x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 October 2017

Portal of the future: Desert Mannequin, a fashion blog with a difference 

Founder Anum Bashir hopes to initiate a dialogue among likeminded women on topics ranging from art and fabrics to fertility, sustainability and global policy

Anum Bashir wears designs from her collaboration with Georgian brand NDUO
Anum Bashir wears designs from her collaboration with Georgian brand NDUO

“I don’t like taking selfies; I don’t think I’m narcissistic enough.” A refreshing statement coming from Anum Bashir, the 31-year-old founder and ­“influencer” behind the popular Desert Mannequin blog.

In many ways, though, Bashir is the anti-blogger. She even started the hashtag “seldom I selfie,” to mark her disdain for the self-obsessed deportment of the stereotypical fashion blogger. “I’m not someone who just took selfies and showed off her Chanel bags,” adds Bashir, who is well aware of the fashion-blogger stereotype. “I think a lot of times people in fashion get pigeonholed into this category – especially in this part of the world – of those who may not necessarily be very smart; they’re just very wealthy and spend a lot of money,” she says.

And while her website, Desert Mannequin, began like many other personal-style blogs, characterised by journal-style outfit posts, Bashir relaunched it last week to begin a new chapter as a multidimensional media platform. Here, women can read and discuss thought-­provoking pieces on topics such as feeling like an outsider in the fashion industry, or “menocore”, the carefree and comfortable mom-inspired style of dressing. Visitors to the site may also be relieved to see that the articles come in the form of spellchecked and proofread anecdotal text, rather than the commonplace and often fluffy picture-and-caption blog posts.

Bashir is not your average fashion blogger, and Desert Mannequin is certainly not your average fashion blog. The website’s tagline is: “Clothes are best served with a side of intellect”. And intellect is exactly what Bashir hopes to celebrate on the upgraded online platform. “I love this idea of a group of women who maybe like to collect shoes, but can get together and talk about global policy, or charities we love, or women who suffer from domestic abuse or have trouble with fertility. I think it’s very important to have a dialogue that extends far beyond just what the latest trends are,” she says.

While meeting fashion bloggers these days can be awkward and agonising, Bashir is warm and personable, without any airs. Dressed in olive green culottes, a white blouse with the cuffs undone and numerous gold, Arabic-­calligraphy jewellery pieces by Dubai-based brand Bil Arabi, Bashir brandishes the season’s latest trends without looking like a walking advertisement. She looks fresh-faced; her skin is void of layers of foundation, obnoxious lipsticks or over-the-top eyeshadows, and she speaks confidently and eloquently – not just about designer fashion, but also about things like sustainability and mentorship programmes.

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“I love the concept of sustainability, and supporting artisanal designers who are not mass-producing,” she says. “I really try now not to go to a Zara or Mango; I get that they have cool stuff and it’s very affordable, but it is by no means eco-friendly or humane in any way.”

Let’s backtrack. Bashir was born and raised in the Middle East to a Pakistani mother and Afghani-Indian father, and relocated to New York after college. She studied entrepreneurship and management before going to art school, and gained some work experience at advertisement agencies in the United States. “As a 21-year-old, I always knew that I wanted to end up in the fashion industry. I just didn’t know what I would do and how would I navigate it,” she says. “I’m not someone who was born into a family with insane connections, which plays a very large part in how the industry works.”

Bashir, who married in 2011, describes her husband as “insanely creative”. They moved from the United States to Qatar, and both worked with Qatar Museums – she was part of a residency programme for emerging contemporary artists in the country, and her husband, Waqas, produced and designed exhibitions. In 2013, Bashir launched Desert Mannequin – one of the very first lifestyle blogs founded in the country. “I wanted it to be more about art, and now that I’m in my 30s, I want it to be about community, and about really cool women bringing something to the table,” she says.

These days Bashir lives in Dubai, and since her site has broken out of the fashion-blog mould, she prefers to be labelled as a creative consultant. “I have worked with some high-net-worth individuals, I’ve been a buyer, I’ve been a contributor and I design clothing now,” she explains. She was recruited by Georgia-based label N-Duo to help design its autumn/winter 2017 collection, which recently launched at Boutique 1 in the UAE. Comprising Victorian influences and floral embroidery, mixed with unfitted T-shirts and relaxed corduroy suits, the collaboration, says Bashir, has a boy-meets-girl theme.

“I love corduroy; it’s a very old-school fabric,” says Bashir. “I had proposed things that the brand had never ventured into, for example, lining on a blazer. Now we have vintage paisley silks on the inside, so when you roll your cuffs, they show.” Because the collection was so well-received, she was asked to collaborate with N-Duo once again for its spring/summer 2018 line.

The partnership, Bashir says, was completely unplanned; she was on holiday in Tbilisi, where she happened to meet Natuka Karkashadze, one of the brand’s founders. The pair then made a spontaneous dinner plan, and the next day, Bashir was asked if she’d be interested in collaborating. “I’ve never taken the Myers-­Briggs test, but I guarantee I would score, like, 120 per cent extrovert. I just naturally love meeting people and chatting; if we land on a topic that’s of interest to both of us, I can literally talk someone off the planet,” she says.

Networking, after all, is crucial to her work. “Your business is always going to be guaranteed a certain degree of success the moment you stop worrying about the next pay cheque and actively focus on building strong relationships,” she says. “If you can get to know people and garner influence and respect, I think the most powerful tool you can have at your disposal is the friendships you have around you.”

It’s this thirst for quality kinship that drove Bashir to relaunch her website. She hopes it will be both a go-to fashion site, and a platform that engages the community and encourages discussion about real-life issues.

“I want people to walk away from Desert Mannequin feeling that there is a friendship there waiting for them. It’s a community of women who pat each other on the backs and are not trying to steal someone else’s share of the pie.

“The collaborative-dialogue space is really something that I hope will set Desert Mannequin apart,” she adds.

With the number of would-be “influencers” growing by the day, many tend to fall into a cookie-cutter routine, using the web and social media to emulate the actions of famous fashion-obsessed bloggers. “It can be quite homogeneous and, at times, a bit alienating for a South Asian girl like myself,” says Bashir.

And, amid the UAE’s mob of young women who are eager to climb the ladder to achieve social-­media stardom, Bashir’s new blogging vision, which she says will also feature a podcast segment, is at once cool and consequential.