The Next Generation: Efrem Damiani is “Queering the Middle East,” one design at a time

A side profile of Efrem Damiani wearing gold jewellery and eyeliner.
Photography by Shahfaq Shahbaz and Mathushaa Sagthidas, 
Clothing Raiesa Salum Al-Kilaly, jewellery MESA’s own.

Back when MESA first launched in March 2020, we virtually spoke to Italian-Syrian designer Efrem Damiani about the birth of their fashion brand Efetishism. Almost two years later, we met Efrem in person, following the easing of lockdown restrictions. 

We invited Efrem down to the LDC studios in Covent Garden to join us for a photoshoot centering “The Next Generation,” where we profiled five pioneering MESA talents across fashion, beauty, and music. Each and every talent who joined us that day had so many aspirational elements. We spent an entire day together, eating, singing, and dancing along to WAP.

When Efrem walked in, we were thrilled to finally meet them in person. There was so much to discuss, not least their newest capsule collection, “Queering the Middle East.” They told me the collection will “have different drops all over the beginning of 2022, and you’ll see my creative guidance on several fashion-related projects. I can’t give away too much but you should follow me to see what’s cooking; I honestly hope I can make everyone proud!”

Discussing the collection further, Efrem added, “my brand continues to evolve, if I think about my first collection and my upcoming one it’s like two wholly different worlds. I like madness and I’m sure that it will always characterize my persona, I’d like my clothing to be remembered for their provocative prints, ridiculing stereotypes about the Middle East and always favoring the Arab queer.” 

This invited me to wonder about Efrem’s upbringing and how it has impacted their creative journey today. “My upbringing really helped me stay solid. The more western society declines, the more I rise creatively. People of colour’s ideas have always been stolen, chewed, and distorted in the creative industry, but at the end of the day we still know how to renew and thrive without accepting defeat,” they said. Efrem added, “the industry claims to be open and a sort of escape from that type of ‘world full of injustice’ but it does reflect the same toxicity and harms queer people of colour.”

Breaking into the creative industry wasn’t a simple journey for Efrem. “Picture a typical American-teen movie that takes place in high school. There are various cliques: cheerleaders, basketball players, nerds, nature lovers. I represent and I’m represented by the weirdos: the tormented dreamers, delicate, lonely, and emotive,” they recalled. This is perhaps the harsh reality for many Queer BIPoC, and PoC in general.

The line between Efrem the person and Efetishism the creative is hard to distinguish. “Efrem and Efetishism are definitely the same entity. I don’t really speak about it but it’s quite understated. I do not separate my life from my brand when it comes to posting on social media. I do consider my profile as an art portfolio, including my designs, my stylings, cover arts, and nightlife memories. Efetishism as a brand is also made to dress myself in the first place, as I’ve often seen that a lot of creative directors separate their personal aesthetic from their brand’s one.”

Efrem Damiani in an oversized coat and pink boots crouching on the floor.
Photography by Shahfaq Shahbaz and Mathushaa Sagthidas.
 Coat by Kim Dave, shorts by KEZIAH, top by Chenchen Studio, boots Efrem’s own.

After bumping into Efrem at Pxssy Palace, a club night that prioritises people of colour from marginalised genders and sexualities, I remembered asking them about queer scenes in London, especially Arab queer scenes in London vs the rest of the world. “I can only speak for London and Milan. When in Milan, I could barely get along with Arab queers as we don’t have the same spotlight as white queers so we feel we have something to prove and we become very competitive and degrade each other.”

“There’s a  lot of room for growth for us in a city like Milan and I can state that young queers are doing their best to change the aim of our existence into love and kindness. I found strong and very supportive Arab communities in London, it’s been a humbling opportunity that allows me to re-educate myself about Arabs and queers in both individual and co-existing ways. It feels pure and genuine and lets me better myself as a person every day,” they concluded.

Many creatives from MESA backgrounds have a moment of pure bliss during our creative journeys where we recognise our accomplishments, despite the challenges which continue to loom over us. For Efrem, it was a mixture of moments and experiences: “Starting my business is definitely the highest form of blissfulness I’ve been experiencing so far.” 

For a long time, the majority of us from MESA backgrounds, especially those in the diaspora, have dealt with some form of an identity crisis. “We, as Middle Eastern people definitely experience life-long identity crises as we all come from an immigration and desolation background, or, if born in a western country, we live with our parents and grandparents traumas,” they said. “It also does manifest in small circumstances, such as being consistently compared to white counterparts or other minorities for the way we look or we act. It seems like we’re not doing the right thing regardless, the only way to do so is imitating a society-designed type of model. I’d be lying if I say that I’ve never felt less attractive or less intelligent than the next person, or felt really desired when and learned I was just being exoticized.” 

“The only way to ‘overcome it’ is just by embracing it. At the end of the day there’s no washing it away. What I’m saying is it’s not tolerating it, it’s owning the fact that everything we know is wrong. We should forget everything and be re-educated again. If we overcome this barrier, nothing can stop us from being the majority.” 

Efrem has picked up many life lessons through their creative experience, one of which is “giving less of a fuck more often. Being emotionally involved shouldn’t be applied to every situation because people have no good soul.”

As someone who takes no prisoners in their creative pursuits, they are a force of change in the sometimes monotonous fashion industry but they still hold some traditional values closely to them. From the last generation, Efrem took resilience.

“I’ve take the way the last generation was loyal to their roots and the way they value their culture. When I think about my parents, I think about the way they taught me to appreciate and honour my heritage. My wisdom definitely comes from them,” they recalled.

And what do they hope to pass on to the next generation? Faith in the power of progress: “I would definitely pass on an openness to change. I feel like our generation is going through a process and this process leads us towards justice and positivity.”

As we take those steps towards a more inclusive future, Efrem has the wind at their back.


Art Direction and shoot coordination: Kardelen Yuce (@kardelenyuce__ & Armani Syed @armani_sy)

Photography: Shahfaq Shahbaz (@shahfaq.creations) & Mathushaa Sagthidas (@mathuxphotos)

Videography and BTS: Sparsh Ahuja (@photosparsh)

Production and set: Charlotte McGing (@charlottemcging)

Sound: Hashim Shamsi (@hashim.95)

Styling: Jahnavi Sharma (@jahnavixi)

Styling Assistant: Armani Syed (@armani_sy)

PR: Laura McCluskey (@lauramccluskeypr)

Hair: John Harte (@johnhartehair) Joshua Mascolo (@joshuamascolohair)

Makeup: Agne Didzgalvyte (@agne_did) and Mia Ray (@mia.ray.mua) on behalf of AOFMPro.

With special thanks to Dave and Sonia at LDC.

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