Exclusive: An Interview With Interdisciplinary Artist Rad Hourani

July 16, 2020

It’s been 10 years (2007-2017) since the Canadian interdisciplinary artist Rad Hourani first made waves with his gender-neutral patterns invention 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 created 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.

Growing up

MB: 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, my observations on how society functions in different countries and different cities definitely influenced my path. Living in different societies and cities and traveling around the world over the past 12 years—Europe, the USA, and Asia—made me observe different levels of limitations of gender, class, race, religion, etc. that we all have around us. There’s no society that has evolved to its best. I think there are different levels of conditioning.

I grew up in a very Orthodox Catholic family when I was a kid in the Levant region. 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 at a private Catholic Latin school in Jordan. When I moved to Montreal and continued high school at a public school, I noticed there was less religion but different doctrines. I think observation in general in many areas of these societies inspired a lot of my work, my theories, and where I want to take my art practice.

We Are Nationless, Genderless, Raceless, Limitless


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. At the age of 13, I became uninterested in learning things by heart, conditioning my brain with all school programming, and not necessarily living the experience or learning something that I was stimulated by or had to relate to in real life. That was a big part of it. My mom used to be ashamed of my school notes. From 13 until I finished high school, I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to learn and experience things on my own. Now I’m more interested in history, in politics, and in geography —now I’ve become more interested in various subjects that I am stimulated by rather than being programmed to learn by heart. As an adolescent, I didn’t want to be that product of society—I didn’t want to conform—it is 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 in New York. I started looking out the window at the houses below and thinking, “In each house, there’s maybe someone following a different religion. Each believes theirs is the right one.” I turned back, looking at these religious leaders, and wondered, “But how did I make myself believe that my religion was the right one? If this plane crashes, 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. I was done with religion.

Rad Hourani


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. 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 in Montreal for many projects. I became successful at a young age. I arrived at a point where I was not bored, but I had reached my limits there. I was comfortable; I was working every day. It was a great career that anyone would want to keep, but I didn’t like that comfort zone, and I wanted to experiment more and evolve. I then decided to move to Paris. Most of my friends and the people I used to work with thought I was insane. 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.” There were so many limits that people were giving me based on their experiences, beliefs, or projections. I didn’t care or fear. If I were scared of adventure, I would never have created this gender-neutral language 10 years ago.

So I moved to Paris, where a few magazines wanted to work with me as an art director. At that point, I lost interest. I started questioning what I really wanted to create and what inspired me. I felt that I could express myself via different disciplines, so I started some art projects using my video camera and my photo camera, with paint and other mediums. I then created the first gender-neutral patterns, with a size system specific to a complete unisex collection. The purpose of it was actually to use it as part of an installation at Dominique Fiat Art Gallery, including a series of photos and films. The picture prints were not ready on the day of the opening, and we had some issues with the projectors, so it ended up being a runway performance. That was the first introduction.

MB: I was looking at that—was it in October 2007? That was 10 years ago, before ideas of gender, agender, and no gender 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, how I function, and how I live in general. I started noticing that I don’t see things by gender or 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 and identify things to feel secure. I don’t think I ever had that insecurity to think in terms of whether you’re old or young, whether you’re black or white, whether you’re gay or straight, whether you’re a woman or a man, whether you’re Christian or Jewish, or from whatever division there is.

So I started writing these notes down about how we dress, how we live, and how society functions in general. Then I started taking pictures that I wanted to be neutral—black and white photos that don’t have any identification—and I also started thinking about my own wardrobe, because I used to shop a lot in those days. I was never satisfied with the clothes in stores. I would go to womenswear, and the fits would be too tight and too feminine. And then I would go to the menswear, and I didn’t like the fabrics or the cuts. It was during the same period that 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 on 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 these feminine and masculine limitations came from was a very important question. So I started thinking about why there weren’t any real gender-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, masculine, or any kind of style. 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: To come back to this idea of unisex, in 2013, you created 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 become 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 great to be invited. I accepted because I believed that all of the work that goes into making a certain type of garment is a form of art. [The collection] should have couture status because of the time we spend on the construction of the garments. It’s not about making a T-shirt; it’s an architectural form of construction. Couture has more value or is more desirable, especially today, as 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 or be satisfied. It’s just about consuming the next thing, and the next, and the next.

Rad Hourani

Rad Hourani

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, creating, or conceptualizing something. I think making things more limited, exclusive, or private would make more sense in the society that we live in today. And also today, everyone is a designer, everyone is an influencer, everybody’s everything, which I cannot critique because this is the way we live now and I can’t say, “It was better before.” This is the way it is, and you have to adapt to these systems and keep your values, qualities, and aesthetics. We have no choice but to face what’s happening. It’s something that makes us want more exclusivity and more unique things that not 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 what that architect, filmmaker, or artist did?”. There is no more excitement, remembering things, or appreciating things for longer than the moment they saw them. I think that kind of fast consumption, whether visual, physical, or other, is quite frightening. Even sexuality has become so widespread today. Even coolness has become a mass market, so it’s a bit hard to define what’s cool today because everybody can do cool.

The times

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 is worrying, 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 wanting something lasts only for a few moments. Before, you would buy an object and keep it for years, and you would love it each time you saw it because it meant something to you when you bought it. But now anything can be 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 of 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 to use these terms: gender fluidity, gender equality, and no-gender clothing. I get an enormous amount of requests to take part in interviews because of these emerging “unisex” designers. I unfortunately won’t comment on them because I don’t think there is an understanding of what unisex or gender-neutral is. I think it’s just a marketing tool for a trend that is circulating, even commercially. I won’t say it doesn’t make sense, because it’s good that we’re socially having conversations about it, even if it’s unauthentic, as it’s not being executed in the right way. But when a woman wears men’s clothing, it’s not unisex, it’s not gender-neutral, and it’s not non-gendered, because you’re still making a woman masculine and a man feminine. That’s 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 construction or notion, and that’s what I’ve been trying to communicate for the past 10 years. We’ve done great research involving historians, and there’s never been a complete ready-to-wear or couture collection that has been completely gender-neutral or unisex before I created one. There have been brands making feminine clothes for men or masculine clothes for women, but that’s not what I’m creating.

