It is no exaggeration to say that fashion designer Amina Al-Jassim exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit of Saudi businesswomen today. She has adapted beautiful traditional designs of Saudi formal attire and transformed them into ready-to-wear clothes and goods. She sells at her Alkhobar-based Dar Breesam Couture Establishment.
Now producing wedding dresses, jalabiyas and handbags, Al-Jassim needed ingenuity and determination, not to mention patience and flexibility, to become one of the Middle East’s leading designers. She now has a global reputation for unique creations of the finest quality.
Fashion has long been Al-Jassim’s passion. After studying computer science and business administration at Ball State University in the US, she got a job in 1981 with Saudi Aramco as a systems analyst. It allowed her to travel to her mother’s native Bahrain on weekends, in the days before the Causeway opened, and spend time at the tiny island kingdom’s fashion stores.
“I went to a jalabiya shop and did not like what they had,” Al-Jassim recalls. “So I asked the owner: ‘Do you mind if I tell you what I want?’ He said: ‘Fine.’ So I started drawing and giving him the specifications. Then I started spending a lot of time getting all kinds of jalabiyas. When I would come back after the weekend people here would swoon over my jalabiyas.”
Starting a fashion business was still quite a way into the future at that point. “I would spend all my time at the weekend in Bahrain preparing jalabiyas for friends,” she recounts. “It was not business — just a friendly favor. One of my cousins said, ‘Amina, you are spending all your time doing jalabiyas. I think you like doing this.’ I felt like I was creating something new. It became my passion. Then I decided to do something that had not been done before — I thought of ready-to-wear jalabiyas.”
What might have been a fairly easy start-up in other parts of the world was rather different when it came to Saudi Arabia, as Al-Jassim discovered.
The first challenge was family. “I could not tell my father about my love for the jalabiya business,” Al-Jassim says. “I was not married at that time, and being a woman I needed a man’s permission to start anything. I couldn’t muster enough courage to tell him what I wanted to do. I always wondered what his reaction would be. ‘What? We sent you to the United States and now you want to become a ‘khayyata’ (a tailor)? No way!’ So I never opened my mouth.” But shortly afterward came marriage to a like-minded person at Saudi Aramco.
“Saudi Aramco sent us to Houston, Texas. While there I discussed the fashion designing idea with my husband, and he liked it. When we came back we started a small factory in Alkhobar with only six people. The business flourished right from day one. I focused on quality — that was my hallmark. I still remember it was in May 1984. I had only 24 pieces done. Those were the days when there was no media campaign. It was simply the word of mouth. All those pieces were sold immediately. Then my order section started. In 1986, I was opening in Riyadh. In 1989, I was in Jeddah. The rest, as they say, is history."
The business had its ups for a while, but after the First Gulf War and the explosion of satellite television, Al-Jassim faced new challenges.
“Business went down; fashion trends changed,” she says. “People no longer wanted to wear jalabiyas. They wanted to wear stretch tights. I had to have a new plan.”
It was then that she decided to adapt the popular runway-style fashion show to the constraints of Saudi society. “In 1995, I decided that boutiques were not enough — I had to put my creations onto women’s figures,” Al-Jassim explains. “I had a Canadian friend who had worked on a fashion show in New York. Her husband was working for Saudi Aramco at the time. She knew how to choreograph a fashion show. We did the show in my house because fashion shows, then as now, were banned. I invited the best of the best in Alkhobar. It became an annual feature and a must-go event for the people who matter. I now have 14 years of experience in choreographing fashion shows.”
The business is thriving again, but despite her many successes, Al-Jassim says many impediments to business remain. “People say you are lucky to be in Eastern Province since you have Saudi Aramco around and you have Bahrain close by, but it is still very tough to find specialists, especially in the fashion field — those who know how to direct fashion and manage fashion,” she says. “I am playing the role of a mentor for many young women. The fact is there are not many women in this field in Saudi Arabia. Most of my designers, cutters, master tailors and quality controllers are men.”
Al-Jassim is skeptical about current training schemes to provide young Saudis with jobs; she does not think they are up to the mark. “At one time, I had 40 employees. Now I lose people very fast,” she says.
“It would be my great honor to have our own men and women involved in all our local businesses, not just in the fashion field. I would love to hire local people instead of bringing them from outside. For that to happen, however, you need a concrete plan and robust training programs. I am talking about really high-quality training, not what is happening these days.”
“Training has lost its meaning,” she says. “What happens is that they get some graduates, teach them something, and then they believe they are ready to roll. It doesn’t happen that way. We know the government has a duty to create jobs for Saudis, but before we do that let us have qualified and well-trained people in the market. That is not happening, and we business people are suffering.”
She says the government and the private sector need to team up: “The government has to help us out. There is a blame game going on. The private sector is always blamed for not promoting local people. I say give us time — at least eight years. We are business people; we can do on-the-job training. Then there is always this problem of the trained local people leaving you after the training. These are practical problems and need practical solutions. We are also struggling to keep our businesses afloat. Let us work together. Let us stop berating each other. Let us work on fixing the problem. The solution is in providing quality technical training.”
Faced with problems, businesses do what they can to overcome them. For Al-Jassim, it was a bittersweet decision to relocate some of her activities to Bahrain but a necessary one given the circumstances. “Sometime in 2006, a group of around 20 businesswomen, including myself, met Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi,” she said. “We told him how difficult it was for businesswomen to get visas. He promised to help. ‘How many visas do you need? Just send a fax to my office, and it will be done,’ the minister said. We sent so many faxes. We still don’t know whether they reached him. When we called his office, we were told we had to be patient. I waited six months to get a reply. I was very frustrated. It was then that I decided to go to Bahrain to open another factory there.”
As is the case with many Saudi businesswomen, Al-Jassim remains hopeful that there will be meaningful changes both in society and the regulatory framework. “I belong to this country,” Al-Jassim said. “I love this country. I could be working in New York or Beirut; I could be in Dubai, but I’m still here. I decided to open in Bahrain because I still want to be here. I still want to be close to my homeland. Going to Bahrain is a lot of hassle, but you don’t have to have a ‘wakeel’ (male sponsor) to deal with the government. I can deal directly with them. I can explain my problems to the higher authorities. They listen and take remedial measures wherever necessary. My work is appreciated all over Europe and the entire Arab world. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t get support here.”