Welcome to Emirates Woman’s latest series ‘Spotlight on Saudi Arabia…’ where we speak to some incredible entrepreneurs based in the Kingdom to find out about their career paths and what led them to where they are now; what their daily routines look like; the advice they’d give to those starting out, and the hurdles they’ve had to overcome in the world of fashion.

Born with the desire to cater to the modern woman, Jeddah-based designer Nora Al Shaikh has carved out a niche for herself with strong architectural lines and rich colour combinations which are emulated through all her pieces.

Al Shaikh launched her luxury ready-to-wear line in 2012 and continues to fuse Saudi heritage with a global perspective and Emirates Woman sat down to speak to her on how she’s made her mark in the fashion industry.

What inspired you to launch your label?

I’ve been passionate about fashion from a very young age, but it was after I had received my first degree in Business Administration from King Saud University in 2007, that I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a fashion designer. In 2008, I enrolled in Riyadh’s Arts and Skills Institute (ASI), which offered the first fashion program of its kind in Saudi Arabia. ASI marked the beginning of professionalising the fashion field in the Kingdom, by creating a path for women to pursue a career in fashion design through structured courses covering construction, merchandising, retail, sewing, draping, sketching and fashion history. During my time there, I focused on understanding how to become a ready-to-wear designer. Unfortunately, what was lacking were opportunities for internships as there were very few established labels or fashion businesses in the Kingdom. Especially at the time I had graduated, the fashion industry in the Middle East was still in its infancy and there weren’t a lot of opportunities like today.

Shortly after graduating in 2009, I was invited to present my first collection of winter abayas for F/W ‘09-‘10 at Saks Fifth Avenue in Riyadh. It was part of a design competition sponsored by Swarovski, where we were asked to incorporate crystals into our designs. 2009-2011 was a big learning period for me as I worked on a series of small collections trying to find my voice as a designer. I was creating my own internship, trying to learn as I formed my label. By 2012 I felt the time was right to re-launch my line, Nora Al Shaikh, with a clear design focus. As I matured with each season and learned from each collection, I realized my passion for this field wasn’t about being famous, but my love of textiles and design, and recognition has come with it. Today I think a lot about how I can empower and give confidence to women around me through my clothes.

How would you define the fashion scene in Saudi Arabia and how has it evolved over the years?

Saudi women have always plugged into global fashion trends, but they are also a diverse group of individuals who can’t easily be defined. They are no different than her counterparts around the world. More than anything one needs to pick clothes that make them feel confident, beautiful and comfortable. When I see a client in my clothes and know she’s feeling those things, I’ve succeeded as a designer. Personally, what inspires me about my Saudi heritage is the sheer diversity of it. Saudi Arabia is made up of 13 regions, each with its own distinct traditions, art forms and even natural wonders. With each collection, I’m constantly learning and discovering a new facet of this country that’s so rich in crafts and traditions. It’s a constant source of inspiration for me, and I use my collections as a way to share this heritage with a larger audience.

My generation also sees themselves as both Saudi and global citizens and I try to reflect that perspective in my work. Travel plays a big role in fueling my creative process, and I like to interpret what I would see on the streets of London, New York, or L.A through my own Saudi point of view. Many of my peers also realize that we are at a moment in time when the West is curious about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and it’s up to us to take advantage of that crack in the door to change perceptions, even if it’s through the medium of fashion. If anything as more Saudi creatives share their work with a global audience we can begin to normalize our image to the rest of the world and show that we have points of commonality as well as things that make us unique and diverse.

What is your approach to daily dressing?

My approach to dressing is very similar to how I design a collection. When I decided to launch my own line I wanted to create modern beautifully made clothes that could appeal to women all over the world. At the same time, I still want to infuse my own Saudi heritage into the pieces I design but in a very subtle way. This could be reflected in the proportions of a dress or a specific colour combination. Fashion is an incredibly powerful tool to bridge cultures, and being a Saudi designer has given me the opportunity to connect with women from around the world. It’s very much a reflection of how global we’ve become today and that we can be a part of a larger creative community. At the end of the day, it’s about making a woman feel and look amazing regardless of her age or background. We pride ourselves on being a positive label and we want that attitude to come through in the clothes I design and wear.

How have you managed to scale the brand growth since its inception?

When I think about what success looks like to me, it ultimately boils down to longevity. We’re celebrating the brand’s 10th anniversary, and there is a lot of pride in sustaining and growing the label, knowing full well some of my peers who started around the same time are no longer designing. This is a tough business to be in but I am grateful each day for my loyal clients, my team and the opportunities that have come my way. Arab designers are often either seen as eveningwear designers with a limited customer base for custom orders or creating cheaply made fashions that are poor copies of their western counterparts. It’s a challenge most designers face in the region, especially with limited resources in terms of good pattern makers, and access to quality fabrics. Because so much is imported into the region, it can be cost-prohibitive. As a result, I have decided to slowly build my brand as I improve the quality of the product, and look for opportunities to market the collection to retailers. Success for me is about longevity.

