x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

From bedroom to boutique

The bedrooms of two young Emirati designers have become the headquarters of a fast-emerging new clothing line.

The Sugar Vintage designers, Leila al Marashi, left, and Hedaya al Rahma, help dress a model in their baby doll tunic kandora.
The Sugar Vintage designers, Leila al Marashi, left, and Hedaya al Rahma, help dress a model in their baby doll tunic kandora.

The bedrooms of two young Emirati designers, a far cry from the ateliers of Paris or the fashion houses of Fifth Avenue, have become the headquarters of a fast-emerging new clothing line. At 26, Hedaya al Rahma and Leila al Marashi, who have been friends since Grade 2 when they shared a passion for dressing up, have brought together their two distinct personalities in an Emirati-inspired line now being sold at boutiques around the country.

In 18 months, Ms al Rahma and Ms al Marashi started their label, Sugar Vintage, from scratch and made it one of the boutique S*uce's most popular brands. Fusing local influences such as ghutra fabrics and dishdasha tassels to Asian prints and colours and vintage materials, their clothes have become an instant hit with shoppers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Stores in other GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, will soon be selling their clothes.

Such is the demand that they are now struggling to meet orders. Ms al Marashi concedes that the process has not always been easy, particularly because the lack of a workshop means they must work from their bedrooms. "We've of course made some mistakes," she says. "It's all trial and error. In the beginning, we sometimes made too many of some things or not enough of others, or made things in the wrong sizes, but you learn.

"The whole process has been a great learning curve for us and a great challenge. We're still experimenting, but once we have our full collection, we'll be selling around the region." Ms al Rahma's father, Asim al Rahmah, is partly to thank for her diverse tastes in design. Mr al Rahmah's work as a UAE diplomat meant she had grown up around the world, including Singapore and Australia. "I've never been interested in mass-produced fashions," Ms al Rahma says. "Even when I was young, I used to always choose the unique little things I could find when I went shopping."

She says Asia had the most notable influence on her designs, which mix Korean, Japanese and Chinese colour and styles. "Over there, they make anything and everything," Ms al Rahma says. "It's such a mixture of funky stuff and it made me realise that if I have an idea, anything can be done." Ms al Marashi, who sees herself as the "bad cop" of the two, says they have gone through every fashion trend together over the years, from tank tops to low-slung hipster jeans, since they met in Dubai as children.

She has brought western culture to the label, having travelled extensively in the US, UK and Europe. "You can see it from the pointy boots, the leggings, off-the-shoulder tops," Ms al Marashi says. "London and France have really been big influences in my designs." The women design all the clothes, which are made by tailors in Turkey and villagers in Oman, and buy the fabric locally and around the region. They speak with the confidence of businesswomen far beyond their years.

Both have had to juggle designing with careers. Ms al Rahma is a marketing executive at Barclays, and Ms al Marashi is a public relations officer for Shell Oil. They see their design business as a hobby. Ms al Rahma, who wears the abaya only to work, weddings and formal occasions, says the key to their brand is keeping the Emirati identity while modernising it and adding some fun. Ms al Marashi, who always wears abaya, says even those women wearing it love to have fun with fashion.

"The abaya is still as strong in the culture but the way people wear it has changed," she says. "The type of abaya will be different; different cuts and styles. "People show their hair and become more daring, using it as a fashion statement." Ms al Rahma says: "During the 1990s, there was a time when mass production came and people forgot their identity, but now people want to return to tradition and mix it with the modern, which is what we're trying to achieve."

Each item of their clothing has a unique twist, from the stitching on the fabric to the addition of tassels, usually seen on dishdashas. Ms al Marashi says the label, which includes baby-doll dresses, kaftans and T-shirts, is not just for the Emiratis who make up 50 per cent of their client base, but also for people who love the local culture and their designs. "Many people come here and want something local to take home," she says.

She says that when they began this project, their families were puzzled by what they were doing and did not take it seriously. "We were all over the place but slowly, as they saw the media coverage and the fact that S*uce wanted us exclusively, they began to take it seriously," Ms al Marashi says. "We weren't aggressive at all. We work so hard on each piece and they can see the commitment we have to this. They're so supportive of us now that they are even giving us ideas."

She insists that Emirati men like to see women developing their careers and earning an income. "In the past, girls were always seen as a burden and an expensive pressure," Ms al Marashi says. "There are limits as to how much they can manage. "It gets taken into consideration when it comes to marriage. In the past women were a lot more pampered but careers are definitely more encouraged these days."