Faiza Bouguessa Talks Beyoncé and Beginnings

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Since the age of 12, Faiza Bouguessa knew she wanted to be a fashion designer with her own clothing line. When we are young and looking to the future, goals like this seem distant and impractical – a feeling that drives many to give up creative pursuits for more pragmatic ones. However, Bouguessa’s interest in fashion was unshakeable and informed her life from a young age. Her grandmother taught her to sew and knit, and the pursuit of hands-on design skills soon led her to multiple internships at fashion houses and couture workshops.

It took more than just a dream and talent to make Bouguessa’s desires to have her own fashion line a reality. In order to be successful in the saturated field of fashion design, she needed to have a clearly delineated aesthetic that spoke to both her identity and her vision, and Bouguessa happened to land on one of the most unlikely sources of fashion inspiration possible: the abaya. As a culturally and religiously significant garment, the abaya is regarded by most to be an unchanging and immutable design: long, modest, black, and featureless. By testing the premise of the abaya’s long-held characteristics, Bouguessa was able to re-create it in new form, dubbing her creations the “global abaya”.

In this fascinating, exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, the soft-natured designer opens up about her artistic passions, worldview, and hopes for the future, with a preview of her gorgeous Spring/Summer 2017 collection above.

Faiza Bouguessa
Photo: Courtesy of Faiza Bouguessa

When did you strike upon the idea of creating a fashion line based on the abaya silhouette?
A couple of years ago, I started thinking about starting a modest fashion line. My father was the person who actually pushed me to think outside the box. We were talking on the phone about what I wanted to do, and he suggested that I design colored abayas. Back then, abayas were all simple and all black – the only way to differentiate a brand from another was to look closely at the little plastic tag attached to the bottom of the dress. New trends were only reflected in their shapes or in the different colors of crystals used on them. I remember telling him, ‘”No! It will never work. The abayas are meant to be only black,” but he reminded me that it was not the case. As soon as I hung up, I realized it was a great idea.

I was always very intrigued by the abaya. I started doing some research, and at first the concept was just about adding colors to the traditional garment, but it grew into building a bridge between two cultures and offering abayas and modest clothing that is so trendy that any woman would want to own it and style it her own way. Today, I am excited to have created a very close relationship with my customers but also to be dressing women in New York, the UK, and Spain who don’t all necessarily dress modestly but who appreciate my designs and style them their own way. That’s what it was all about.

Did you ever worry that, by focusing on such a narrow aesthetic scope, you would limit interest in your brand?
I would be lying if I said that this thought hadn’t crossed my mind. But it was a risk that I took and I thought that I could bring something innovative to the table. I feel that the focus on long silhouettes is a whole new aesthetic that is very elegant and chic on any woman.

Were you surprised by the response of the Western world to your designs?
Yes and no. I never doubted the appeal of such designs to the West, but I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm from a very early stage. I am happy to have received an amazing response from the international industry – not to mention the fact that Beyoncé wore one of my first abayas. The season that followed, I was invited to present my Spring/Summer 2016 collection at Milan Fashion Week. This proved to me that I should work hard and stay positive about the future.

From the start, my concept was to create a bridge between two cultures and to have pieces that appeal to all types of women with a strong love for fashion.

Was it surreal to see Beyoncé wearing one of your abayas?
The first album I ever owned was Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall, so “surreal” is definitely the right word! It was very exciting! I am self-taught, started my own label, put myself out there – which is not easy – and Beyoncé wore a piece from my very first collection! I was immensely honored and thankful.

How did you come up with the concept for the “global abaya”?
From the start, my concept was to create a bridge between two cultures and to have pieces that appeal to all types of women with a strong love for fashion.

What part of your French upbringing makes its way into your designs?
I would say it’s the sophisticated touch. I like to make sure the woman wearing my pieces will feel classy in them.

What originally brought you to Dubai?
I was a flight attendant for Emirates for a few years, and that’s what brought me to Dubai. It was a great opportunity for me to travel the world and discover many different cultures. It was a very inspiring experience.

Why did you choose to base your label in Dubai?
Because Dubai is my home. I am very proud to live in Dubai – the city itself is a huge inspiration for me. There is a very optimistic vision here that has always made me feel that anything is possible.

Why do you think Dubai has become a fashion hub in the Middle East? What could be done to expand and improve the reputation of the Middle East’s fashion industry abroad?
Dubai is a hub for fashion and is increasingly seen as synonymous with style. For too long, Middle Eastern brands were simply branded (and often caricatured) as ultra-conservative and boring or overly beaded and colorful. This provided a challenge to change the mindset but also a wonderful opportunity to innovate. I think that we are going in the right direction with initiatives like Dubai Design District and the new College of Fashion and Design that will open its doors in 2017, with fashion media becoming stronger, and with designers putting extra effort into presenting their collections every season. It’s important that small independent designers can flourish in this creative environment, and I think that to do so we should not try to justify ourselves by forcing the cultural symbols into our designs; the Arabic pattern, for example, has been overused. Our cultural identity lies within ourselves and I feel it will always show through our work no matter what. What matters is that our work appears effortless and honest.

Where are your collections produced?
We produce everything in-house in Dubai. I like to keep an eye on the quality, and it is very important for us to keep that connection with the product.

What matters is that our work appears effortless and honest.

As a self-taught designer, what obstacles did you face when you decided to launch your own brand?
I could write pages about the challenges I faced and am still facing. When I started, producing my first collection was so difficult. It took me about six months because I had to work with small workshops. Today, I am thankful to have everything happening in my studio with my entire team, so we no longer have a problem with quality and we work much faster. Other than that, simply not having a mentor, not knowing where to go next, and not knowing what to say no to in order to ensure the brand image is respected was quite hard.

Beyonce posted herself wearing a Bouguessa abaya on Instagram
Beyoncé posted this shot of herself wearing Bouguessa on Instagram | Photo: Courtesy of @beyonce

Are there any artists or architects that specifically inform your aesthetic? Who are your inspirations?
I am always inspired by architects and artists. These days I am reviewing the works of Joseph Dirand, who is an amazing minimalist, and Miguel Angel Aragonés, who is also a great minimalist, but both have completely different approaches and proportions, which I find interesting.

How do you style your Bouguessa abaya?
It depends on the occasion. I can style them with elegant flats and a black bag, or if I go to dinner or to an event I create a look that is more sharp and edgy with statement accessories.

You recently posted a picture of socialite and style icon Slim Keith on your Instagram account, which got me thinking about how fantastic she would have looked in one of your abayas. Which celebrities would you love to see wearing your designs?
I could so imagine Slim Keith in one of my pieces, but also Sheikha Moza, Olivia Wilde, Kate Hudson, or Sonam Kapoor.

How would you describe your Spring/Summer 2017 collection?
Fresh, comfortable, and minimal with carefully edited details.

As you think about and plan your Fall/Winter 2017 collection, what are your influences?
I am still at the fabric-research stage, which is the step just before that. I find it easier to get inspiration through my fabrics.

What makes you feel successful?
Receiving a small note from a client every now and then letting us know how she was happy with her pieces and that she received a lot of compliments from her colleagues or friends makes me feel like I reached my goal.

Where do you see Bouguessa in five years?
I would like to think that, in five years, we would have established a strong brand awareness and presence in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. Inshalla.

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