Abaya’s hijack : Abeer Al Suwaidi’s punk rock style
Abeer al Suwaidi opened her showroom, USH, in 2009. In Arabic, USH has the same sound as « nest ». And the young fashion designer also realized it meant hope or blessing in other languages. Therefore a very appropriate name for her shop, home to other designers’ lines as well. INTERVIEW with an excentric artist with a big heart and a crazy style.
You are diverting, twisting and playing around the abaya. Tell us more about your style and statement ?
I wanted to take the abaya on an experiment, to expose it to different influences. A bit edgy. It was worrying because it is one of the most precious thing in our culture. I wanted to give a twist to the classical abaya and express what I thought what should be the abaya. I did not know that others would even be interested. When I started using a lot of leather, belts, corset beautifying the body, I did not know how they would react. I used the room in the back almost as a lab and experimented. And we started to get people.
And the reactions were good ?
Exactly. So I was expressing myself Abeer.
And among men ?
We had a few angry husbands (she laughs). I actually had a girl who bought what I called the « skinny abaya ». Like the skinny jeans… And I wanted something I could call skinny at least (she burst into laughter). That’s what set the brand as what it is today. It is tight at the bottom. She was wearing it and walking inside the boutique saying « I want another one ». I was laughing saying « But you are wearing one ! ». « Yes, she said, but my husband is outside and he said no. So I am buying another one ». For her it was a statement but her husband was angry perambulating outside the boutique (ndlr : men are not allowed in the boutique). So we had a few of these funny situations. You get to know the customers more privately. It is not only a girl in the boutique. Their story is always behind the abaya. The people who wear my brand definitely want to walk making a statement.
How would you define this statement ?
Powerful, strong, courageous. The woman has something to say. Even if you are quiet, you are not verbally saying something, you do by wearing my abaya.
Do see them around sometimes ?
Yes. Here it is ! We like to spot them in public.
Because they are definitely recognizible ?
That’s the idea.
How did you came uo with the idea of changing the spirit of the classical abaya into this funky style ?
In fact all I did was take the old traditional abaya to reach the rest of the world. So anybody can get into it. It was difficult because there is a thine line. How do I make sure to change it from a classical piece to a modern contemporary piece. Actually all I did was going back to the classical heritage cuts and I manage to convertit into a line that the young can undertsand.
It is also a mirror of what is going on in Dubai ? A very traditional conservative culture and at the same time an international influence with different fashion style and materials coming from abroad ?
Yes definitely. We are evolving with what’s happening with our culture in Dubai.
Is it going smoothly ?
In the fashion industry ? (she laughs) It is going smoothly but that is why USH is here. If you find me « too much » or too expressive, too excentric or visible, you are definitely able get other pieces in the boutique which are still modern and contemporary but classical.
You do not want to hurt people ?
You do not want to go too fast but just offering a different option ?
Yes you’re supposed to be very comfortable wearing my pieces.
What materials are you using ?
My last collection is a lot of velvet. I work a lot with delicate handmade embroidery, antique embroidery with modern fabrics. I am using cotton. Non Emiratis were very interested in buying cotton abaya because it is closer to ready to wear. We use cotton a lot. The main fabrics used for abaya is saoudi crepe.
How do you feel as you wear this material ?
It’s nice. It depends on the quality. They are different types of crepe. It is soft and light. But we did jump to other fabrics like satin, cotton and lace and even sweater in winter.
And there are some very « rock and roll » materials, even punk ?
Yes. We have pikes, metal. That is the Abeer that’s inside ! That’s me, that’s truely something I wanted to express in the abaya. You still have these characters even wearing abayas. Rock girls, with strong personalities. My second fashion show, I did a Bob Marley collection which was very different because it was reggae. Evertytime I do a collection or a fashion show it is an extension of me.
And how did your family react ?
My parents are actually very supportive. Both of them are artists. They did oil painting when I was young so they understood what I was doing. But maybe a few uncles here and there… (she laughs), that I get a lecture from.
What do they tell you ?
Be careful. This is abaya. It is central in our culture and religion. Do not go too far, respect.
Would you consider not wearing an abaya ?
No. I love my abaya. As Emirati this is my identity. I love it.
You would feel awkward without it ?
Yes because it is telling everybody who I am, where I am from. We are lucky to have it because nobody can be mistaken. They will know that this is an Emirati woman walking. It is very rare around the world to spot someone and know who they are. For me abaya is pride. Wearing it tells everybody who I am.
Tell me about your background ?
I went to university in Abu Dhabi. I studied communication but then I joined the fashion industry. I always wanted to do fashion and I was always different in my fashion. I remember my 6 grade graduation. I was the only one who walked in with the hugest dress, so huge, like for a ball. Who does that ? How did my mom let me out ? Express myself like thits out of the family ? I actually came out in this biggest dress and I was walking on stage and I remember winning the award of the best dress. But I dont think the others thought it was cool at the time.
How do your peers, friends and family describe you ?
Excentric, a bit different, creative.
Which fashion designers do you look up to ?
Alexander Mc Queen, Vivien Westwood, and a lot of Japanese designers.
You lived abroad ?
I lived in Singapour for a year.
What do you wear under your abaya today ?
A black leggings with a black tank top and my pink fluorescent heels.
Who is your clientele ?
All ages. Young girls and up to 50 years old. Emiratis but also women from Qatar, Oman and even Yemen who don’t wear abaya.
What is your latest project ?
We just opened a boutique in House of Frazer in Abu Dhabi.
What difference in style do you see between Western and Middle Eastern women ?
Suffer for fashion ? I think we are more into it. I noticed the European market wants something lighter, comfortable. We are ready to suffer. The spikes the belt, the high high heels, and the make up. In fashion, we take it seriously ! And there is the total look from top to bottom. The purse goes with the shoes. They love it. Now I am starting a ready to wear line. We went to Ireland for a show and they liked the abayas so much. I was amazed they wanted it but of course naturally to them its too long, not practical. But they liked the style, the color black, and so I tried to come up with ready to wear pieces for Western clients.
What are you favorite shopping places in Dubai ?
If Boutique. A true boutique that’s offering something different.
Where do you hang out ?
I have no time to hang out but in winter i go to the desert. Close to the roads you will see all the Emiratis with their tents and teapots. We hang out until midnight all the generations and on another ill our friends. With the motorbikes, the quads…
A day in the life of Abeer
I wake up at around 7h30 with my kids. I am a mother of three. We sit together and talk. I lecture them to be nice and not hurt others… After they leave for school, I sketch and research. I have inspiration in the morning. I work with my husband. We work a lot which is good news, hamdulilla ! I have a one year old baby so we hang out and at 2h30 I go pick up my kids. I pass by the boutiques, see the production. In the evening I am back to my kids, put them in bed and by 8 or 9 I finally take a coffee and meet other designers. I do not have much of a « me » time these days or a social life. If anyone wants to take me out for coffee ? I hang out at Shakespeare at the village Mall. My personal and work life are very much intertwined.