Published in Gulf Times on July 25, 2002

Trailblazers - made in Qatar

LENA LIEW has a chat with three young women who have just become Qatar's first home-grown fashion graduates, and comes away impressed
"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."
- Eleanor Roosevelt

It didn't take me long to begin to believe in the beauty of the dreams of Amal Ibrahim N al-Mutawa, Hend al-Moghunni and Noora Thani al-Thani.
You would too if you were sitting with these obviously talented young ladies who are all geared up to put the knowledge and skills garnered over the past four years into practice - as Qatar's first home-grown fashion designers.

"Yes, we are definitely planning to start our own business together here in Doha. After all, we have been training to be the first homegrown fashion designers in Qatar," the young women said.

"Having been born, raised and educated right here in Qatar, it is only logical and natural that we capitalise on our knowledge of local tastes, cultural sensibilities and the subtleties that define Arab women in Qatar."

Amal and Noora with one of their sketches

Said Amal, whose interest is geared towards custom-fit haute couture: "Considering that the degree course we underwent at VCU-Qatar is all-American, we definitely have an advantage over the custom-fit haute couture fashion designers here who are foreigners."

"And since our degree course covered all aspects of the fashion industry - from design to marketing and business - we will also have an advantage over the foreign ready-to-wear fashion labels found in apparel outlets here," said Hend and Noora, clearly eyeing the ready-to-wear market.

Henn working on a design using a computer

Together with another young woman, Roda Majid al-Marzouqi, Amal, Hend and Noora are the pioneer graduates of the Fashion Design and Merchandising course at VCU-Qatar. They graduated last month amid much fanfare along with 12 others who studied Interior Design and five who studied Graphic Design.

I had expected to meet over-enthusiastic post-teenaged girls who had just been rewarded for keeping themselves occupied with something fluffy while waiting to be married off. How wrong I was! These were articulate, young women who had the knowledge, the mental capacity and the maturity to answer my every question straight to the point. They were clearly confident about crossing the threshold to face the challenges of practising in the real world what they learnt in class.

Lauren O'Brien, the American designer at the helm of Caroline Designer in Doha, has hired them for her establishment. Hend will start work next month while Amal and Noora start in September after they return from their summer holidays.
Was it a taken-for-granted arrangement that the girls would be hired by Caroline's?

No, Lauren said. "It began when some months back, a friend of mine at VCU-Qatar asked if I would like to have one of the girls work for me during their spring break.

"Hend's parents had not allowed her to go with the other girls to the fashion house Ali and Rami in Beirut for practical training.

"I said 'Okay'. It was end of Ramadhan, and Eid was coming ... a very busy time for me.

"I didn't know what to expect; I thought I'd just give her some practical experience on how things work in a haute couture fashion house. Hend turned out to be a great help indeed. I was really impressed with how well she had been taught."

Lauren said that she assigned Hend a child's dress, for which the fabric had been cut.

"Hend did everything else! She stitched it, put all the details on it, under the jacket ... all of it was so well done. Every step of the way she knew what she was doing!"

The significance of this observation became clear to me when Lauren explained that all too often, graduates of fashion institutes "know only design".

"They have the creative ideas and fashion sense" but lack the technical knowledge and skills to take their designs to fruition - i.e. a well-made, uniquely beautiful garment that a satisfied customer leaves the shop with, Lauren said.

"Without technical knowledge and skills ... you're not going to be able to put things together. There's no way you are going to know what is wrong with a dress and how to fix the problem.

"And believe me, things go wrong all the time in a real life haute couture business where you must maintain the highest standards ... because your reputation is at stake," Lauren stressed.

By the time Hend ended her practical training with Caroline's, Lauren had not yet met the other girls, nor Sandy Wilkins, the Head of Fashion at VCU-Qatar.

She nevertheless found occasion to go to VCU-Qatar to see the students' work in progress ahead of the VCU-Qatar's annual fashion show.

