You might have spotted one of Exhale’s pop-ups — or rather, ‘exhale’, a quieter stylisation of the word, mirrored backwards for effect — around the UAE, or maybe you walked past someone wearing one of their minimalist creations on the street.
The conceptual clothing brand, behind inspired T-shirts, hoodies and casual apparel, targets “misfits, dreamers, creators and doers”. It’s characterised by a clean black-and-white aesthetic, with the idea that ‘you bring the colour’.
On February 28, they’re officially marking their move into a permanent space — Kave, a sprawling, no frills upcycling cafe in Alserkal Avenue, with plenty of breathing room for the Exhale community. Or, as founder Nawal Al Masri refers to them, ‘Exhalers’.
“Exhale is monochromatic, in the sense of black, white, grey,” explains Al Masri.
“We’re not here to make you follow a trend or say, ‘You have to be this, so you can be cool.’ Whatever colour you bring is acceptable. There’s no judgement.”
Al Masri founded Exhale in 2016 in hopes of building a community that allows people to be who they are.
“I’m Palestinian Lebanese. I was born in Montreal. I’ve been here [in the UAE] for 10 years. I studied journalism at the American University of Sharjah — this is where all the storytelling comes from,” she says.
The 29 year old, who recently spoke at the first mental health awareness event at her alma mater, has given talks at both NAMA Women Advancement Establishment and UN Women.
“I really wanted female integration and female artists [to perform at Exhale’s event], which I’m finding hard to find,” she says. “I really hope female artists come forth and be part of the community, because I don’t want an unbalanced ratio.”
Exhale, which had already been renting a 1x1 space at Kave for some time, made their move official in 2020.
At the housewarming, there will be live music, collaborative art and poetry. And if the idea of hanging with the cool kids sounds intimidating, Al Masri has news for you: “Oh, my God, we are not cool!” she says, laughing.
“I mean, [Alserkal] could be the hip place to be, and that’s not something bad. But, there’s so much lack of judgement in that place. There’s so much community feel in Alserkal Avenue. In Kave, there’s so much down-to-earth energy, so much homey vibes, that we really felt at home when we were there.”
“We hope Exhale can be that for everyone. It’s not a brand built for us. It’s a brand built for everyone. And that’s what we hope people understand.”
A COMMUNITY EVENT
Exhale’s upcoming event on February 28 at Kave has a strong artistic undercurrent, which comes as no surprise.
Over the past three years, the brand has made it its mission to mix fashion — made out of “natural, hand-picked materials [through] sustainable and holistic production methods” — with storytelling, including T-shirts that incorporate themes of emotion, mental health and, in case of their Palestine-themed collection, cultural identity.
Their merchandise carries both Arabic and English writings, from ‘My anxieties have anxieties’ (featured on their ‘Peanuts’ collection at Virgin Megastores) to ‘Our land lives within us’.
“Without everyone’s presence and warmth, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Al Masri. “So we want to officialise that and celebrate with everyone.”
EXHALE HOUSEWARMING: WHAT TO EXPECT
• From 4pm onwards, guests can enjoy jam session by regional artists Ibby VK, Khalid, Michele and Hadi. “It’s not a set schedule — they get to jam and do their thing, all the while providing music for the whole community,” says Al Masri. “People can also bring instruments, if they play, and jam with everyone there. It’s a community collaboration.”
• Wordsmith Suhaib will be running a poetry performance. “Poetry and quotes mean a lot to us, because words get you through. We want people to understand that poetry is part of our journey — not only art as in drawing or painting, but also artists who write,” says Al Masri.
• You can buy small canvases or re-usable Exhale water bottles and create your own art. “Reham Shaheen will be guiding the art session for expression on bottles. Then, Rabab Tantawy will be using canvases [in a session] called ‘The Heart That Sees’; Rabab will be guiding you to understand a journey within yourself, to draw your heart, or how it would look like,” explains Al Masri.
• You will have the chance to explore the ‘Rock Your Ugly’ photo exhibition by Waleed Shah (as well as a creative session with the photographer himself). “As soon as you finish your art, even if you don’t want to do art, you can still take a photo with Waleed. But the concept is to bring colour,” says Al Masri.
• At 7pm, you can join in on a ‘cosy talk’ with Al Masri, Shah, Mika Ashraf, Anushka Abraham and more. “[It’s open to] anyone who wants to join and share their story. We will be at least leading it, because it’s not always [the case] that people are feeling comfortable to talk about their experiences,” says Al Masri. “Cosy talk is just an open-up session for people to see and understand that there is a community here called the Exhaler community, where we talk about our emotions, our anxiety, our depression. We have a Facebook group, too; we are the ones who accept people, not out of, ‘Oh, you don’t belong here.’ But just out of making sure no one bullies or judges anyone, so we have it controlled. We want people to feel comfortable to express themselves, because I feel they don’t have that platform in the Middle East.”
• Take a moment to self-reflect before you leave. “The concept and the theme is all clouds, sky, nature and the ocean. So it’s very Exhale-y, very calming, relaxing. By the very end of the event, we will just have like a five-minute lie-down, where everyone will be lying in the centre of the place, we shut down all the lights, and we just have a small sound journey, where we all self-reflect,” says Al Masri.