Muslim. Arab. African. European. Third Culture Kid. Influencer. These descriptors are used so that we can neatly package and understand, so that we can easily compartmentalize, stereotype, categorize, and move on. Labeling people takes the pressure off of comprehending nuance, of empathizing with the contradictions and complexities of feeling like you belong to nothing and everything at the same time.
Oumayma Boumeshouli – who is, for what it’s worth, all of the above – is more than the sum of her labels. Much more. In a field of fashion that has homogenized into a glob of sameness, where everyone wears the same things, styles them the same way, and even poses identically, Boumeshouli stands out. It’s been ten years since she first launched her personal Instagram account, at the age of 15, as a means of broadcasting her unique perspective to the world. This desire was her destiny; it’s in her DNA. Her father, who moved from Morocco to Amsterdam to give his family the opportunities he never had, was a style icon in his own right. He inspired Boumeshouli, he urged her to speak up for herself and others. To say she has forged her own path in fashion belies the contributions he made to her journey.
A decade later, Boumeshouli is one of the most unique content creators in the fashion industry – so much so that she’s inspired legions of imitators. It hardly needs to be said that 2020 has been a tough year for everyone, Boumeshouli included. In losing her father in 2019, she sought solace on a recent trip to Milaidhoo Resort in Maldives. These introspective moments were captured by photographer Abdulla Elmaz, as the two explored the healing bounty of nature in one of the most remote and beautiful locations in the world. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Boumeshouli shares her origin story, her perseverance in breaking into an industry where people like her were underrepresented, and the courage her father gave her to speak up for what’s right. Listen in.
What is your fashion background? Do you have an education in fashion?
It started when I was in junior high. My dad was definitely my style inspiration. He has a very big archive of photos of him when he was young, all taken with a Super 8 camera or Polaroid. I found it so fascinating and so beautiful, the way he used to dress, the way he used to express himself by dressing. I feel like he was definitely an inspiration for me, when it came to fashion.
When I was in junior high, I was dressed just like most of the girls. I couldn’t express myself. I realized, ‘this is not who I am’. Maybe it sounds cliché, but I started watching these programs on MTV, like, The Hills, for example. And then The Devil Wears Prada came out, and then Sex in the City. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I want to be like these women. They live such an amazing life. I want to be like this when I grow up’.
At what age did you start dressing more for yourself?
I started dressing differently compared to everyone at around 13. That was a big deal, especially if you’re 13 years old, and you’re starting to dress unlike everyone else. There is a chance that you will get bullied, you know. I basically didn’t give a sh-t. I switched. I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this, and I’m going to dress myself the way I want’. A lot of kids at my school were like, ‘Oh my god, you look so cute’.
I feel like that also motivated me to continue being myself. But then I grew up, and realized that the people who inspired me actually live a very imaginary life. This is not real life. When I look at a PR firm in The Hills, there are no people of color working there. I can’t associate with that when it comes to their backgrounds. I’m an immigrant. How am I going to be like them? I felt like I don’t belong in this world.
You didn’t see people that look like you in those worlds you were looking at?
Yeah, exactly. There is this bubble where they are living. I didn’t know if people like me are welcome to work in a big PR firm for example, or to be an editor at a fashion magazine. I started thinking, ‘Do I still really want to do something in fashion?’ I didn’t feel people like me were welcome to work in fashion.
I think when you feel like an outsider, one of the choices you can make is to say, ‘I’m doing me and I’m going to present myself unapologetically to the world’.
That’s what I did. When I was 15 years old, I was basically done with junior high, so I wanted to go and study at college at the age of 16. I applied to the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. They rejected my application. I said, ‘Okay, you know what, I am going to show you that I do belong in this industry.’
You were one of the few influencers to speak openly and honestly about the Black Lives Matter movement. Why did you decide to use your platform that way?
Because I’ve also experienced racism in the past.
Is this due to your Moroccan heritage?
Yeah, absolutely. I come from a very, very, very white neighborhood. When I grew up, I didn’t really experience a lot of racism. Honestly, I didn’t know what racism was. But when I entered the fashion industry, I started realizing that racism was everywhere. I’ve heard people say about me at fashion shows, ‘Whatever, she’s just the Moroccan-Dutch girl. She’ll have to stand. She’s not important.’
Meanwhile, the entire front row is white. It’s those small things that really made me see it. My dad was very passionate about this topic. Unfortunately, he passed away last year, but otherwise, he [would have been] so passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement because he experienced a lot of racism as well. He came as an immigrant to the Netherlands, for a better future for us and he experienced racism like no one else did. He encouraged me not to be silent about it. We need to keep talking about it, because we’re the ones that are going to change this.
I spoke with you right before you went to the Maldives about what you wanted to get out of the trip. In looking at the images that Abdulla shot of you, I get both a sense of isolation and of joy. Would that be an accurate way to look at these photos?
Yeah. Absolutely. That’s why we went on this trip. That’s also why we wanted to create something different and special. I’m actually very glad you’re bringing this up, because it was really what I was feeling at that moment.
When you got back from the Maldives, you headed straight into one of your biggest projects ever. Can you talk about the launch of BO Exclusives?
BO Exclusives is a creative beauty platform that connects influencers, content creators, and makeup artists and showcases the products they use. They sign up, then we select their beauty content, and make that content shoppable. It’s like a creative affiliate platform.
For example, say you post a Gucci Beauty lipstick. When it’s on BO Exclusive, we connect the content directly to Gucci Beauty. It’s a very, very curated platform. It’s a great way for people to see how products look, or how they’re used and applied by influencers and makeup artists, before they buy them.
When somebody comes across your page, what are you hoping that they realize about you? What is your message to the world?
I would love to be the person you can look up to. When I was young there was no person [in fashion] for me to look up to. I’m trying to be that person. I’m trying to be an inspiration for younger people with an Arab background with a love for fashion. I’m also showing a strong, independent woman that doesn’t need a man. In my culture, women aspire to marry and have kids, and have the man be financially responsible. I take care of myself. I follow my passion, no matter what anyone says.
In my culture, unfortunately, people don’t take it seriously. They’re like, ‘yeah, whatever, fashion is just clothes’, but it isn’t. It’s a billion-dollar industry. I want to show that someone like me belongs in fashion, and for other girls who don’t see people who look like them to finally see someone who represents them.