By: Sara El Gendy There’s never a dull moment when talking to someone who exudes boundless confidence with a peerless knack for standing out and taking a step where no one’s ever been. Mohanad Kojak is constantly making sure that every one of his designs have the same impact as his own presence; edgy, different, and unforgettable. An eternally captivating charm lies beyond the young designer's meticulous moustache and his ever-changing hairstyle. I sat down with Kojak at his studio (home for one adorable cat) where we talked everything Project Runway, venturing into other less comfortable grounds, and the inspiration behind his most recent collections...

Was reaching more people and exposing your work to a broader audience the main reason you joined Project Runway Middle East?

Yes, my main concern was the exposure, I knew that I’ve already reached what’s possible for me to reach in Egypt. I wanted to expand my circle and I felt that Project Runway would allow that to happen. I also needed sometime for myself and decided to take these two months off, but wanted to still be doing something that’s related to fashion. A lot of people actually told me that my pieces on the show were “not really what you do or show us” and I knew that it’s something that I’m experimenting with, whether people or the judges liked the product or not. I wanted to put my artsy side more into practice and play around with things and materials, so I realized it would definitely be a good opportunity to achieve all of that. It was very rewarding that I spent a lot of time working by my self, experimenting and trying things with my own hands. I used the fact that there aren’t any clients in the process so I was more open and did whatever I wanted. It was similar to how I design a collection, sometimes with even less stress.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned while working with Elie Saab?

mohanad-kojak Mainly staying true to who I am and sticking to my design aesthetic, these are what I think were the most important. I thought his criticism was very constructive. I was always convinced with what he had to say. I’m a very stubborn person, so even if we don’t agree, the other opinion has to make sense and clarifies a certain point of view to me, and Saab did that. Criticism either makes you stick to what you want or changes your approach. And sticking to what you think is right can sometimes prove to be more worthy and a reason to continue doing what you believe in. I also value that even when he didn’t like a design, he still got excited because he wanted me to experiment more, he appreciated the concept and effort that went into the final product.

Was there a challenge that you felt was too easy for you?

Surprisingly, it was the one where I got eliminated; the Avant Garde challenge. It was actually one of my favorite designs on Project Runway and that’s why I’m really glad that it was my last, and that I left the show feeling proud of what I did. mohanad-kojak I would have been extremely frustrated with myself if I’d left one week earlier, after the Kids’ challenge, as I wasn’t completely satisfied with the design. But I loved that last design and the judges actually did too, it was only because they thought it wasn’t fitting to the concept of the challenge but for me it was perfect. I could’ve added more drama, maybe, but the thing is those challenges make you nervous because the judges are different and they prefer different things, which could be the complete opposite of what you actually want to do. mohanad-kojak

"I’m still not at all convinced that Avant Garde means leather and mirrors. I didn’t get why they never understood that it could be inspired by anything. When I told them that the dress was inspired by Alice in Wonderland they told me “but it’s not Avant Garde”, while Alice in Wonderland can be Avant Garde"

During the Abaya challenge, for instance, I designed one using Victorian inspiration, they were like “the challenge is to design an abaya, not a Victorian abaya”. It wasn’t a Victorian abaya, it was inspired by the Victorian era. I can make one inspired by the Japanese, Bedouin, or ancient Egyptian culture, and it will still be called abaya not a costume. These were the moments I felt that the judges’ comments lacked sense. However, their comments after the elimination were great and they were honestly very nice to me.

Did you feel the need to keep their voices in your head while working?

I tried as much as I could not to keep their voices in my head, however, to a certain extent you think of them and that causes a kind of hesitation, then you start asking yourself things like “should I do something they’d like or something that I like and want to create?” mohanad-kojak
Photo: Project Runway Middle East
You never know how the judges will react. I actually thought I might win the Avant Garde challenge, and was positive that they won’t like the coat I made for the Refugees’ challenge and that they’d think fur doesn’t serve the goal. At the end of the day it’s a competition and the viewers don’t experience the stress, it was intense. Because sometimes the concept of the challenge is not something that I felt comfortable doing, like the Kids’ challenge, for instance. I’ve designed for kids before but working with them, for me, is a mess.

What’s the challenge that you’re most proud of?