What I did 10 years ago was study and fuse male and female various morphologies to invent the first gender-neutral pattern, including a sizing system specific to a unisex wardrobe. Before starting, I spent at least two years really observing and testing how the body moves in the garment, how the body moves through different forms, and how each individual can adapt them to a feminine, masculine, or neutral style. And for 10 years, I’ve been perfecting this pure, inclusive language.

For example, last week I dressed a basketball player who is 6ft 7in and 57 years old, an artist who is 23 years old, and a mom and a grandma of different body types of all ages. Through my practice for over 10 years, I was able to use the medium of costume to adapt to unlimited personalities and styles. I’ll be really happy to see other creatives do that, but to just use the terms “unisex,” “genderless,” “gender fluid”, etc. in their marketing is, for me, a bit insulting as they have complex meanings.

Rad Hourani


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,” and another one repeats again and again, “Gender’s just a lie.” It reminded me of that, because even your name, Rad, is, honestly, very gender neutral.

RH: Hahaha, that’s a good one. I never thought of that.

MB: I thought Rad could be a guy or 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 was. 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 kind of evolution that is not really evolving, like going forward and then backward. In the 1970s, men were wearing heels, full-print clothes, long hair, jewelry, and all of that, and 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 a permanent base? Which is unrestricted—we are born limitless, nationless, raceless, and genderless. We created divisions, religions, countries, and wars. If my work looks futuristic, it’s more that it reflects what our nature is about.

I think we need to go through this evolution; it unfortunately cannot happen overnight, and not just in my work but for many activists who are putting their soul into their work to open people’s minds and make us evolve in life in general—for a lifestyle that has no labels that are used to code and categorize human beings and the violence that is born of these divisions. But I don’t see [what I envision] as futuristic because this is the way I live and dress. I think it’s possible, and it’s not necessarily futuristic.

The future

MB: It’s like the future of fashion was yesterday.

RH: Well, fashion is a trend machine. It’s about selling clothes; for example, 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—a way of living that has a 360-degree, limitless way of being.

MB: The other thing I noticed in your unisex couture collections is the color black, or the lack of color. But in your most recent 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 series, I wanted to further develop the symbolic aspect of garments as a sculptural artwork. I started experimenting with strange materials that we don’t normally use in couture, such as plastic, vinyl, or plexi. I used palettes of colors to show the dimensional geometry of my sculptures. That was a refreshing process of doing things differently. I always work within the same structure—buildings—the same structure of creating forms. I actually used some similar colors in collection number eight, performed by Kirsten Owen and David Chang in a short film I directed. I used navy blue, silver, light blue, and baby blue, but this recent conception included other color interactions. My team had to wear glasses to sew the clothes, and it took a really long time to construct each piece because sometimes the needles would break on these non-sewable materials. Their construction was complex, though it looks easy and simple.

Nick Cave

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 unusual texture and colors. Exhibiting this sculptural body of work at the Centre Culturel Canadien in Paris with Nick Cave’s work and that of other great artists, such as Theaster Gates and Ugo Rodinone, is a great privilege. As for Nick Cave, one day we received a Google Alert of an article in which he chose my heels as one of his favorite five pieces. It was a privilege to know he collected my work as well.

MB: That’s amazing and nice when things just happen naturally.

RH: Yeah, organically.

Photography work

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 work intensively, and I have a great team of assistants, but I conceptualize everything myself. I never have an assistant create or design a piece for me. When it comes to photography or how I build the next project, it really comes organically from what the theme or research is about.

For example, for the recent Eye exhibition, I went through the eye—I wanted to understand how the eye functions, how it processes light, a picture, etcetera. I wanted to capture things with my eye without necessarily thinking, processing, or identifying what was in front of me, like what I talked about before—humans needing to identify people, 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 visuals of things spontaneously and without looking for them. I built a type of architectural layout in which I created a form that is built around these spontaneous images in relation to how the eye rolls, the light, the color, and how it’s mecanisme functions and is able to capture and see different things without limiting or categorizing them. So I create quite organically, project by project. Sometimes I will have ideas, and I will do them later because of how busy it is and the amount of work that I have to finalize for the current projects.


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 vision 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 to help you communicate—it’s complex to create a new vision for a unisex wardrobe in 2005 and use colors at that time. To initiate a dialogue on non-binarity through the medium of costume, I needed the tool of working with black and white. They were needed in the beginning. Now I use certain colors and motifs, but they need to make sense in the context of my upcoming projects.


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 and in our opinions, but of course, as humans, our nature is the same. I think there is the option of being more feminine, more masculine, or more neutral. There’s the option of being casual or glamorous—whatever makes you more comfortable or satisfied with how you express yourself in terms of what you wear, 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 reflects a statement on freedom and diversities.

MB: It also makes 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 for now. I have a lot of plants—I love plants. I have some art from different artists that I like that is 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. I’m working on various projects and a documentary on 10 Years of Unisex.

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 about what my gender-neutral creation is 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. I’m also excited about new art projects coming up. My art practice is limitless, as art is not something that needs to be functional, so when I look deeper, I create deeper meanings.

The Rad Hourani Unisex recent collection is available exclusively at
Rad Hourani for Rain. Interview by Mark Benjamin. Photography by Kane Ocean.