instead. That’s how it got started.
MB: I was looking at that—was it in October 2007? That was 10 years ago, before ideas of gender, agender, and androgyne had hit mainstream fashion. What made you cling to these ideas of being genderless, ageless, raceless, nationless, and limitless at that time?
RH: When I moved to Paris I did an ode to analytics and observed myself and how I function and how I live in general. I started noticing that I don’t see things by gender, by their race. I don’t think of someone’s age. I won’t say I’m not judgmental, but I don’t look at people or life in division. I don’t need to categorize things. Humans need to categorize things and identify things to feel secure.
I don’t think I ever had that insecurity to think in terms of you’re old or young, you’re black or you’re white, you’re gay or straight, you’re a woman or a man, or you’re Christian or Jewish, or from whatever division there is.
So I started writing these things down about how we dress, how we live, and how society functions in general. Then I started taking these pictures that I wanted to be neutral—black and white pictures that don’t have any identification—and I also started thinking about my wardrobe, because I used to shop a lot in those days. I was never satisfied with the clothes in stores. I would go to, let’s say, Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme, and the clothes had a vintage feeling to them that I was not completely satisfied with.
I would go to womenswear and the fits would be too tight, too feminine. And then I would go to the menswear and I didn’t like the fabrics, the cuts. It was during the same period I was analyzing everything. I remember thinking, “Who decided a man should have certain codes of dressing and a woman needs to have a code of dressing as well? And where did this restriction of dressing come from?
If you look at, let’s say [the 17th century], men used to wear wigs and powder and lace and heels, and women would wear corsets. So for me, where this feminine and masculine… where these limitations came from was a very important question. So I started thinking about why there weren’t any real neutral, unisex clothes. And when
I say unisex clothes, it’s not about making a man look like a woman or making a woman look like a man. It’s really about creating a garment that can be adapted to a feminine style or masculine style, so that’s where the idea came from. It was kind of about dressing myself, because I think the way we dress is a form of expression, and I started expressing myself in these clothes —it reflected my personality.
MB: It’s funny, you mentioned Hedi Slimane before I had the chance to. I believe that he had a similar foray into fashion through photography.
RH: I think he had a similar career. I started as a model scout when I was 18 or 19.
Then I became interested in art direction, pictures, and styling. I’m not sure, but I heard he was a scout as well. I had no idea who he was when I started, but maybe there is something in that.
MB: To come back to this idea of unisex, in 2013 you designed the first unisex couture collection to be recognized by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris. Jean-Paul Gaultier closed his ready-to-wear line not long afterwards and now does only couture—a lot of revered names are doing this now. It seems as though there’s a shift, with designers moving back to the art of fashion and away from the mass market.
RH: Why I decided to go into couture… I had never thought of doing couture in my life. Really, it was the Chambre Syndicale that invited me, to see if I would be interested in becoming a member, because they considered my work to be haute couture. They considered it to be what you said— something unique, something that is not necessarily mass market. So it was a great pleasure to be invited.
I accepted for sure, because I believed that all of the work that goes into making
a certain type of garment is a form of art. [The line] should have a couture status, because we spend so much time on the conception of the garments, the building
of the garments. It’s not about making a T-shirt, it’s about constructing something like architecture. Couture has more value or is more desirable, I think, because we live in a society where everything is so fast. Everything lasts maybe five minutes or five seconds. We live in a generation where I don’t know if one day they will appreciate anything. It’s just about consuming the next thing, and the next, and the next.
In an instant
MB: And time. It’s like everything has to be so instant today.
RH: Exactly. After five minutes, they’re bored. And all of these people—artists, designers, and architects spend so much time on building, or creating or conceptualizing something. I think to make things more limited or exclusive or private would make more sense in the society that we live in today.
And also today, everyone is a designer, everyone is a stylist, everybody’s everything, which I cannot critique because this is the way we live now and I can’t be like, “It was better before.” This is the way it is and you have to adapt to that system and keep your exclusivity or keep your values, quality, and signature. We have no choice but to accept what’s happening. It’s something that makes us want more couture, more exclusivity, more things that everybody has. Everything is copied in one week, everything is posted online, and we get bored.
MB: We have to adapt and move on…
RH: Absolutely. It’s been a while since I heard someone say, “Did you see that
thing of this designer, that artist, or that filmmaker?” There is no more excitement or remembering things, or appreciating things for longer than the moment they saw it. I think that kind of fast consuming, whether visual or physical, or whatever it is, is quite scary. Even sexuality has become so mass today. Even coolness has become mass market, so it’s a bit hard to define what’s cool today, because everybody can do cool.
