In Paris via Morocco the multi-disciplinary artist and founder of the brand Volubilis Habibi, previously Air Ouane, takes us on a personal journey. World-building, Air Ouane creates a borderless space free of societal restrictions where identities are chosen and not assigned, where culture and passion collide, where everyone can simply exist through art.
For those who do not know who you are and your work, can you please introduce yourself and take us through your creative journey.
My name is Erwan Mehdi Bernard Bel Abbas and I’m a 25 year old French Moroccan. I am a Fashion designer, jewelry designer, photographer and visual artist based in Paris and the founder of the fashion brand Volubilis Habibi.
You have a fascination with liberation, freedom, and an utterly uninhibited perspective of identity. Where does the need to break free from societal norms come from? And how do you reflect these notions in your work?
Since I was little, Art has been a way of communicating with others. In my opinion, “the words” are sometimes too reductive, or at least, I have not mastered the art of speaking well. I liberate my thoughts and my uniqueness through images. In this way, my work is the expression of my freedom. To be honest, I do not think of breaking the rules and being rebellious all the time. But when you feel like an "outsider" in many ways, you have to follow your own purpose, rules, and define your unicity, and that is what I do.
You are a multidisciplinary artist, working across photography, fashion design, and jewelry design. How does your work in each of these disciplines differ? And which one do you find that you can express yourself most through?
Multidisciplinarity in my art is my greatest strength. They are all linked and simply deliver the message I want to express through the garments. For example, photography and moving images have allowed me to narrate a vision where my clothes live through someone. And I want to welcome people into my universe and them to feel free to interpret it [my art] as they want.
In the majority of your work you mention how your work is a response to society and rebels against the “norms” enforced on us, how do you portray your work as a rebellious response to the restrictions and expectations of society?
For me, to assume myself as an individual, to assume one's choices in a retrograde society, is a proof of courage. I suffered from a lot of rejection because of who I am. So, I decided to create my own world, with my own rules, surrounded by the people I love.
Living as an expat or a person with dual-nationality can be very difficult growing up, especially with navigating who you are and where you belong. So, as a French-Morrocan creative based in Paris, has being a diasporic individual play a role in your identity as an artist, and has it been reflected in any way into your art?
My dual culture is my heritage, identity and that I am proud of. My oriental Maghrebian culture inspires me, so much. Whether in the art of embroidery, [through] fabrics, know-how, elegance or refinement. I like to mix genres, traditions and play with aesthetic codes in all my works.
You have previously talked about your “unique and rich generation” when describing the representation in your art and vision, can you elaborate more on the terms you used and how you hope your work portrays it?
To me, our generation is full of hope and creativity. We try to make our voices heard and fight for our convictions. Volubilis Habibi is not simply a fashion brand, but it is my statement [to the world]. I am lucky to be surrounded by incredible people that I love and who understand exactly what my story-telling and my vision are in which, many times, we share.
Often you mention the healing and therapeutic nature of your creations. What are you trying to work on through your work?
My work is a way of communicating with one another. When I was younger, it was a way to vent my frustration, to get to "know" myself and to establish my identity as a unique person. Throughout my life, my artistic work has taught me to love myself in a healthy way.
Your label, Volubilis Habibi, seems to draw a lot of inspiration from 18th century fashion. A lot of corsets, sheer gowns, pearls and a dramatic take on jewelry with a macabre and surreal aesthetic. Can you talk to us more about the design process and why you are embodying Marie Antoinette as a muse for your label?
In my brand Volubilis Habibi, my history, my dreams, my frustration, my violence and my love are all mixed together, to create. I created for myself, now I create for everyone. Volubilis Habibi took inspiration from so many things: my culture, my mother and myself. The clothes are made completely from start to finish or upcycled by me, as well as the jewelry. Through clothing, I try to play with the aesthetics and the History of certain pieces, through the centuries. Couture is my weapon.
Your pieces are unique in a sense that it blends your personal inspirations with your ideologies as an individual, where do you see the brand moving towards in the next 5 years?
In 5 years inchAllah, I hope to see my brand successful and it is all thanks to my art and my constant hard work.
You have been a vocal advocate for rejecting the boundaries of “gender” and designing for humans and not just women or men, when was a moment in your life where you realised that the social implications of gender are restrictive to your creativity as an artist?
Since I was little, I was never raised with ideas of gender norms. For me, gender identity is defined and created by oneself or is simply non-existent. I am surrounded by incredible, courageous and strong people who fight every day for who they are. This love, this strength is what drives me every day to be a better version of myself.
We have got to know more about your creative process, your work, and your ideals but besides your broad range of work and creations, what do you personally hope to achieve in a few years time?
I would love to develop my brand and continue to learn every day, still believe in myself and continue to be brave. I am my own soulmate and no one will give me the love that I give to myself.