When the Dubai-based designer Sarah Sillis couldn't find stylish, modest active wear, she created a line of her own. Afshan Ahmed reports
If the term "conservative sportswear" conjures up images of drab and unflattering polyester suits, then the Dubai-based designer Sarah Sillis's recently launched line may help turn that impression on its head.
Drawing inspiration from four generations of designers in her Belgian family and noting the contemporary styles embraced by prominent Arab women such as Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser of Qatar, Sillis, 32, has managed to add a chic quotient to what she believes is an otherwise uninspiring market for workout gear meant for veiled women - hijabis.
"This is something I felt there is a need for out of my own experience," said Sillis, who created SaQueena - which combines the Arabic word "sakeenah" (tranquillity) and the English word "queen" - to represent her modest yet outgoing approach.
"I would always complain about not being able to find stylish and fun outfits to wear for my activities. What happens with us ladies is that we have to go to five different stores to put together something - a scarf from one, trousers from another. I never liked that. I wanted to make a one-stop solution for women who prefer covering up and at the same time feel confident in their clothes."
Sillis's personal dilemma began when she decided to move to Dubai to continue her journey of converting to Islam. Her parents, who are Christian, allowed her to choose her religion when she turned 16.
"I was searching and looking for what is right for me. Whenever I read about the Prophet and Islam, I felt that was right. Islam is very logical and has an answer for every question."
She joined Emirates Airline in 2002 and moved to Dubai to adopt the Muslim culture.
Sillis saw few veiled women, which took her by surprise. When she started covering up in 2006, she couldn't continue her routine of swimming, playing badminton and tennis and engaging in regular gym sessions because shopping for appropriate clothes was a tedious affair.
"My mother is a colour and style consultant, and helped pick out outfits. We felt the market for hijabi [covered] women was a bit plain and wanted something different. I realised many women were facing the same issue, and thought: 'Why not start something for them?'" she says.
Building on the existing concept of the burqini, she put together a swimwear collection.
"It has two pieces, with the trousers and cap attached," she says. "We have them with turban style caps, sometimes embellished, which is a bit more feminine. The turban shape sits up on the hairline and around the face, so you do not end up with an ugly suntan line either."
Trying to move away from shades of grey, Sillis has incorporated geometrical patterns, sticking to a dark palette but adding shades of blue, green and pink to the mix. She tours with her mother to Europe and Turkey to source fabrics, mainly using flowy Lycra, polyester and viscose tailored to the body type.
"Women still want a dark base with a little bit of colour. We have used ideas by French designer Yves Saint Laurent, mainly the three-colour combination," says Claudine Dierickx, Sillis's mother and the brand's creative director.
The tennis and badminton line was conceived after a failed attempt to engage in these sports with girlfriends dressed in abayas.
"It was disastrous," says Sillis. "Their movement was restricted and they were fixing their scarfs more than hitting the shuttlecock. So I came up with dresses with high necks and detachable navy, red and white caps that can be snapped on."
For golf enthusiasts, Sillis combines polos and long-sleeve dresses, while her yoga line has Arabic calligraphy on the T-shirts, based on her own artwork. "I wear them for my yoga sessions and young girls have shown an interest," she says.
Sillis says she wanted the clothes to be versatile enough for women of all ages and sizes.
Though the trend for fashionable sportswear is still in its commercial infancy, there has been a boom of Malaysian and Indonesian designer blogs where such designs are shared.
Sillis has women from different Mena countries - including Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon - ordering the suits, which she promotes on her website, Facebook and Instagram.
"One of our clients said she used to shy away from swimming or going to the beach because it was uncomfortable to do it in her abaya and whatever she found in the market was always in black. After we fitted her with a turquoise suit, she was delighted to see how well it worked," says Sillis.
But the buck does not stop there for the designer, who also uses her art to spread her knowledge of Arabic and European culture. Sillis plans to start a campaign with local authorities to promote sports among women in the Arab world.
"It is about empowering women and encouraging them to get moving. When they feel comfortable in their attire, they want to go to the gym and play a sport."
SaQueena outfits can be ordered through www.saqueena.com/en/ and cost between Dh455 and Dh550. The designer plans to open an online store soon
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