I’m most proud of the refugee coat. I felt that it was something completely out of my comfort zone where I was able to be successful, show my design aesthetic and my vision. The judges were convinced with my concept; I’ve always believed that when you send a gift to someone it should reflect your value and represent you, regardless of who it is for. Syrian refugees struggle with different things and a lot of them had very good lives before the war, their situation was better, they felt safe and not scared for their lives.
Another thing is that they’re not welcome outside the camp, Lebanese citizens don’t treat them all that well. So I wanted to dress them in something that looks valuable so at least when they wear it outside they won’t end up being recognized as refugees.
The universal refugee "Find shelter in them now." - #Kojak Makeup by: @makeupbyfarahadly Styling: @ahmedwsorour A photo posted by Mohanad Kojak (@kojakstudio) on
Another piece that I really like is the one I did for Wafaa El Kilany’s challenge, the purple dress with florals. It had interesting elements like the pattern on the fabric, the lace details, the high collar, the dip dye I added. It actually worked as an inspiration for other designs later.
A photo posted by Mohanad Kojak (@kojakstudio) on

What was the toughest challenge for you?

The group challenge. I found it very uncomfortable working with Luma Saleh, there was no chemistry between us which lead to us being boring, and it was worse in real life than on the show. It was clear that we didn’t like each other but we were stuck in a room so the better decision was to make it work so we could get out of it, instead of making it worse by tormenting and annoying each other. I don’t mind mean people as long as they’re smart about it. We’re very different and we don’t have the same design aesthetic, but at the end of the day it was a competition and we had to figure out a way to sort it out. I was honest with her and let her know that I’m aware of the fact that she doesn’t like that we’re on the same group. I told her that she needed to be smarter and more flexible about the situation, which is basically what I did. It was the longest day and I didn’t like the energy at all, especially that it was the challenge following Amna’s elimination so I was already feeling stressed.

What was the worst advice you received on the show?

The worst was when Elie Saab said “I think you can be a good stylist” and that it’s actually a compliment, I honestly didn’t get it. However, I tried to take it from another perspective, translate it in a good way, and tell myself that maybe what he means is that I’m a good designer AND a good stylist as well - laughs. But I see where he’s coming from, because this is something that I do for my clients; I provide them with a full service. Yes, I make the dress but I also decide what shoes and hairstyle compliment it so the look is cohesive. I’m able to see beyond my design and look at the big picture not just my dress, and that’s a plus.
@dorra_zarrouk in #Kojak at the red carpet of#dubaiinternationalfilmfestival A photo posted by Mohanad Kojak (@kojakstudio) on
But I got over it right away when he started saying encouraging things like “you’ll go places”, his criticism was what I paid most attention to. I found Afaf Jnifen’s comments hard to convince me, honestly. She’d say things like “I don’t like this length” of a skirt, for instance, which is something that depended more on taste than the design itself.

Afaf said that you “don’t surprise” and that whenever she sees a design she knows it’s yours, how can that be a bad thing?

mohanad-kojak They thought it was a bad thing that I used brocade fabric more than once, while, technically speaking, I only used it when making my mom’s dress. The thing with brocade is that I can spend my life working with it and end up with different things. I was really glad when Saab clarified that what she said should be a compliment. If I put all of my designs throughout Project Runway together, they will look different from each other, but somehow have something in common.

Why did you decide to collaborate with Ikon Chiba to make Trippin’?

I started working on Trippin’ right after I came back from Lebanon, I knew I had to do it once I’m back because I spent two months away.
I also wanted to do something that’s a bit different, this one is totally different from all the things I’ve done before. I wanted to experiment more with ready-to-wear and street-style-ish looks, something that’s not really that common here in Egypt. A lot of people still don’t get wearing a pleated skirt with a bomber jacket and sneakers, that everything is blending. I also wanted to do something youthful with a fresh feel to it. That’s why I worked with Ikon as he’s work is very experimental and very different from the dramatic, European type of designs I usually make. The shoot was mainly inspired by an LSD trip so I needed someone to play with visuals and create something that’s not easy on the eye, a bit uncomfortable, and irritating to watch.

What propelled you to create Dementia?

Usually my collections are inspired by personal experiences, the shoot for Dementia is mainly inspired by a mental asylum.

"The energy during that shoot was great, everybody that I worked with was very helpful and really got into the mood. I had to be very strict and clear with the references so they absorb the whole concept and are surrounded by it"

I started putting together asylum scenes from music videos and movies I saw, I also asked my friends and we prepared a list. I then watched the scenes on that list which  somehow related to the topic and created the concept for the shoot. I wanted to get back to the Kojak edge, especially after Trippin’, and show haute couture with a glamorous feel, and I believe that I was able to do that through Dementia.

Check Wildhood, Kojak’s most recent winter capsule collection, below!