MB: I’m happy to hear you have this attitude of, “We can’t complain about the times, we just have to adapt and move on.” Because there are a lot of people in the industry who complain and say things were so much better “back then.” But things like Instagram are probably a good thing for fashion producers at least, because that influencer who posts a photo in these pants can’t be shot in those pants anymore, they need new pants.
RH: I think these ideas, the collections, or whatever it is, people are not remembering or capturing for more than one day. I think, psychologically, it’s going to be very scary and it may get sad, because this consumption is happening so fast and is so charged with information that what makes you desire something or what makes you feel good about wearing something or wanting something lasts only for a few moments. Before, you would buy a jacket and you would keep it for four years and you would love each time you wore it because it was the jacket that you got at a store in Paris that only sells there. But now anything can be so [easily] consumed or there are so many options that you are left feeling kind of bored or blasé.
MB: Things are less and less precious.
RH: It’s scary in terms of satisfaction in general.
MB: I have to ask this, because it’s so relevant talking to you about unisex—the internet became upset about this cover story that recently came out in Vogue, with Gigi and Zayn talking about being gender fluid. It was called out as being tone deaf and Vogue eventually apologized.
I think it’s kind of interesting to see this go down and wonder how it happened. It almost seems like there are two different generations having two different conversations about the ideas of gender norms, gender fluidity, and being non-gender. There seems to be so much miscommunication between the establishment and the ideas from a new generation.
RH: Sorry, I’m not aware of what happened.
MB: The singer Zayn Malik and model Gigi Hadid had this Vogue cover that was… well, Vogue called it gender fluid, but it was mostly a story about Gigi grabbing from Zayn’s closet and vice versa, occasionally sharing a wardrobe and pieces. Labeling it gender fluid got people upset because they said, no, if you want to see gender fluid, have Zayn in a dress.
RH: I think today there is a trend of using these terms gender fluid, gender equality, and no-gender clothing. All of these unisex designers… I get requests to take part in interviews because of that and I just can’t get involved with many of them because
I don’t think there is an understanding of what unisex or gender fluidity is. I think
it’s just a trend that is circulating, even commercially. I think it’s becoming a huge trend that… I won’t say it doesn’t make sense, because it’s good that we’re speaking about it, even if it’s not being executed in the right way, or the way I think is unisex or neutral. But when a woman wears men’s clothing, it’s not unisex and it’s not neutral and it’s not no gender, because you’re still making a woman masculine and a man feminine. That’s still playing with gender.
MB: Playing with the two styles?
RH: Exactly. But making gender equality or real unisex clothes means garments that don’t have a masculine or feminine style, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past 10 years. We’ve done great research and there’s never been a brand that has been completely neutral and unisex before Rad Hourani. There have been brands making feminine clothes for men or masculine clothes for women, but that’s not what I’m trying to do.
What I did 10 years ago was take male autonomy and female autonomy and put it together to create the first pattern. Before starting, I spent at least a year, a year and a half, really testing how the body moves in the garment, how the body moves in the shape, how you can make it feminine, how you can make it masculine. And for 10 years, I’ve been perfecting and perfecting and perfecting, until it’s really pure unisex where I can dress…
For example, last week I dressed a basketball player who is 6ft 7in and he’s, like, 57 years old, and I dressed a girl who’s an artist, 23 years old, and I dressed a mom, a grandma, different types of people, different ages, different bodies. Being able to do that is because of what I’ve been perfecting over 10 years, in terms of how my clothes fit the body and how they can be adapted into a feminine or masculine personality. I’ll be really happy to see more brands do that, but to just use the words “unisex,” “genderless,” or “gender fluid” in a collection, for me, is a bit insulting. It does not express what it means.
MB: It reminds me of an interview we did in our first issue with Planningtorock, a singer- songwriter from the UK who’s based in Berlin. She legally changed her name to Jam because it was a gender-neutral name. And her entire album was about gender flattening—one of her songs is called “Misogyny Drop Dead,” another one repeats again and again “gender’s just a lie.” It reminded me of that, because even your name, Rad, honestly, is very gender neutral.
RH: Hahaha, that’s a good one. I never thought of that.
MB: I thought Rad could be a guy, could be a girl. It doesn’t matter, it’s just Rad.
I also wanted to ask you about the way we project sci-fi movies or futurism, the post- apocalyptic idea where we’re all genderless, raceless, and nationless. The clothes are very… They don’t signify any of these things. In some interviews, I’ve seen people associate your aesthetic with futurism in this way. I wondered what your take on that is. Is that something you think about at all? It seems that our hope is that, in the future, this is how things will be.
