A civil engineer by trade, SemSem Founder Abeer Al Otaiba realised she could take her passion for fashion and her desire to help women further, so she decided to create a philanthropy platform to support charitable efforts focused on female empowerment. Drawing from her life experiences and cultural background, every piece of clothing in Semsem’s collection is entirely hand-made and incorporates two recurring Egyptian motifs: a triangle and a lotus flower – a nod to Al Otaiba’s upbringing. But Semsem wasn’t ever just about creating beautiful clothes; Al Otaiba wanted to support women through her venture, with an intent to improve the welfare of women and children worldwide. SemSem merges fashion with a social conscience. Each season, the fashion label partners with a different women’s charity to support causes such as gender equality, women’s health and education. SemSem champions nonprofit organisations that align with the brand’s values of philanthropy, family and quality. As the brand launches its latest collection, we find out more.
Tell us a little about the current direction and vision for Semsem.
My vision for SemSem is to create clothing that allows women to feel as bold and empowered as I know them to be, while being uncomplicated and comfortable. As fashion continues to evolve, women remain exceptionally confident and distinctly strong. I hope SemSem continues to be a brand women can look to for special pieces while knowing they are supporting a brand that is sustainable, consistent, and forward-thinking.
What are you currently working on?
We’re currently showcasing the Spring-Summer 2024 collection in New York Fashion Week, which we photographed at the stunning Aman Hotel in New York. We had the pleasure of seeing Nancy Ajram wearing SemSem for her performance in New York as well. I love seeing our customer’s reactions to our designs and what they’re drawn towards. We’re also developing relationships with new retailers both across the Middle East, the US and online.
How do you stand out as a brand when there is so much competition out there?
It took us a few years, but we ultimately found our unique customer. When you are building a brand (or any business for that matter), I think the best thing you can do is listen. I am not trying to be anyone else, nor do I focus on trends. Our customers are thoughtful and know a SemSem piece has a unique spirit, that it can carry their whole look and leave a lasting impression.
What do you think women in the Middle East are looking for from fashion today?
Women in the Middle East are breaking barriers across all industries. I think they are looking for effortless statement pieces that make them feel confident and powerful. I find they appreciate supporting designers from the region and promoting the Middle East as a place for innovation in the fashion world.
Tell us about your collections – the fabrics, the silhouettes, the colour palettes.
The collection is precise, graphic, bold, and feminine. I like to lean on my engineering background to create meticulously embellished dramatic evening and ready-to-wear looks using a variety of couture techniques. Gold and silver metallics, deep Emerald jewel tones, vibrant Mediterranean blue, and delicate off-whites create invigorating statements for eveningwear. Luxurious silks and sequin fabrics are pleated using a unique technique to create revitalized energy. These all combine to create our unique SemSem DNA.
What can we expect to see from Semsem in the coming months?
You can expect to see a beautiful, luxurious, and flattering SS24 collection, which will be available online, in the Middle East, Europe and the US – as well as incredible celebrities like Nancy Ajram wearing the brand.
What first inspired you to start your own fashion brand?
SemSem is named after my daughter Samia’s nickname. Shortly after she was born, I felt called to pursue my dream of fashion. I have a background in engineering that has proven to be vital to my business and design philosophy. Civil engineering is about function and fit while solving problems efficiently and creatively.
What is the biggest challenge you face today in what you do?
If only there were more hours in the day! I’m involved in every aspect of my brand and care deeply about the process – from design, sourcing, merchandising, fit and beyond. Our industry is constantly changing and I’m trying to stay at the forefront so we can give our customers the best.
What is the most rewarding part?
I love making women feel confident. Fashion is so much more than clothes – it’s an opportunity to express oneself in a way that is meaningful. Fashion gives many people the tools to express themselves in ways that words can’t. You can convey whether you want to be approached or not, what mood you’re in, and how serious you feel all with what you’re wearing. Making a woman feel confident in SemSem is the greatest compliment I can receive. It’s so much more than clothes for me, it’s about empowering women to advocate for themselves and inspire others – the young and young at heart – to pursue their dreams.
We know you are passionate about inspiring and supporting women – tell us a little about that.
As a mother raising a daughter, I believe it is vital to support and recognize other women. No one attains true success on their own and giving back is something that was instilled in me, by my parents, from a very young age. I feel passionate about corporate social responsibility and am dedicated to supporting women-led businesses and projects across the globe. Each season we choose a different charity to support and highlight, and this philosophy continues to be one of my favourite objectives since launching SemSem.
Who is a woman that inspires you?
I’m inspired by strong independent Arab Women, who define their own paths to success.
Tell us about your work as a businesswoman.
The fashion landscape is evolving, and sustainability is more important now than ever. As someone who manages both the design and business side of my brand, I’m in a unique position to impact real change in how we operate day to day. I’m also constantly seeking advice and sharing best practices with my peers and fellow entrepreneurs. I believe in supporting, empowering, building each other up, and being inclusive because that’s the only way we can grow together as a sustainable industry.
How do you balance your career with being a mother?
My kids come first, and my staff knows this. It’s also why I’ve hired an incredible team of people who not only support me but are empowered to push the business and brand forward. While raising two children, supporting and growing a solid family unit, as well as fostering a brand – finding work/life balance is a necessity. What I realized is that I must constantly nurture the creative and business side of my mind in tandem with fostering my home life. I want to showcase how this can work to encourage my kids to do the same.
What is the professional motto that you live your life by?
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill.
What is something that you would still like to achieve?
I’d love to have my own store one day. The retail environment has changed quite a bit over the last few years, but to have a flagship store is still a dream of mine. I’d love to not only showcase SemSem but also other women-led businesses in a space that is both beautiful and purposeful.