The Dubai-based fashion designer Effa Al Dabbagh is, quite literally, one in nearly 50 million. In recognition of her contribution to the regional fashion industry, the title of "Gulf's First Designer" was bestowed upon her by the panel of judges at this year's Persil Arwa'a Abaya competition.
Having burst onto the GCC's ready-to-wear scene six years ago, the Saudi-born creator's couture line followed a year later. Since then, Al Dabbagh's fashion empire has continued to expand with her vibrant, embellished pieces frequently selling out at well-known department stores such as Harvey Nichols in Dubai.
We got the measure of the talented designer as she debuted her collection of abayas and jalabiyas for Ramadan.
Congratulations, Effa. Viewers in the region watched you collect your award at the Persil Arwa'a Abaya competition on MBC TV recently. What does the accolade mean to you?
Thank you. The competition was for amateur designers and some established ones from different countries in the Gulf such as Saudi and the UAE were also honoured - and they gave me first prize. Honestly speaking, it was lovely to get the recognition, having built up the business for six years. It has been a long process and I've done my best to create an excellent product for my customers while maintaining the quality and a luxurious feel. So, it's very satisfying, because I guess everybody likes to feel their work is appreciated.
Your spring/summer 2012 collection is characterised by a bold palette of colours, statement shoulders and epaulettes. Where did your inspiration come from?
When designing any collection, I always start with my colour-board and by choosing the theme and fabrics. Then I work on the shapes. This time, I was really inspired by the nature and colours of the tropics. I started researching the beautiful flowers, fruits and exotic birds - all so rich in colour, texture and shape and that's how the collection materialised. I took elements of all these, which you can see with the bird-inspired embroidery for example, all of which was done by hand. Plus, I felt that in summer, ladies would want to wear something bright and fresh. As for the drapery of the collection, it's one of my design signatures. I generally have two ways of working; sometimes I'll make a sketch and then a flat pattern, but a lot of the time - which is what I really enjoy - I'll work with the drapery directly on the mannequin.
Describe for me your latest collection for Ramadan and Eid.
Well, I have just launched a collection of kaftans and jalabiyas for Ramadan and Eid in my boutique, as well as some new abayas.
Were there any key considerations, for you as a designer, when putting together this collection for the Holy Month?
Definitely. I did pieces that are for everyday use during Ramadan but also dresses and abayas suitable for Eid. So, we're talking about beautiful cuts and drapery, in nice, bright, fresh colours. I also have an exclusive print this season which was a collaboration with Amalie Beljafla, an artist friend of mine. We worked on the design together and it's an abstract floral graphic print inspired by beautiful magnolia trees I saw in London in April which were truly breathtaking. Since it's been in stores, it's been one of the bestsellers and Harvey Nichols has sold out.
What can we expect of your forthcoming winter collection?
When I was in London, I went to see the Picasso exhibition at Tate Britain and I really loved the colours and graphic lines, so that's one of the inspirations for the collection. I'm also using more earthy colours which is something new for me and I'm mixing them with brights - which are my signature. Lace will feature and there will be a different silhouette for winter, too.
You started your career as a fashion buyer and brand manager for iconic designers from Valentino and Galliano to Lacroix and Emmanuel Ungaro. What were the key takeaway lessons from your time spent at those houses?
I was a fresh graduate and for me it was all about the design and doing something creative and original. Then I started working on the commercial side of things and quickly learnt that fashion was a serious business and it wasn't something frivolous, but required a lot of hard work and organisation. So, I think what I took from that experience was how to create a luxury brand, how to promote it and successfully run a fashion business. In addition, their style was also an influence on my design, especially the femininity and elegance of Valentino, and the use of colours with Lacroix. My style can be described as Middle Eastern with a European flair.
When it comes to muses or style icons, to whom and what era do you look for inspiration?
I definitely have to go to 1950s starlets such as Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren. They were such style icons and I loved how they really embraced their femininity. They were influential, strong women and very proud of their womanly bodies, which I think is somewhat lost in this day and age. It's become all about being stick-thin, when clothes should accentuate the beauty of a woman and we shouldn't have to be like clothes hangers for them to look good on us.
Effa Al Dabbagh's collections and accessories are available at the Effa Total Concept Boutique, Palm Strip Mall, 1st floor, Jumeirah Beach Road, Dubai, 04 346 3998, www.effa.ae. Other stockists include Candella, Bloomingdales, USH Boutique and Harvey Nichols in Dubai. Also find her designs at www.3abaya.com.
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