RH: I see your point about futurism. I see it more as an evolution of society. I feel like we always move forward, then go backward, a bit like with gay marriage—one year it’s legal, the next year it’s not. It shouldn’t be a discussion anymore. It shouldn’t be something that needs to be voted for. This should be beyond civil rights and human rights, this should just be evolution or normality—this thing that is completely human and natural to be.
I think the way we dress is also very conditioned and restricted because of
this evolution that is not really evolving, like going forward then backward. In the 1970s, men were wearing heels, full print on clothes, long hair, jewelry, and all of that, then all of a sudden it went to something else, and so on. What some may see as futuristic in my work is just a way to evolve to be now.
Can we evolve into something that becomes our base? Which is limitless —we are limitless and we are nationless and we are raceless, and we are genderless. We created boundaries, we created religion, we created countries, we created flags, we created everything that we are limited by. If my work looks futuristic, it’s more that it reflects what life is now.
I think because of this evolution that we need to go through, unfortunately it cannot happen overnight, and not just in my work but for so many people who are trying to… who are putting their soul into their work to open people’s minds and make us evolve in life in general. I think we should get to this point—a way of living a lifestyle that has no limits. But I don’t see [what I do] as futuristic. I don’t see it as the future, because this is the way I live. This is the way I dress and this is the way many of my clients and the people who surround me live. I think it’s possible and it’s not necessarily futuristic.
MB: It’s like the future of fashion was yesterday.
RH: Well, fashion is a trend machine. It’s about selling clothes, like today we should be wearing yellow, next week is print. I’m not interested in fashion. I’m not interested in trends. I’m allergic to trends. I’m interested in a lifestyle, in a way of living that has a 360-degree, limitless way of being.
MB: The other thing I noticed in your collections is the color black, or the lack of color. But in your most recent collection, collection number 14, there was this break into brilliant blues and other tones. I was wondering what color means to you? What is happening in your mind as these things are evolving?
RH: In that collection, I wanted to work the garment more as culture. I was starting to do more contemporary artwork. I had an exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary Art [Montreal] that was called Neutrality, and
I thought about experimenting with couture and making clothes from strange materials that we don’t normally use, such as plastic or plexi, things that we don’t necessarily use in couture or in clothes in general. I wanted to showcase my work using these palettes of colors to show the dimension of my structures or the dimensions of my cuts. That was a fun exercise, a fun process of doing things differently just by adding color. I always work within the same structure—buildings —the same structure of designing forms, but with that collection I liked the idea of using color to show a different dimension.
In collection number seven or eight, I used similar colors. I used navy blue, silver, and light blue, baby blue. It was shot on Kirsten Owen. So I had done a collection like that before, very similar, but this more recent one was much more complex.
My team had to wear glasses to sew the clothes, and it took a really long time to
sew each piece because sometimes [the needles] would break on these non-sewable materials. It was very difficult to construct, though it looks easy and simple. And [the collection] was being presented in an art center, so I wanted it to be kind of sculpture and to make it part of the exhibition.
MB: I loved that collection. In the show, I noticed the sculptures in the background were by Nick Cave—those bodysuits that he would jump around in and they would make all those noises. I remember seeing those for the first time in the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and I was so freaked out by them. That was the first time that art had ever scared me. I thought it was great to see that because it’s art and fashion and so is your collection. Fashion in the sense that you wear the clothes as a form of expression.
RH: I didn’t want it to be necessarily the most wearable collection, but I wanted
to push myself in terms of texture and colors that I don’t normally use. Putting it in a center where Nick Cave’s work is and that of many other great artists… It was a great privilege to showcase the clothes as sculpture as well—as a piece of art, if you can say that. It’s funny, I really like Nick Cave’s work and one day we received an article in which he chose my heels as one of his favorite five pieces. It was a privilege to know he has something from Rad as well.
MB: That’s amazing, and nice when things just happen naturally.
RH: Yeah, organically.
MB: I also wanted to talk about your photography and exhibitions. I don’t know how you do it all. It’s amazing to put out all these collections and also be doing photography and filmmaking. I was curious to see how you go about thinking about your next creative projects?
RH: I do things quite organically. I do produce a lot of things and I do work intensively. I have a great team of assistants, but I design everything myself. I never have an assistant design for me or create a piece for me. When it comes to photography or how I build the next project, it really comes organically for what the project is.
