Homegrown fashion emerges in troubled Somalia

Rahma Abdullahi Mohamud, right, and Hani Hussein take selfies pictures, after buying clothes designed by fashion designer Muna Mohamed Abdullahi, at Peace Garden in Mogadishu, Somalia. (AFP)
Updated 01 August 2019

Homegrown fashion emerges in troubled Somalia

  • For decades, war and upheaval left ordinary Somalis focussed on the daily matters of life, death and survival

MOGADISHU: Every time young fashion designer Hawa Adan Hassan makes a new gown for a paying customer, she also makes her dreams come true.

“My whole life, fashion design was a dream,” says the 23-year-old university student, who last year began running a cottage business out of her family’s home in Hamarweyne, the historic heart of Somalia’s coastal capital Mogadishu.

For Hassan, it began with art, when she found herself drawn to sketching clothes rather than the animals and landscapes preferred by her peers.

Then she set to work on tailoring to turn her images into reality.

“I realized this could be my field of expertise,” she says.

For decades, war and upheaval left ordinary Somalis focused on the daily matters of life, death and survival.

Bombings by Al-Shabab militants still dog Mogadishu today.

But a creeping cosmopolitanism is challenging entrenched conservative attitudes and many Somalis are undaunted by wanting a look that stands out.

Somalia’s clothing stores traditionally adhere to a simple formula: Imported garments for the well-to-do, locally made clothes for the rest.

But Hassan and others are starting to alter that picture with locally designed, handmade attire for the high end of the market.

In such a nascent industry, Hassan is, by necessity, self-taught. “I used to watch fashion design shows on TV, and every time I watched one, I tried to grasp the ideas by drawing what I saw,” she says.

Her favorite was “Project Runway,” a US-made reality program fronted by German model Heidi Klum.

“When I started I had no one as a role model. It is just something I dreamed up,” she says, adding that she now finds inspiration in the likes of Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab.

In her home studio, Hassan sketches and inks new designs of abaya gowns and hijab headscarves, in a variety of black or bright colors, tight and loose fittings, with plain or embroidered finishes.

Fashion has also become a family affair, with Hassan’s father — a tailor by trade — and older sister helping cut and sew the clothes.

Visitors to the workshop can hear children playing in nearby rooms and cooking smells waft in from the kitchen.

Her elder brother has been an investor, helping to buy sewing machines and other equipment.

Now the business is taking off, she says.

“In the beginning, it was my father, elder sister and brother who helped me start but now I’m self-reliant and can make a living out of my work,” she says proudly.

Like many Mogadishu residents who have become inured to violence, Hassan dismisses the city’s frequent bombings and shootouts, describing them as an “inconvenience” that can mess up her delivery schedules.

Muna Mohamed Abdulahi, another startup fashion designer, is on a mission to encourage local people to take pride in products made in Somalia.

“Some people come to my shop and, when they realize that these clothes are designed and made locally, they run away because they have a negative impression about locally made clothes,” says the 24-year-old.

Like Hassan, Abdulahi is self-taught — “I was my own role model,” she says — and insists she is more than just a tailor aping the work of others.

“A designer creates clothes with a story, but a tailor makes it without thinking, they just duplicate,” Abdulahi says.

The designers’ customers are mostly young, like them, and affluent.

“I like clothes designed by Somalis because they fit and make you look attractive,” says 22-year-old student Farhiyo Hassan Abdi. “Imported costumes are mostly out of shape and don’t look good on you.”

“I don’t go for imported clothes anymore,” she adds, pointing out that the price of local fashion is often cheaper than the imports and it is easy to have alterations done.

But these young designers and customers, seeking out unique fashion and wanting to look good, seem to live in a world apart from others in the city.

Dahir Yusuf, a 49-year-old father, is appalled by his teenage daughter’s love of designer clothes, which he considers immoral.

“These young girls are crazy about designer clothes, which are mostly fitted and reveal the features of their bodies,” he says, tutting. “Morally, it is not good to wear such things.”

As a male fashion designer, Abdishakur Abdirahman Adam faces down double-criticism in pursuit of dreams.

“In Somalia it is very difficult for a boy to become a fashion designer, because people believe this is women’s work,” says the slim 19-year-old, who was introduced to fashion by watching catwalk shows on satellite TV.

Nevertheless, he plans to continue, designing for both women and men, hoping to compete with foreign imports.

“What I do is just to create fashionable clothes with the material I have here without spending more money so that it looks like something from overseas.”