In the beginning, I put together a team of seamstresses and patternmakers to be able to produce my collections in-house. I had to learn the proper sizing and finishing of garments to ensure they met international standards. I also had to be careful in terms of where I invested resources, focusing on producing professional look books and nurturing relationships with retailers for example, instead of taking part inexpensive fashion shows that were all hype but seldom yield results. As my sales increased I reinvested my profits into producing my collections out of factories in Lebanon and the UAE, as well as sourcing quality materials and innovative textiles. I’m currently working on a new collection to celebrate my brand’s 10th anniversary, and I recently launched a new online shop to reach my customers directly. The direct-to-consumer model has been the future for some time, and we’ve seen many designers heading in that direction. In Jeddah, we have our own showroom where we hold events and clients can come and shop the collection as well. We also have a lot of clients shopping with us through Instagram. My main focus is building a stable profitable business so that I can continue to do what I love which is design. I hope to reach the point where I’m selling internationally and we are slowly moving in that direction, as well as expanding into accessories.

Launching a perfume was also part of that long-term goal and it was simply about finding the right partner to take on this project with. Although it’s a relative newcomer to the perfume world, what attracted me to Nota Nota was that here was a Saudi perfumer fusing technology, craft and social media. I’ve always supported local talent in my work, and this felt like the perfect collaboration. I called my perfume ‘Najd Breeze,’ because I was inspired by magical nights spent in the desert dunes of the Najd. I wanted to capture that feeling with a fresh oriental fragrance combining exceptional raw materials. The top note is Samar, a wood indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula that’s traditionally used in campfires. It produces a sweet fragrance, which transports you to the warmth of a desert encampment. It’s followed by middle notes of musk and Tabaco, ending with base notes of leather and sandalwood.

What advice do you have for aspiring fashion designers?

When young designers come to me for advice I always ask them to be honest with themselves and ask why they want to be designers in the first place. It’s not enough to simply want to be famous or take a bow at the end of a runway. Even in the best of times, it can be a challenging industry to be in, and you need to give yourself time to learn, to make mistakes, and grow as a designer. Your best work could happen five or ten years from when you begin. That’s why it’s important to start small and learn your craft. Along the way, you will encounter individuals who will tell you you have to get a press agent or take part in a fashion show. All of these things are expensive, and if they divert resources from your core mission, which is to make clothes people want to wear, then it’s not worth it. Identify what is important to you and then focus on achieving it. For me, it was being strategic about where I invested my resources, such as improving the quality of my clothes. All this takes time and planning, which is why I encourage young designers not to be hard on themselves if things don’t happen overnight.

It’s also vital to educate oneself and be aware of what’s going on around you in the larger industry. That’s how you make educated decisions about what works best for your brand with the resources available to you. If you are passionate about what you do then success will come to you in many different forms, it’s up to you to figure out what that looks like.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome this?

To be a designer is to also be a problem solver because with each collection there is always a new set of challenges that crop up. Fashion is also a craft that we never stop learning as designers, and I spent a lot of time gradually building the amazing team I have around me today because the reality of being a designer in Saudi is that we don’t have the same resources available to us as our peers in London or New York. At the same time, I feel I am part of a movement to establish a foundation for a credible fashion industry in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Many of us working in the region today are part of the first wave of designers with formal training and degrees, and our success could help pave the way for future industry professionals, by creating opportunities for internships in Saudi Arabia for example which were not available to me. This kind of development not only takes time but also requires support from both the government, public and business community.

Within the context of the Saudi fashion scene, it’s also important to point out the challenges in developing an ecosystem in which designers can thrive, which not only includes accredited schools where one can learn the fundamentals of what if takes to function in this industry, but also access to affordable fabric suppliers and garment factories that produce at international levels so that designers have the ability to locally produce their collections. As we start to build this infrastructure we will be able to compete in the global market.

I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been able to build my brand in a sustainable manner. That said there are many challenges that most Arab designers face in the region, and it is changing perceptions and convincing others that they are just as good as other international brands, as well as convincing local retailers to take a chance on us. If we can’t find support within our own communities then it becomes more difficult to succeed as a label internationally. There should be a sense of pride in saying something is made in the Middle East and we’re slowly starting to get there, but there is still a lot of work to be done. In order to position the brand properly, we also need retailers willing to take a risk on regional designers.

How do you manage to empower women through the world of fashion?

The women who inspire me the most aren’t necessarily celebrities or in the news. They are my family, friends and people I encounter each day. I never set out to create clothes for a fantasy client, but for diverse women leading interesting and fulfilling lives. She could be a mother, artist, architect or businesswoman, but it’s the way she chooses to live her life that inspires me. I’ve always admired strong women in the arts with a unique point of view such as Tilda Swinton and Shirin Neshat. What gives me the most satisfaction is seeing diverse women wearing my clothes in their daily lives, because they are the ones I keep in mind when designing each collection. Saudi women inspire me particularly because they are so inventive in terms of the looks they put together, and I get a lot of inspiration from the people around me.

Lastly, what fashion brands can we find in your wardrobe?

As a designer, I’m very much interested in the craft of dressmaking and I find myself drawn to brands who focus on quality fabrics, beautiful finishing and even a commitment to sustainability in the way they dye their textiles or source materials. I’m also attracted to the work of women who design for women such as Gabriela Hearst, The Row and Stella McCartney among many others. It’s always good to look at what others are doing while building one’s own vocabulary as a designer. At the same time have style has nothing to do with a brand or expensive clothes, it’s how you pull pieces together to make them your own.

For more information on the collection or to make a purchase visit noraalshaikh.com

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Images: Supplied