For example, when I did the Vava x Rad Hourani collaboration, the idea was to put on an exhibition on the eye. I went through the eye—I wanted to understand how the eye functions, how it processes light, a picture, an image, etcetera. I wanted to capture things with my eye without necessarily thinking or processing or identifying what was in front of me, like what I talked about before—about humans needing to identify people or categorize things or give limits to certain things, or names. I just wanted the eye to capture things around me without necessarily defining what those shapes were or what these shapes could be related to— what city, what country.
For a year I spent my time taking pictures wherever I was—Thailand, Dubai, Paris, New York, and many other places. I started to capture images of things unconsciously and without searching for them. It all happened spontaneously. I built a type of architectural layout, in which I created a form that is built around these spontaneous images that reflect how the eye rolls, reflect the light, the color, and how this machine that we call ”eye” functions and is able to capture and see different things without limiting or identifying them.
And the idea of the sunglasses with that concept is to protect this machine that is very precious and open. The most unprotected area of our body is the eye. I think one of the reasons we wear sunglasses is to protect them. I also find it important to protect privacy, so some people like to wear sunglasses all the time so people cannot see their eyes—I can understand what they mean by that.
So I create quite organically and project by project. Sometimes I will have ideas and I will do them later, but most of the time, because it’s so busy, I just create organically for what the project is about and what I have to go through to finish that project.
MB: Black and white seems to be a common theme in your film and photography, as well as your collections. I think it can be an abstraction, kind of going back to what you were saying about not knowing where or when something was shot, to help people see that neutrality. Is that why you’re attracted to black and white?
RH: I think they are the most neutral colors. In black there are all colors and white is
the most neutral. These have been the most helpful colors for communicating my message since the beginning. I think if I had started with colors right away, it would have been more confusing. I think you need certain tools in life to help you communicate—you can’t do unisex and full colors at the same time. To communicate neutrality, I needed that tool of working with black and white.
Also, that’s how I dress in general, of course. I love wearing navy and light blue and gray, too. It’s not just black and white. They were needed in the beginning. Now I use certain colors in patterns, but I need to desire them or really wear them to put them in my collection.
MB: In your early film Unframed, as in your most recent exhibition, a lot of camera angles are involved—sometimes the same subject shot from many different angles, different views, and a lot of screens, almost thumbnail- like screens. It made me think of plurality. Is that another tool to help you communicate that we’re not in these rigid boxes of race, age, or gender?
RH: I think it’s to showcase that there are different angles in life. We can be different in our personalities, in our opinions, but of course, as humans, our base is the same. I think there is the option of being more feminine, more masculine, more neutral. There’s the option of being casual, glamorous—whatever makes you more comfortable or satisfied in how you express yourself in terms of what you wear, or say, or think. It’s possible and it’s an option that should be respected. Showing these angles and perspectives of images in my installations unconsciously reflects that I don’t do it for a purpose of a statement.
MB: It also make me wonder what your home is like. How do you live? Does it follow the same narrative, or do we walk into a home that’s all color?
RH: Haha, no, my Paris place is very empty. I have a lot of plants—I love plants. I have some art from different artists I like, quite minimalist. I have a trampoline—I like trampolining! It’s very minimalist. I won’t call it Japanese, but it’s very zen. Very grey, white, some black, but not too much. It’s very similar to what I do, but in a more homey way.
MB: Trampolines are so much fun! So, what are you most looking forward to?
RH: This is a question I get asked all the time. I have so much going on that I can’t remember what I’m working on. We just launched a new collection online, which
is very exciting. We just relaunched the website. We have our own exclusive items that are not necessarily distributed in other stores. We wanted to give our customer more of an exclusive experience that they won’t find in other stores or locations. I’m also working on the 10 Years of Unisex documentary, because it’s going to be 10 years soon.
MB: Wow, that’s great.
RH: Yeah, we’re working on how we’re going to build it—the direction.
MB: That’s exciting that there will be something documenting the process of all this.
RH: It’s going to be visual and narrative of what unisex is and what it’s about. It’s about going deep into unisex, kind of what you asked me today and what I expressed, but more in a documentary form. We’re also working on different pop-ups, one in Asia and one in Canada.
I’m excited about a few new art projects coming up, too. It’s a pleasure and relief to be able to do art as well. I find it more… I won’t say fun, but I find it more limitless, because it’s not something you need to wear or to be functional, so when I create art I can really go into something in a deeper or more significant way. I love doing art, but unfortunately I don’t have the time to do it all the time—I’m working on it, though.