They say talk softly and carry a big stick. Fashion designer Reem Acra talks softly, and while there’s no big stick, there are big ideas and a conviction in her strengths that can have just as much impact.
The Lebanon-born, New York-based designer spends her days surrounded by acres of chiffon, tulle and lace in her capacity as one of the leading bridal creators, and in Dubai last week, she was sharing tales of orange blossom and cedar wood, key notes in her newly-released signature fragrance. But this cotton candy has a tough centre.
“I am my own cheerleader,” she says, wearing a crisp white blouse and black skirt. “I am the one who puts my goals, who pushes myself to get to the next goal. I don’t have someone next to me saying, here you go, now do this, it’s your next step, go for it. But I do surround myself with real friends, and don’t waste my time with nonsense.”
After studying at American University of Beirut, Acra launched her bridal collection in 1997 and her ready-to-wear range six years later, and while she hints success hasn’t been easy, she appears that she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Her most recent addition — like any designer — is a perfume. She says once she understood the concept, she took to the science of perfumery right away, coming up with the “ingredients” that represented her and her brand — like those Lebanese staples, orange blossom (“I drink it everyday,” she says) and cedar.
At the heart is amber, something she used to collect with her father. The ingredients “didn’t deviate, only the level and the intensity. I remember the day that they said, ‘OK, this is the last one that you picked, are you sure?’ And I said ‘Oh give me one more night, and then I will sign’. I wanted to make sure it really was me. It was a great experience.” Does she wear it, then? “Are you kidding? It’s in my bag, I always pray that they don’t take it from the at the airport. It’s very much me.”
“The essence of the perfume is the brand exactly: It’s very seductive, it’s glamorous, it’s powerful, it gives you a force, it’s a powerful woman that’s wearing my brand. She’s modern, she’s a blend of east and west, she’s mysterious...”
I point it she’s pretty much just summed up Halle Berry, who just days before our interview, had worn an eye-poppingly sexy Reem Acra mini dress on Jay Leno’s show.
“Oh my God, I never thought that being on Jay Leno, who knew she would get so much press! It really was the right dress for her, it attracted attention, it was of course very seductive and not many people can pull it together like this. It was just the right perfect moment for her in this dress.”
But of course, now more so than ever, there are fashion critics everywhere, like Fashion Police, on E!, criticising events like the Oscars, I say. She sniggers.
“Joan Rivers! A very good friend of mine. You listen to her and she has a funny mouth, whatever she says, she makes you laugh.
“I only saw her three weeks ago, just a few days before the Oscars, at a common friend’s wedding. She married them off. [Preston Bailey’s wedding, for which Acra designed a 12-foot wedding dress sculpture, and Rivers officiated.] I know what I am doing is right for the brand. And I know Kristen Stewart – for me to reach Kristen Stewart and to put that dress on her [at the Oscars], was just major. I think it was a big coup.”
Reem Acra on opening the door for herself and women like her
Discussing her UAE customer, Reem Acra mentions that she believes she is “an inspiration for a lot of women”. She shares her thoughts on being a woman in fashion.
Did you face challenges as a woman in the fashion industry?
“That’s a long story. I hope that one day I could guide even more women. Yes, there are obstacles as a woman; there is no doubt about it. I always said that I want to write a book, about success and my story and my brand, and everything that goes with it, as a woman, as a leader, as someone who has stepped up to the plate and who opens the door for the rest of the women from the Middle east. I am it. And hopefully I will be able to portray all the obstacles as a woman that were in front of me, and how I got out of them. There is a lot of them.”
Did you ever get any good advice?
“No. I think, unfortunately – or fortunately for myself, I am my own cheerleader, I am the one who puts my goals, who pushes myself to get to the next goal. I don’t have someone next to me saying, here you go, now do this, it’s your next step, go for it. But I do surround myself with real friends, and don’t waste my time with nonsense. My friends are my inspiration and all of them are true friends, that support me. On a daily basis I know that I have my friends to rely on. But at the end of the day, there is just me and my subconscious, and me, saying ‘go for it’.
Is success born or bred?
“I was born this way. I remember when I first started, when I would work many hours a day, and my brothers would be calling me and I would be talking to them with excitement, and passion and this and that, and they were in awe, saying, this is that thing we don’t know how to get. It’s unexplainable where you get this passion and energy that keeps you going. This is success. That’s it.”
“I’m only 15 years in the making, so there is a lot more to do. Of course I opened a door, and I know there are many more in front of me.”