With his couture-worthy flair and impeccable eye for detail, Rakan Shams Aldeen is the name to know in Chicago fashion right now. Crossing oceans to realize his dreams, Aldeen originally hails from Homs, Syria. In Chicago since 2017, he’s launched a celebrated line, landed a spot in the Macy’s Fashion Incubator, and designed a John Singer Sargent-inspired dress for an Art Institute exhibition.
But the story doesn’t end there. With his biggest spotlight to date, the designer starred in Bravo’s “Project Runway,” judged and mentored by some of the most glittering names in the industry. Sharing a snapshot of his fashion ascent along with a “Project Runway” debrief (he left the show on April 18), the designer tell us all.
What was it like growing up in Syria and having grand fashion aspirations? Back when I was a kid I didn’t have an understanding of what fashion was really about or even what it takes to be a creative person, I just knew it was something I had to do. You could say it chose me. Living in Syria, it was a place filled with this vibrant history and energy. We had one of the biggest textiles industries in the world including Aghabbani and Silk Brocade — and the vibrancy of being surrounded by this was just so inspiring to me. It fueled my passion, growing up appreciating fashion even more. But, unfortunately as the society isn’t used to men as fashion designers, it made it difficult to pursue my dream there.
I studied architecture instead at the University of Kalamoon and had just finished when the civil war in Syria broke out. I had to leave the country for my safety. I went to Beirut, Lebanon, to study design and pattern-cutting in and then to Istanbul where I graduated.
I’ll always love Syria and I believe its attitudes to fashion are changing as the society is opening up and evolving more these days.
Flash-forward to now and you’re a “Project Runway” star. With so much competition for a coveted spot on the show, how did you handle it all? It actually felt incredibly personal for me as I grew up watching the show and would try to create designs for the challenges like I was one of the designers on it but from my home in Syria. Landing a spot felt almost like a homecoming in a way. Although I had confidence in my talent and vision, deep down I just kind of had this feeling I’d get accepted. The fact that there are thousands of super talented designers who apply — it’s just an incredible feeling to get that recognition.
In the head-to-toe print challenge, show mentor Christian Siriano was worried your design read “too old lady.” How did you deal with the pressures and the critique of your work? It’s vastly different to how I usually work in my studio, so it’s been a real learning curve. Time is everything and the limits on this can be really stressful. Organization and keeping a clear head are key, as you really can’t waste a minute. The hardest part for me was to keep the balance between designing, creating the patterns and sewing in one or two days, alongside maintaining the quality and finishings I wanted. But once I got into my zone, all of my focus was on how I could be more creative and what I needed to add or remove from my piece. I took the critique on board, but I had to weigh it up with what also felt natural and intuitive for me.
The judging was when I’d get most nervous as you’re never sure how it’ll go or what other contestants have created. Ultimately, I focused on the fact that it’s a great chance to hear industry masters giving you critiques. I tried to put all their feedback into ways to improve on my next design.
What are your takeaways from the experience? It’s taught me a lot about myself and helped me get a much greater insight into my own design process. I can see even more now that my designs carry a lot of complexities within them. And, as my passion really lies in the details, it’s become more about how I work those into the process — even a design that seems simple, in execution has complicated elements.
My fellow contestants were also so inspiring to me. They’re amazingly talented and there was a strong sense that this is the next generation of designers, ready to move fashion forward, making it exciting again with fresh perspective and points of view.
Back to Chicago, how do you feel the scene here compares with what’s coming out of the major fashion capitals, and what would it take to put Chicago more on the map? I’ll always believe that Chicago has a lot to offer. We have big art schools with incredible fashion programs and super talented designers. Unfortunately working out of this city can be really challenging. For a designer like me who does a lot of custom-made garments and focuses on collections using really luxe, high quality materials; sourcing fabrics and resources is hard. Generally, the fashion scene here isn’t as big or diverse as the other cities but hopefully this will change with more support from the city and Chicagoans.
Who tops your dream dress list? I’m so incredibly inspired by many of the strong, powerful, and unique women who are changing the face of the fashion industry in the Middle East, bringing it forward and challenging how the world perceives Arab women. There’s Jessica Kahwaty, the Lebanese Australian lawyer, model and TV presenter; Afef Jnifen, the Tunisian model-actress; and Princess Deena Al-Juhani Abdulaziz, the Saudi Arabian editor. They’re all smashing it in terms of style and are total muses to me.
Shop the designer’s spring/summer collection at rakanshamsaldeen.com
Photo by Bravo Media/Miller Mobley