Sheikha Amal Al Maktoum’s passion and love for what she does is her greatest asset. She is a businesswoman by heart who could and in many ways has, tried her hand at anything.
After graduating from college with a degree in business, Al Maktoum began working for her university in Dubai, helping graduates to start their careers. With no professional design training, she used her experience and knowledge of starting a business combined with her passion for fashion to start her own brand. Azzalia incorporates three lines, named after Al Maktoum’s daughters; Daisy by Azzalia is the casual, affordable line, Lily by Azzalia is mid-market, and Iris by Azzalia is her couture line.
In 2017 Al Maktoum was invited to present her Iris line at London Fashion Week after winning a competition in Dubai. The designer had just two months to complete a collection before it was shared with the world. After the success of her show, Azzalia has continued to become more and more popular in the region, with designs on offer to meet the needs of any woman. Fusing traditional silhouettes with a contemporary twist, Al Maktoum designs with women of all walks of life in mind. As we meet with the designer in Dubai her passion is immediately infectious and we discuss in depth her upbringing, her desire for design, her love for business and her wish to help others in the future.
How did your upbringing in the UAE shape your passion for fashion design?
I was privileged that my parents gave me the space to exercise passions and work and develop my personality to become the person I am today. I graduated from college in 1995 and at that time when we had to choose what and where to study there weren’t many options, so it was a challenge. At that time people were not so open to their daughters travelling abroad to study but to be honest I don’t regret studying here in the UAE at all. We had an excellent education system that was designed to prepare women for work and gave them confidence. At that time, you could not graduate if you had not done an internship so it was required for everyone to go out into the workplace. My internship was special because I did it in something I was interested in at Emirates Environmental Group. When I went to do this, I really started to see my personality shaping up. I always had the support of my parents. I was the only girl so my father would always support me. For my bachelor’s degree, I was required to do an extra year of working to prepare us for life. At first, I started to work at my father’s company but when I went back to the college to enrol, they wouldn’t accept this because I was working for the family company! So, I had to find somewhere else to work. I went to the Dean and she gave me an idea to work at the careers centre at the college. So, I started working from 8am to 5pm for a whole year. It was such an experience. I was involved in career counselling and guidance so we would prep women to go into the workplace and we would help them to find internship opportunities. It was my ultimate happiness; it gave me the satisfaction that no other job could. This shaped my personality and I thank my parents for that because they let me work in a field that gave me confidence and empowerment.
Eventually, I got promoted to professor level in the faculty and worked there for five years before I moved to Sharjah Women’s College to take on a role that involved working with students directly and empowering them through creating sports teams, councils, events etc. The age gap between myself and the students was very small, so I had some great experiences. I wanted to establish and find myself. I also served six years as the Vice-Chairman of the Sharjah Businesswomen’s Council. Then I got married and left and soon got pregnant with my first daughter and at that point, I decided to open a fashion brand.
What brought you to fashion?
I always had an interest in fashion. My dad was very cool and stylish, and he inspired me! He always liked to be unique, and he has a character that was very inspiring. Even though I have always loved fashion I never thought it would become a business. I always thought it would be such a responsibility and very challenging. But I do think when you study business it prepares you for any industry. I created my first brand with a partner which ran for eight years. Then I decided I wanted to do my own thing – I wanted to have my own DNA. So I started Azzalia. It took me two years to establish. The brand is split into three lines Iris, Lily and Daisy. I believe that any woman who enters the Azzalia world will find something she needs within these three lines and their different price points and levels. Everything is of high quality, but the lines differ. From a business point of view, couture does not pay the bills, that’s why it’s important to have an offering of different price points. It’s a lot of hard work but I’m all about challenges.
What were the major challenges that you faced at the beginning and how did you overcome them?
I think I was quite lucky. I think the diversity in my experience prepped me for anything. I saw how businesses are developed and I was there to support them, so the exposure and experience I had, enabled me to prepare myself for my own business. I wanted to launch my brand as three lines and that offered diversity. I made sure that the brand, as much as it is stylish and trendy, it is also timeless. If you look through the pieces in all of the collections, you will see that they are timeless and transformable.
What in your opinion makes a timeless design?
Firstly, quality is key. And you have to study the silhouette. There are pieces that can be both trendy and timeless. Pieces that I could wear but I could also give to my grandmother. They will always come back around. Whenever I am looking at inspiration for any collection, as much as the trend aspect is important, timelessness is key.
How does the design process begin and how are you inspired?
I travel twice a year to Premiere Vision. I look at the trends, at all the new suppliers, new fabrics, I do my full research, I buy all the trend reports and then I go back to Dubai and I gather everything. I am obsessed with fabrics. I don’t let anyone do this job for me. I travel by myself and discover all of the beautiful fabrics. While I’m doing this, often I get the inspiration for the collection – it could be something as simple as a button or a picture. I like to be involved in everything – I paint, I do photography, I write press releases – all of this would not be possible without the support that I had from my parents and now of my husband. My husband and my kids support me through everything.
I don’t want to be completely out of the trends, but still, not everything that’s “on trend” is wearable. So for me, Azzalia should be practical. It should make the woman who is wearing it feel attractive, feminine and she will want to keep the piece forever. I often get asked if I make Abayas and I tell people; “no I go beyond that”. There is a stereotype that any local designer only makes Abayas. Yes, I do Abayas, but there is always something new or special with each of my designs.
Describe a day in your life.
To be honest, I am not a morning person because I feel my creativity starts at night. That’s when all my ideas come. My energy starts in the afternoon and by midnight; that’s the time when I should create and design. I wake up with the kids, currently, they are doing their studying online. Then I will go to the office or to meetings and then we have lunch all together as a family. This is a must. Then I go back to my office or to more meetings in the afternoon. At the moment we are breathing each other’s air the whole day because of the pandemic. Sometimes I bring them with me to work and I like to involve them in all aspects of the business. I encourage them because it’s very important that they do something that they want to do and something that they love. The past year has not been easy with the pandemic because it interrupts their flow.
Speaking of this year what have been the changes in your life and are there any lessons you have learnt?
Actually, I think this experience made me more adaptive. I have had to think fast, think smart, and adapt my strategies. I think the fashion industry is one of those that has really struggled. Even online, purchasing is not as much because we are not going out or having a social life to wear clothes. So immediately when the pandemic began, we started to create a whole new permanent collection that comes out of the Daisy line and is available all year round. It is made with one very soft, light and stretchy fabric and is designed to serve different purposes for women. We created pieces such as jumpsuits, kaftans, tops, and pants. It is affordable and it is what women need now. It has been doing extremely well since we launched and we keep adding new colours and silhouettes, but we keep the same DNA. Instead of doing huge collections, we are doing smaller more easy-to-wear collections. We had to expand the Daisy line and minimise the couture line because there were fewer occasions to wear couture. We also added a Pret-a-Couture collection which is simple but embellished and can be worn every day. So from a business point of view, I had to shuffle my strategy, but I think it was an amazing exercise because it tested me and we survived. I am the type of person that always asks myself “how can I do this better? How can I do this with passion?”
Tell us about your experience at London Fashion Week.
It was a competition organised by the Dubai Fashion Council. I applied to take part and they pushed us hard – I had two weeks to develop a whole collection! We had to present our concept to the board, and I was very nervous. My brand was only one year old at the time and it was the first competition I had entered. The presentation was at the beginning of December and we had to produce the full collection by February. When I showcased the collection to the board, I remember Reem Acra was one of the judges and she told me “don’t worry you’re there.” I didn’t even get a chance to tell them all of the details and they told me I had won! It was such an emotional moment. We went to London and we had four days to do the model casting, to alter everything, do the full styling, the hair, the makeup – we did everything there. There were so many details, everything was considered, and I was involved at every moment.
What are you currently working on?
We are now working on a new strategy and we are going to launch our revamped website. We are also developing an app for Azzalia to make it easier for customers. As you know we have three lines, so it is quite a range for the customer to understand and browse through. We are also developing our online presence on different online platforms, choosing the right ones that fit the brand and this is where the flexibility of Azzalia comes in. Because I have multiple lines certain platforms will take some lines and others will take other lines. So although everyone told me not to do three lines – this is where it works! If I had only one line in this pandemic, I would have struggled.
Tell us about the Aurora collection.
Every collection that I create is inspired by something specifically. I saw these beautiful pictures of the Aurora and the colours gave me this incredible feeling. So I started to research what it was and it was so inspiring. The combination of the colours gave me warmth and I really wanted to look into the phenomenon and see what I could do to incorporate it into my collection. I started researching and began to match my inspiration with the trends. It cannot be just the trend itself; it has to be what I feel. I don’t believe that you should follow trends, there has to be a personal touch. When you see the collection you understand why it is called Aurora because every colour represents the colours of the sky. When we created this collection, I started to separate myself from the seasons and create something that overlaps seasons as I don’t believe the concept of seasons works anymore. Whenever you choose to wear it, you wear it. When I designed Aurora, I had in my mind not only Middle Eastern women but women from all nationalities of all body types and of all styles. When we create, we create modest looks, sexy looks. We create for everyone. We wanted our garments to be one size fits all and they need to be effortlessly chic. There are many ways to wear each piece. We introduced a lot of mix and match pieces in this collection so women can style them in the ways they suit them. When I’m designing, I put myself in the shoes of the woman that will wear my collection and think about what she wants. We create pieces that fit different occasions and can be worn in many different ways and that is what makes our pieces timeless. I don’t want to create pieces that are a burden in your wardrobe, I create pieces that you will always find a way to wear. This is embedded in my mind whenever I create a collection.
What is something you say no to?
When somebody shows disrespect. That is my ultimate turn off. I come from an upbringing where I was taught that you have to respect, to be respected. The second thing is when somebody judges you when they don’t know you. We are in one of the most challenging times facing our generation, so you try to survive, and if someone judges me when I am doing this, it really affects me. Otherwise, nobody breaks me. I believe life is all about giving, passion and respect. These are the fundamentals.
If you were to describe yourself in one word, what would it be?
Passionate. I am passionate about everything and I am lucky that my parents embedded this in me.
What is the motto you live by?
Staying positive and passionate is what keeps me going.
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I think my work experience dealing with students showed me another side of myself that I didn’t know existed. When I was much younger, I was very shy and I used to get nervous. But this is why I thank our government for the amazing education system because it really makes you flourish and builds up your confidence. As a local person who studied in the system and had to go through a lot to become what I am now, without that education system I would not have reached where I am. So, through this, I discovered that I love public speaking. I feel like I have a lot to give, and I think this could be something that will come gradually. I can talk about anything at any given moment. I can go on and on! So, I would like to develop this in the future but currently, I am voicing it through my fashion.
In your spare time, what are your hobbies?
I love painting. I used to paint for a long time but now I put all of my creative talent into design. I like to meet young people who are starting their careers or businesses. I feel like I went through a lot and I have a lot to share, and I think I can add value to these people.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
They need to be original. Look at their inner passion and inner style and don’t do it just for the sake of imitating or copying. Try to think out of the box and always keep your original style and have your own flavour. The minute you imitate or copy you will fail. Analyse your interests and what you want to do in life and then make your decisions. If you follow your passion, that’s when you will succeed.
What message would you send to women to invite them to discover Azzalia?
Azzalia is always creating new things and is always innovative with something new to offer. Women can always find something that talks to them at Azzalia.