SemSem’s creative director and founder, Abeer Al Otaiba, discusses her modern take on ancient Egypt’s iconic allure, the rise of Arab designers and what’s next for the brand…
How did your Egyptian heritage inspire your latest collection?
My Arab roots have always inspired SemSem’s design aesthetic. It’s a brand rooted deeply in my heritage and represents the Eastern and Western cultures I grew up in. Our designs have a global vision, born from my experiences living in different parts of the world and a strong love for my Arab culture. Taking inspiration from the cultural aesthetic of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, our design pillars consist of architectural layers and glamour that is punctuated by delicate restraint.
How did you channel this influence into your designs?
For SS20, we are inspired by the qualities of ancient Egyptian female icons, like the goddess Isis, as well as today’s modern Arab women, which is then channeled into the colour scheme and signature silhouettes of the season. There is a balance among dramatic shapes, vibrant colours and fluid fabrics that represent how she can be daring, empowered and yet very feminine.
How does your background in structural engineering influence your designs?
The technical skills and discipline I gained from building a career in civil engineering while I was residing in the UAE informs every part of how SemSem operates. Engineering has played a part in the way we begin the process of creating a collection; from selecting fabrics our design team can manipulate in a number of ways, to how we deconstruct and reinvent our signature silhouettes, from electric pleats to an asymmetric white button shirt, or tailored black trousers.
Do you design with a particular muse or woman in mind?
I envision the SemSem woman to be someone who feels empowered, strong, and independent whilst striving every day to make a difference in the world. She is a successful woman who looks to others for inspiration and guidance, but ultimately defines her own path to success.
What do you love about getting dressed up?
I love how you can instantly reinvent yourself, or lift up your mood, through the clothes you wear! Often times we are seen before we are heard, our clothes are making a statement about how we are feeling or what we are thinking at that moment.
Are women are dressing with a new set of parameters?
Now more than ever, I think women are constantly looking for pieces and putting together looks that can transcend a particular time of day or occasion. Sustainability has become a very strong talking point among different industries – fashion included – and women today are making more conscious purchases that with different accessories can take them from a daytime boardroom meeting, to an evening engagement, and maybe dress it down for the weekend.
How is the Middle East developing in terms of fashion?
A lot of SemSem’s success can be attributed to the unwavering support of our retailers and partners globally and regionally. I think it is the community spirit of the young fashion industry in the Middle East, coupled with the governments’ support for local talents, and providing them with platforms to showcase their designs internationally, which have allowed fashion businesses to flourish in this very competitive landscape.
Are Arab designers being recognised now?
Arab designers, especially eveningwear houses, have always been celebrated globally. The Middle East is home to some of the most talented designers and artisans, but I do agree that a lot of ready to wear designers are getting their much deserved appreciation now. Fashion stylists and celebrities in the west are constantly looking for something new and exciting to wear, and I think brands such as ours who have Arab roots, or are home grown within the Middle East have something fresh to offer.
Do you feel the fashion industry is changing for the better?
Over the past year, the fashion industry has aggressively worked on being a powerful voice that inspired inclusivity, diversity, sustainability and most especially the global movement to protect all women’s rights. There is still a lot of work to be done but it is very fulfilling and inspiring to see both some of the largest designers down to start-up brands consciously instilling these values into the way they operate their businesses.
How are you incorporating inclusivity into the brand?
At SemSem, we have championed this since from day one. In this spirit, my mission through SemSem is to support and invest in the well-being of women and children around the world, looking at how fabrics are sourced and garments are sewn, and by supporting charities that empower women across the globe.
How do you improve ethical standards?
Each season, we partner with a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving gender equality, literacy, health, legal awareness and education for women. Labour exploitation and unpleasant working conditions are still rampant practices in the industry and we want to be at the forefront of instigating change to how collections are made.
What’s next for you in 2020?
I am looking forward to a very exciting year ahead. As SemSem’s creative director, I feel that together with my design team we are hitting our stride as a brand. We hope to continue to cultivate new partnerships and nurture existing relationships both with the non-profit organisations we partner with each season as well as the retailers who feature our brand.
From plush velvet pantsuits to sequin adorned tops and fanciful feather blazers, discover an array of sleel date night ready looks at SemSem’s pop-up at Galeries Lafayette in The Dubai Mall. Available until the end of February; Galerieslafayettedubai.com
- Words by Lucy Wildman