Newly opened concept boutique shines spotlight on Arab brands

Updated 15 July 2020

Newly opened concept boutique shines spotlight on Arab brands

  • Fashion talent from across the Arab world congregates under one roof at Gigi in Dubai’s new Galleria Mall Al-Barsha

DUBAI: Customers stepping inside Gigi, an expansive new concept store in Dubai’s Galleria Mall Al-Barsha, will be hard-pressed not to be instantly mesmerized.

A series of interlocking spaces with elegant golden mesh separating screens showcase some of the Middle East’s most prominent up-and-coming fashion, jewelry, and design brands.

The boutique also hosts a Home Bakery coffee bar, an art exhibition area, workshops, fashion presentations, and a current display of artworks by the city’s Ayyam Gallery.

The boutique also hosts a current display of artworks by the city’s Ayyam Gallery. Supplied

Gigi had originally planned to launch in March, but due to the introduction of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) precautionary measures in the UAE, the store’s official opening had to wait until the end of May. Even then, it took place under strict health and safety protocols with an option for at-home personal shopping, although it is now open at regular operating hours.

“I really believe in the talent behind the designers and brands from our region and with the launch of Gigi, wanted to offer them a stage where their collections will always be the stars,” founder, Zeina Ladki, told Arab News.

“It’s a place where they can express their creativity and garner a stronger voice beyond the Middle East.”

Ladki, who has extensive knowledge of the region’s fashion scene having previously worked at Al-Tayer as a buyer, believes that supporting Middle Eastern fashion brands is a way to further grow the market.

Shoppers can also find Culti's aromatic oils at the boutique. Supplied

Featured brands in fashion, jewelry, beauty, art, and interior design include ready-to-wear labels such as Mrs. Keepa, Jessica K, Rania’s Corner, Zayan the Label, Free Being, Cocobum, Simply Sue, Kaftish Kaftans, Posearazzi, Collage by Fashion Exclusive that includes Iam Mai, Beige, and Twisted Roots.

Iconic jewelry brands include Bil Arabi, Dina J., Gendr, Atelier Nawbar, Lina Rai, and Ghada El-Sokkari.

“I was contracted by (H&H Investment and Development) to curate a concept store that is focused on local talents in the region. We wanted it to go beyond fashion and include a space for events and an espresso bar,” Ladki said.

Everything was set for the opening party in March until the COVID-19 outbreak. “We decided that we would launch no matter what even if the situation is as is, and we did it, of course with precautions,” she added.

Ladki hopes to open the store’s activation space, an area set to host a wide variety of fashion, art, and design events, next week.

Gigi is planning a full calendar of events comprising workshops and tutorials spanning a diverse range of topics on fashion, beauty, art, and design. There is also a photography wall by Dubai-based photographer, Ali Bin Thalith, who is well-known for his underwater photography.

Beyond a retail outlet, Gigi offers a space for creative collaboration and community development. “Our concept allows brands to operate individually under their own unique identity but be supported by one collaborative creative effort, Gigi,” said Miltos Bossinis, CEO of H&H Investment and Development.

Gigi, the concept’s name, is an easy, fun, and trendy name to remember, said Ladki, who added: “Gigi is a persona that can be anything and go anywhere; it’s a free-spirited woman.”

Sarah’s Bag is among the brands sold at the new boutique. Supplied

A quick walk around Gigi, and visitors will also notice a variety of objects and furniture pieces by regional designers, including Khalid Shafar, Talata, and multi-brand lifestyle concept Cities. There is also a collection of unconventional handbag brands and accessories, including PHOXX, Sarah’s Bag, SOA bags, and Chato Accessories.

Gigi even had Lebanese fashion designer, Lama Jouni, design outfits for the store’s staff.

During the difficult economic times created by the COVID-19 pandemic, regional designers need more support than ever. Ladki plans to establish a “formula for young designers needing exposure to come and show their collections at Gigi from two to three weeks or even on a monthly basis.”

Atelier Nawbar jewelry. Supplied

Nadine Kanso, an artist and founder of Bil Arabi jewelry, said: “It’s beautiful to be here. It’s also a great exercise for us to get to know our clients in a shared space and also see if in the future we want to have our own standalone boutique.”

Egyptian-French designer, Mariam Yehia, who is also the founder of ready-to-wear brand Mrs. Keepa that has standalone stores in Nakheel Mall and Dubai Design District, said: “Every one of our stores has its own story and clientele but Gigi allows us to better access local clientele.

“I have Saudi and Kuwaiti customers and clients from all of the MENA region and also e-commerce from the European and American market, but I’ve never had many clients from the Emirati market and Gigi is the perfect platform for this.”