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.”

Home help: Regional brands seek popularity boost

Karen Wazen launched her eyewear brand in 2018. (Supplied)
Updated 25 May 2020

Home help: Regional brands seek popularity boost

  • Homegrown fashion has been gaining ground, and could benefit from sustainability and ‘buy local’ trends post-COVID

DUBAI: Traditional dressing may have been contemporized but it has never been forgotten in the Middle East. One of the region’s most celebrated designers, Rami Al-Ali (whose client list includes British screen star Helen Mirren, Oscar-winning costume designer Hannah Beachler and Egyptian actress and singer Yousra) says that there is a growing “back-to-the-roots” movement that started a few years ago. 

Rami Al-Ali is one of the region’s most celebrated designers. (Supplied)

“A lot of the younger generation — representing our new clientele — are much more patriotic and seeking to keep their identity intact. They are very much pushing for local products, cause they speak their language. They have a global way of thinking, but they want to keep the aesthetic traditional,” he explains.

Well-known fashion influencer and entrepreneur Karen Wazen agrees. It was one of the reasons that she launched Karen Wazen Eyewear in 2018. As an influencer she has always enjoyed mixing regional labels with international brands. 

“Noor Hammour, Madiyah Al-Sharqi and shoemaker Andre Wazen are a few of my favorites; they have a distinct style language. My brand was born out of a passion of sunglasses and towards my community,” says Wazen, whose sunglasses are available through luxury fashion retail platform Farfetch.


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Not all regional fashion brands are so lucky with distribution. Even now, when you walk into regional branches of international department stores such as Bloomingdales, regional representation is lacking. 

“Regional brands understand the aesthetics, culture, and heritage of the region, so their products are a perfect fit, but it was quite a challenge to convince buyers to take a risk and invest,” says Al-Ali. 

Often, it is independent concept stores that give local designers a home.  Urbanist is a store in Dubai’s Box Park, launched five years ago by Sandra Hakim. Originally, the merchandise was roughly split 80/20 between international and local designers, she says. But today, it is closer to 50/50. “Demand for local talent has continued to increase every year,” notes Hakim. 

It is a similar story at L’Edit, another popular concept store in Dubai, founder Rumana Nazim tells Arab News. 

“We started off with brands mainly from London, New York and Australia but very quickly started stocking local brands,” she says. “There’s a great support system in this region, where women from here are proud to wear homegrown labels, so we are definitely seeing more local brands being pushed out and spoken about.” 

During Ramadan, there is greater demand than ever for local labels. Comfortable, modest dressing with a sense of glamor is what many women in the Middle East are looking for in the holy month, so kaftans are, naturally, extremely popular.

This design is by Rami Al-Ali. (Supplied)

Dubai-based influencer and luxury consultant Rosemin Madhavji notes, “During Ramadan I’m always in modest maxi dresses or kaftans. Local designers are at an accessible price point, and — most of the time — produced locally, which allows you to customize length and sleeves et cetera.”

Of course, Ramadan this year coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and its resultant economic troubles, making it even more important to support regional brands. Faiza Bouguessa, founder of ready-to-wear label Bouguessa, says, “Today, more than ever, we need to support our favorite local businesses to help them survive this difficult time. We need to keep in mind that they are the most fragile and that behind each one of these businesses there are people — and often families — that rely on their salaries. If money is an issue, just posting a picture of your favorite piece you bought from that brand can help.”

Fans of Bouguessa’s label include Beyoncé and Priyanka Chopra, but she says it is her regional clientele who are the backbone of her business. “Middle-Eastern people consume local brands a lot and are very supportive of homegrown talent,” she tells Arab News.

But there is still plenty of potential for growth, stresses Bahrain-based Saudi designer Deema Ajlani.

“The region is fiercely loyal and proud to wear local when it comes to specific items of clothing like kaftans and abayas, but this does not necessarily translate into the realm of ready-to-wear,” she says.


Aljani hopes that, as countries around the world look to boost their local economies, all aspects of regionally designed fashion will become increasingly popular.


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“Regional fashion has always had something to offer, and it has definitely stepped up its game in the past decade. I personally am an advocate of buying local and love nothing more than to nurture local products and businesses,” she says. “We should all be supporting local — also from a sustainability angle — now more than ever.”