MILAN — Alia Rachid needs no introduction. Based in Doha, Qatar, she boasts a strong business background in luxury, built up over the past decade following into the footsteps of her father, Mayhoola for Investments chief executive officer Rachid Mohamed Rachid.
“I’ve always been inspired by him,” she said, meeting WWD at the Valentino flagship in Milan’s Golden Triangle, a sort of second home as the brand is one of Mayhoola’s main luxury holdings along with Balmain. Rachid senior is also founder of Bidayat and Alsara International Investment Group, w hose holdings include the Okhtein, Adorisa, Akoni and KhrisJoy brands, and earlier in his career he served as Egypt’s minister of trade, industry and investment, as well as an executive at Unilever.
Yet Rachid’s most recent trip to Milan wasn’t about her family’s fashion ventures but the personal project she launched in design 18 months ago, when she established the Fromm platform and high-end furniture brand aimed at bridging the creative and business gap between Qatar and Milan.
“I’m an engineer, so I have a very logical and analytical mind. But when I got the chance to be involved in these ventures in luxury, I saw things can be totally different than just very logical and I loved to explore the opportunities and capabilities we can give to the creative talents from our region,” said Rachid, underscoring the increasingly effervescent design scene in Doha.
“We have the VCU university [Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar], which has a lot of graduates and they don’t know what to do. They love design and there is not much opportunity so what we are doing is giving them the chance to join our projects in terms of collaborations and workshops,” she added.
The mission of the platform is to break down the high barriers to entry in the design industry for local talents and empower them not only to express themselves creatively but also to compete on a global scale. “The goal is for them to feel confident enough that they can use this bridge to reach this part of the world as well… There’s a lot of creativity that can come out from the region; it’s about giving [people] the right tools,” said Rachid.
Mirroring the aim, the name of Rachid’s project refers to bridging the distance between the Msheireb modern district in Doha and Milan. In both locations, the company has set up Fromm Labs hosting workshops and serving as both creative hubs and showrooms to display the furniture developed under the brand.
The first Fromm collection debuted last June during the special edition of Salone del Mobile. Dubbed “Shurouq,” it was mainly developed by Qatari designers Maryam Al Suwaidi and Shua’a Ali, who blended local heritage and innovation in a range of furniture with a sleek and contemporary appeal.
Key pieces in the line included the statement Haima’ armchair and Baida’ sofa, whose curved lines were inspired by the desert dunes, as well as the minimal and functional Maktaba shelving unit and the Maiz coffee table, which featured a built-in concrete box that could double as an incense burner as a nod to Arab hospitality rituals.
“We asked designers to come up with the inspirations, the designs, the stories that they wanted to put in their products, along with the proposed product [category]. Some of the designs were not new, so not creative or something that we saw that could go global. We focused on the things that were quite ready to go international,” recalled Rachid.
In particular, Fromm takes talents through the full design process, following them step by step from research to prototyping up to the production phase, as final pieces are manufactured in Italy before being presented in both countries at the same time.
“Technical-wise, we’re very supportive because we have the technical team out of Milan,” explained Rachid, adding that she doesn’t expect all the designers to have the technical know-how but instead prioritizes their passions and ideas in recruiting them.
This year, the Shurouq line was expanded with home accessories and flanked by additional collections, too, marking a maturity step for the company in terms of the number of creatives involved and the manufacturing of the designs.
For one, the new Wanas collection paid tribute to local hospitality with its name, an Arabic word alluding to social gatherings. Using ceramic inspired by Qatari heritage, the range was developed with local talent Noora Al-Melhim and included the Mubkhara incense burner as well as plates and coffee sets handcrafted using traditional clay-crafting methods and adorned with Arabic calligraphy.
“This was the result of a competition for the VCU graduates, and Noora was the one that we selected to create this collection. She has a pottery studio herself in Doha and to upgrade her knowledge and her expertise, we sent her to Turkey for a week to be with the suppliers, who took her through workshops,” said Rachid.
Compared to the debut, at this year’s Salone del Mobile Rachid noted an increasing interest in the company, not only from Qatari talents but from Middle Eastern designers at large and retailers. For instance, Fromm also collaborated with an Egyptian carpet manufacturer on designs inspired by the layering technique seen in traditional nomad-style tents. It further opened the platform to other nationalities to develop an exclusive capsule collection for Turkish department store Beymen, whose prototypes were on display at Fromm showrooms in Doha and Milan.
Commenting on the momentum the company is experiencing, Rachid noted that designers’ interest has been propelled by the Fromm Labs themselves, as these locations are perceived as a welcoming environment and accessible hubs for emerging talents. “So the word of mouth is starting to go around, especially in the design community, which is also important because we want to keep this cross-cultural platform,” said Rachid, noting a particular interest from Turkish creatives.
One of them, Rüya Akyol, was part of the trifecta of designers behind the Beyman capsule collection, developed also with Qatari designer Abdulrahman Al Muftah and Italy’s Antonio Arico.
Dubbed “Ottoman Dream Collection,” the line is intended to pay tribute to the 500-year heritage of the Ottoman Empire through 11 products ranging from furniture to home décor. Highlights included the Arco coffee tables with two half-moon shapes serving as support structures for a glass or marble top; a Turkish minaret-inspired table lamp crafted from brass and frosted glass, and the eye-catching Curcato sofa taking inspiration from the peacock’s tail.
“This collaboration was super interesting: The process was fun because it involved three different cultures, three different designers, but they needed to do something together that fit the target,” said Rachid.
As it expands its offering, Fromm is also increasingly drawing retailers’ attention. In addition to its own showrooms, website and the presence at Beymen, the brand is displayed at Rossana Orlandi in Milan or the likes of Printemps and Studio D Décor in Doha.
“The Rossana Orlandi gallery here is a year-long display, not just during design week… and this exposure is giving us a good starting point in the local retail space,” said Rachid, who’s eyeing high-end retail spaces in Europe and potentially in the U.S. She is also open to collaborating with luxury hospitality companies.
Such targets are in sync with the luxury price point of the brand, as potential competitors mentioned include the likes of Cappellini and Poltrona Frau. On average, prices for a Fromm armchair are around 5,000 euros and for a sofa about 9,000 euros.
While she revealed serious ambitions to scale-up the reputation and size of the business, Rachid is committed to continuing to build on its empowering mission, too, especially when it comes to female creatives.
“It’s such a great feeling to see all of these young women… they’re a bit shy, but they were ready to just go out. We flew them into Milan last year and whoever was available this year to come, see and explore what is Milan Design Week,” said Rachid. “So honestly, last year I was super proud of what we did and we had our first collection and I wanted to be the biggest platform out of Qatar. I didn’t imagine that this year I will have another collection displayed… now I want to be the biggest [platform] in the Middle East, but I don’t want to talk about it until I achieve it,” she concluded.