Even if you haven’t heard of the Al Wissam design label, chances are you’ve probably seen one of the distinctive jackets that have catapulted the once-obscure brand into hip-hop stardom.

Drew Philp
Drew Philp
ABOVE: Casually relaxed sportswear is designed to be paired with matching jacket. BELOW: Souwaidam shows off a more modest watch for the average customer. (BEN SIMON/Daily)

Al Wissam, named after owner Bassem Souwaidam’s youngest brother, started the business in 1992 after moving the clothing business to the United States from Lebanon, but it wasn’t until 1999 that they turned heads when their leather jacket first hit the market. Al Wissam isn’t just a family name, it also symbolizes pride, and for the last nine years, there’s been a lot to make Souwaidam proud.

Al Wissam only has two official retail locations, in Dearborn and Southwest Detroit – where several brands like Timberland, Cole Haan and LRG are also sold – but the brand can be found elsewhere throughout the United States, Canada and Denmark.

The style is decidedly urban, while drawing on a multicultural perspective that few designers can carry with such expertise and cultural relevance. The company itself is incredibly mixed as well, employing people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds to further diversify both the garments themselves and their implied significance.

“We are a multi-cultural company using fashion as a tool to introduce elements of other cultures to our customers,” reads the “vision statement” on the Al Wissam website. “Bringing people together; promoting understanding, tolerance, and respect for ourselves and others is our goal.”

Al Wissam’s signature item is undoubtedly its leather jacket, which typically takes on the same basic shape season after season, but with new and conscious motifs like the First Amendment and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech are spread across the jackets in a visual montage of ornate stitchwork, which creates a thread pattern that gives each piece its unique visual and tactile textures. These jackets transcend popular sportswear and enter high fashion and artistic design. The range of other elements that have found their way onto the jackets include American cities (Detroit especially) and countries around the world (Africa – “the motherland”), and more lighthearted themes like tic-tac-toe and popular sports.

The design team, made up of three Michigan natives with offices in Livonia, fleshes out each new concept for the men’s jackets, sportswear and women’s outerwear before shipping patterns to Hong Kong where the clothes are actually made. Though much of the work is done by machine, a small portion of the elaborate stitching is done by hand – some jackets have as many as six million individual stitches.

Al Wissam’s specialty centers around on goods and sportswear, often adorned with embroidered leather paneling or emblems, but the label has expanded to include a line of luxury watches, too. One watch model, jokingly dubbed “The Don,” makes for serious ice, with a platinum dial and three rows of small-cut diamonds encircling the clock face.

The brand has successfully drawn in local and out-of-town loyalists, but the celebrity customers are what put Al Wissam on the map. Stars like Tupac, Ludacris and DMX sported the goods, and athletes like local hero Chauncey Billups are known to frequent the store – even Kwame Kilpatrick wears Al Wissam.

“A lot of rappers will go in there, and they’ll purchase the jackets and wear ’em in videos, so that just took us to a whole new level,” said Matrice Wood-Dudley, designer and Al Wissam vice president, in an interview featured on the company’s promo DVD.

Al Wissam designs have been featured in more than 100 music videos, but it’s not just the clothes that have earned celeb raves. As a complement to the head-to-toe streetwear ensembles, the company has even released a customized edition of the Hummer, stocked with an upgraded sound system and interior leather embroidered with the characteristic Al Wissam logo.

Big-name clients and local fans can’t seem to get enough – Al Wissam delivers an entirely new style that can’t be found anywhere else, and the laid-back staff maintains a level of personal attention uncommon among high-profile labels.

“We connect to the customers and we know what (they) need, and we design our clothing from that,” Souwaidam said.

Al Wissam’s latest addition to the collection is a pared-down, streamlined style of Italian leather jackets that will hopefully appeal to the company’s older clients as they grow up and opt for a more sophisticated look, stretching beyond edgy urbanwear.

Souwaidam said spring 2008 will reveal a full line of women’s sportswear, as opposed to the current limited selection of leather jackets. Al Wissam also hopes to break into the markets in Germany and Japan, where a blended hip-hop culture is taking shape.

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