In The World Of Sukeina, We Are All Muses
Founder Omar Salam wants to find the beauty in everyone.
The first thing you need to know about a conversation with Omar Salam is that he’s likely to leave you misty-eyed. This is not because the designer, whose 11-year-old label Sukeina is currently the talk of the industry, will discuss anything particularly sad or upsetting; rather, he has a heart-piercing way of explaining his work that tangentially begins with fashion and lands somewhere between the intricacies of self-perception and what it means to be human. His philosophical musings stir up big feelings — and make for some beautiful clothes.
I catch a moment with Salam on the afternoon of his TZR photoshoot while his model is in hair and makeup and the stylist and photographer are strategizing about where to capture the best natural light. The team is gearing up to photograph his Spring 2023 collection, titled Cardinal, which was inspired by the small red bird’s refusal to match its surroundings. “I found it fascinating that when you go to the ocean, desert, or jungle, the animals pick up on the colors [of their habitat] to blend in,” he explains. “Then you have this bird that is super small and just doesn’t feel the need to blend at all. I’m like, ‘Well, that's a dangerous thing to do.’ I wanted to offer the story of the red cardinal to the world, especially at a time where we feel that part of belonging is duplicating one another.” The resulting pieces were rendered in a daring shade of red — an unintentionally prescient move, as the color was all over the runways just six months later.
The magic of Sukeina, which is named for Salam’s late mother, lies in the label’s ability to be both relevant and removed from the industry’s relentless, trend-driven churn. This has been a goal from the very beginning. It’s been just over a decade since the designer, a Parsons grad fresh off stints at Christian Lacroix and Sonia Rykiel, launched his brand with the goal of better representing an African perspective (the designer is Senegalese) in the luxury fashion arena. This does not necessarily mean, he emphasizes, using colorful prints or tribal motifs. Instead, in lieu of relying on European references, he focuses on using his own unique mix of experiences and cultural touchstones to create something refreshingly new.
“I think a story is always best told when it comes from the tongue of the person that lives it,” says Salam, who likens his place in the industry to an enticing dish you’ve never tried at a potluck. “So what Sukeina has promised itself and its followers and clients is we don’t just take a fabric, cut it, and call it another dress. We look at what’s already on the table: If you brought sauce and somebody brought protein and somebody brought a vegetable, we will try to bring starches. We commit to not being repetitive of anything else.”
This ethos of originality has resonated with Sukeina’s core base of clients and supporters from day one. But there’s another reason Salam has successfully grown his business under the radar for the better part of the last decade and change: a true passion for not just giving his customers what they want but figuring out what it is that they need. “Our woman is not necessarily a celebrity or an influencer,” he explains. “She has given us all the information we needed to best dress and support her. We very quickly developed a really strong bond [with our customers]. The women we were supporting knew that it was a love affair, that we were committed to putting her on a pedestal, and she was going to be the tallest one in the room regardless of how short she was.”
Midway through my conversation with Salam, I’m struck by his reluctance to call out the many A-listers who have worn his vibrant and geometrically structured pieces, from Coco Rocha (who closed his Fall/Winter 2023 show) to Lori Harvey and Janelle Monae. Name-dropping is as natural as breathing for most fashion folks, but the designer seems to be far more interested in the abstract idea of whom he could and might create garments for — and who they could and might be when they wear them — than tallying up his red carpet placements. However, when I ask after the designer’s in-house muse and model DeNéa, who is the star of these photos, his face truly lights up.
Salam and DeNéa’s 10-plus-year working relationship started with something of a meet-cute: He saw her at New York Fashion Week and thought she was a model; she was working as an usher and had to be persuaded to come to the Sukeina studio to try on clothes. “Fast-forward to my second collection, I had another girl [working for me, too]: Anna from Russia — she was gorgeous, and everything was perfect on her, but a dress was just a dress,” the designer remembers. “When I put something on DeNéa, though, her body, her motion, her silhouette all gave me so much I could not sketch or write notes fast enough.”
DeNéa was different from the other models Salam worked with, right down to the way she prepared before a runway show. “She didn’t know how to put nail polish on her fingers, or do her hair, or anything the other girls knew how to do,” he says, recalling the day he gently asked her why. She explained it was because she had spend the better part of her adolescence as a round-the-clock caregiver for her father, who was sick with prostate cancer. So she never had to the opportunity to play with makeup and clothes.
“I tell you this difficult story because I think it’s the truth of who we are,” says Salam, who, to this day, believes it was DeNéa’s inner luminosity that drew him to her. “Even though we all look for beauty from the outside, radiance is a light that comes from within. I realized in that room of hundreds of people, while there were a lot of beautiful shapes, what rose to the highest height was what I felt was really there.”
Lately, one could say it’s Salam’s own inner light that’s being noticed from the outside. Over the course of the last year and half, he has received financial backing as a 2022 finalist from the CDFA/Vogue Fashion Fund as well as guidance and support from one Ms. Anna Wintour. The experience also led him to fostering a connection with Nick Molnar, a judge on the CFDA selection committee and the co-founder of Afterpay, which sponsored Salam’s Fall/Winter 2023 show — his first runway event since the world turned upside down in March 2020. Fittingly for a buzzy in-person return, the collection — titled “You” and featuring outsize hardware, furry embellishment, and mod silhouettes — was centered around the inadvertent ways one’s energy reverberates onto others.
“The ‘you’ that walks away, your spine, your shape, the rhythm about you, the sound about you — these are things about you that, as a virtue of being you, you don’t get to see,” Salam points out to me. “So the whole story of the collection was really trying to do the opposite of an introspection, that there are people who are inspired by the you that is just walking across the room. I wanted to just open a window around the possibility that not only do you matter, but you are affecting so many, whether you get to meet them or not.” It’s a lovely, lofty, and ineffably romantic idea but, I find myself thinking, not an an impossible one — at least not if you’re dressed in Sukeina.
Photographs by Cody Lidtke
Hair: Chika Nishiyama
Makeup: Ayaka Nihei
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert