Life & Style | People

Huda Al Nuaimi: Reinventing the abaya

Huda Al Nuaimi combines traditional thought with modern designs, giving diverse options to the modern woman

  • By Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary
  • Published: 15:06 October 3, 2012
  • Friday

Huda Al Nuaimi
  • Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • Huda makes abayas in light fabrics and soft textures women love to drape.

Huda Al Nuaimi remembers growing up surrounded by swatches of different coloured fabrics and mannequins. “My mother is a designer based in London so every time I went over to visit her, I used to see her sketching, designing and trying out fabric on mannequins,’’ says Huda. “There were rolls of material, thread and embellishments that she used to work with and I found them fascinating. I loved being in the midst of all that. ’’ Although she earned a degree in marketing from the UK, “my dream was to enter the world of fashion designing,’’ says the 30-year-old.

That came true in 2004 when she was admitted to the prestigious London College of Fashion. “It was truly a dream come true,’’ she says, relaxing in her tastefully decorated atelier in Jumeirah, Dubai. Huda is now preparing to exhibit her Fall/Winter 2012 collection of modern abayas on the red carpet at the forthcoming Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which begins on October 11. Exuberant, honest, warm and fun-loving, Huda is always bubbling with new ideas and designs that are typically traditional but exhibit a modern twist. “I’ve been designing abayas ever since I returned from UK in 2008 after earning my degree in fashion,’’ she says.

It all began when she couldn’t find an abaya that suited her taste. Respecting the philosophy behind the abaya and without violating its full-length structure, Huda experimented with styles, textures and silhouettes and soon her designs began to resonate with young girls. Three years ago, Huda launched her own label, Malaak, which means ‘angel’ in Arabic, and she has never looked back. One of the most sought-after abaya designers in the UAE, she is proud that her collections are being stocked at several top stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue in Dubai. “Abayas can be structured and elegant fashionable garments that need not be restricted to the Arab region. They can embrace international tastes and styles,’’ she says. “My silhouettes are truly international.”

Huda, whose mother is British and father Emirati, has mastered the art of straddling both cultures and bridging the traditional and modern by assimilating the two in her designs. “My select clientele of young fashion-forward girls love my designs and are thrilled to find garments that express their traditional as well as modern sensibilities so well,” says Huda, who personally designs every piece in her collection. “I have always believed that less is more. If you take all the passion and pain to create fewer pieces, you truly come out with better designs and gain greater satisfaction,” she says.

Huda, who enjoys “cycling around Jumeirah and having tea at cafés that allow my
pets [she has two German shepherds, a king shepherd, a Jack Russell, a persian cat and three zebra finches],’’ says it is this less-is-more philosophy that has helped her stay in touch with her inner self.

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I am proud of my Western and Arabic roots. My mixed-race background and upbringing, which exposed me to traditional values and culture as well as to a modern Western lifestyle, prepared me for life. I was at home in a traditional setting with my family here in the UAE while at the same time comfortable with friends in a modern environment when in Europe for my higher studies.

As a child I spent most of my younger days in Sharjah with my father. But I used to visit London regularly to be with my mother as well. After school I joined the London College of Communication for my undergraduate studies before moving on to study marketing and then fashion. When I qualified as a fashion designer I initially wanted to design ready-to-wear clothing. However, once I returned to the UAE my perspective changed and I wanted to design New Age abayas.

Back in Dubai after graduating, I once went out to buy a set of abayas. I wanted something in a lighter material to suit the hot weather and one which would offer a more defined shape. But I could find nothing that suited my taste. Deciding to take the matter into my own hands, I went ahead and began designing an abaya from scratch.

A lot has changed over the years – the way we cook, commute, communicate... Technology has changed everything so I thought it was time to give the silhouette of the abaya a new look without, of course, interfering with the fundamental principles behind it.

I love the concept of the abaya and the sheila, together the attire looks so elegant. The abaya is meant to be full length but it could be created in designs and cuts to suit different shapes. I wanted it to be avant-garde, in a slim-line series, with lighter fabrics and softer textures and trimmings that younger women in my age group would love to drape.

I love challenges and this one was right up my alley. So I got to do what I love most, creating style. Initially, I did everything – I was the designer, cutter, tailor and trimmer. I used a lot of fabric and after much trial and error managed to get the shapes and silhouettes right. A year later in 2009, I felt I was ready to launch my first collection. It was such a hit that I was actually able to save some money that helped me set up shop in Jumeirah.

My brand Malaak is about combining traditional thought with modern designs, creating elegant outfits and giving diverse options to the modern young woman. I have a collection of abayas with shoulder pads, which were a real challenge to create. I wasted a lot of fabric trying out different cuts and seams and eventually came up with a design that women loved. Then I have had an Indian-inspired collection where abayas are teamed with turbans.

The abayas that go along with these turbans are high-necked so women like to team up with scarves around the neck I’ve had collections for each season which means two every year since 2009 with different textures, trimmings, laces, cuts and styles every season. I am so passionate about my work that I am at it 24/7. Fashion is a fast-paced business and one has to keep up with changing trends; read consumers’ minds and create new designs before the start of each season.

Right now I have a team of 12 people, including a pattern-maker, cutters and seamstresses, with me directing the whole show. I handle the designing, marketing, branding and business development single-handedly. We work out of a warehouse in Al Barsha, Dubai while my showroom is in Jumeirah.

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Being of mixed race, I think I was fortunate enough to get the best of the Middle Eastern and Western worlds. My mother is half Spanish and half Scottish. She was born and brought up in Jamaica and later moved with her mother to London. Being a designer in London, she spent more time there and I got to divide my time between London and Dubai.

But my home was in Dubai and my father, who is a businessman, brought me up almost single-handedly with my six siblings. So I have been very attached to him. If I took my creativity and sense of fashion from my mother, my father taught me the brass tacks of business, how to be practical and hard-nosed and how to negotiate and manage the nitty-gritty at work. I still run to my father for all business advice. I try to be like him but I know am not a patch on him.

I was brought up to love nature, the deep dark woods and the green foliage in the UK and the simple traditional life of the UAE. When I am not designing I love cycling. My husband Mohammad Al Fardan, who is a banker, is an endurance rider. He loves his horses and always encourages me to nurture my spirit. He is very supportive of my entrepreneurship and creativity and wants to see me grow. Other than that, I love animals. I think they are the most loving, selfless creatures with the biggest hearts. Everyone should keep pets.

Dream

I dream of cycling at top speed – but safely – on the streets of Jumeriah. I think these days, we get so caught up with work and the stress of life that we forget what it is to be wild and free and have fun. I would also love to have a farmhouse with plenty of animals one day. My grandmother and mother had a very rich and diverse life, first in Jamaica and then London. And I have had the experience of straddling two cultures. Some day, I plan to write a book on the journey of life.

I am designing abayas now, but one day I want to do what I really love doing – designing a ready-to wear-line and shoes and accessories and go international with my collections.

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