"I was thoroughly impressed! This was student work, not yet haute couture ... but already I saw a good start.

"These girls had the ideas, the fashion sense, as well as the technical knowledge and the finishing end. You couldn't ask for more!" Lauren exclaims.

"I found myself looking forward to the fashion show, and eventually got involved helping them with their preparations and as a sponsor."

One day, Sandy asked her if she would like to interview the girls on a professional basis. "I thought 'Why not?'. Even if I don't end up hiring them, it would be good experience for them to undergo a real interview where they had to present their portfolio and try to convince me to hire them," Lauren recounts.

The interview took place soon after the hullabaloo of the fashion show and graduation died down. "I found every one of them spot-on with their ideas," Lauren said.

"Noora's henna designs would have been great for the market in France (to where Lauren travels often to source for ideas and materials).

"Amal likes evening wear and wedding gowns - perfect for the local market. And Hend's ideas for sports and casual wear easily deserved a place among the ready-to-wear brands in the shopping centres here."

As her interview with the girls progressed, Lauren said, "it became clear to me that their parents were not about to let them go to Milan or Paris for a year all by themselves". Without experience or exposure, a university degree and unharnessed talent make not a fashion designer nor a businesswoman.

"So I decided to hire and train them. In a sense, it was a chance for me to 'give something back' to Qatar," Lauren said.

But these girls are going to pose competition to her business someday, I point out. "Oh, I hadn't thought about that really!" Lauren exclaimed. "Well, I am secure in Caroline's reputation for well-made clothes. We are well known for our excellent tailoring and finishing.

"Besides, I am not going to spend the rest of my life here! Unlike these girls who grew up here and have their families and relatives here."

After some thought, Lauren added: "Actually, I already have so much competition ... there are so many designers and tailors around Doha."

"If at all, the real competition is not here in Qatar. It's out there in Dubai, Kuwait, Beirut ... the Lebanese especially; they are very good.

"Designers like Elie Saab (who designed the dress that Hollywood actress Halle Berry wore to receive her "best actress" Oscar this year) are making waves internationally.

"At the end of the day, competition is good. Because it forces you to be on your toes and improve yourself."

I ask Hend if the girls were competitive in their studies.

"Of course! In any healthy classroom environment, competition among the students is crucial. I think our classroom environment was super-healthy in this regard," Hend replied separately via email. "I remember that Noora and I used to bet on who would finish her project first. Whoever finishes first has to get everybody else a dish or something, to eat.

"Annual awards for outstanding students help to keep up the competition. There is also the dean's scholarship award that is given to the student with the highest Grade Point Average. I won this twice."

Aside from the initial struggle of having to learn to use English as a medium for communication and learning, the young women said they found the course quite a breeze. Not because the course content was frivolous, they stressed. But because "all of us loved what we were doing", they said.

Hend said that she was sewing clothes for herself and friends and family members long before she embarked on further studies. She had in fact been hoping to pursue fashion studies in the United States before she found out about VCU-Qatar.

Amal said she even went to the Emirates to check out the American University of Sharjah, which has a course in fashion.

"My parents were only too pleased to have me pursue further studies right here in Doha. Because they would not have been happy to let me go so far away all by myself ... at such a young age" she explained.

For Hend, moral support from her family extended beyond protective sentiments.

"My Father was formerly a teacher. He was actually the most encouraging ... because he believed in me, even though many people saw no prospects for fashion studies" beyond tailoring, she said.

In any case, Hend said, having a fully-accredited Bachelor's degree means she has the option of pursuing further studies towards entering the field of academia.

"Maybe someday, after I have garnered enough practical experience in the fashion industry, I might turn to teaching."

What do these young women foresee to be their greatest challenge?

"To convince people that fashion is a profession, and an industry, beyond mere tailoring or sewing," Hend said on behalf of her friends. "The only way to prove that is with our success."

And they are on their way to doing just that.