INTERVIEW WITH DEENA ALJUHANI ABDULAZIZ
You have carved a unique visual and fashion path. The sensibility in your style is almost evergreen, timeless with a contemporary range of view. Knowing how influenced you were by all things fashion from an early age, does your fashion prowess today come from everything you learned and experienced in life − with a pop of color, modernity and a touch of wonder?
Absolutely! In certain way, I think my style is a combination of years and years of being exposed to different things, whether that was fashion in its classical form, respectively runway shows and editorials, or simply watching TV, different movies and music videos, or engaging in any other visual stimulation that has influenced me in a certain aesthetic way. I do not know why my eye sees things that way, but it does and that is really how my style formed. Now, the interesting part is, I am still inspired. Not only by the past but by any other thing that stimulates me right now. Unfortunately, that happens less and less, and not as much. I don’t know if that’s a sign of old age (laughter!) or is it because some things became less interesting. Remember, I am 43 years old, I’m not somebody that’s very young. But, I am always looking. I always do things in that way. It’s almost like having some kaleidoscope inside my brain and this is my way to translate it into this realm.
I see you as a strong woman, always verging on the classical while remaining thoroughly current. How does your multi-faceted professional background influence the way you perceive fashion today?
I don’t think it necessarily influences it per se. I have always been inspired by strong women in any way, and I was always quite ruled by that. But, I do not think that this was something that was intentional or something that I was aware of. However, I would love to consider myself a strong woman since I am a very assertive person. I don’t think that there is necessarily code for dressing in a way that reflects it. I want to dress in any way that is to my fancy and to what attracts my eyes. You know, whether I am doing something or not. There’s no uniform, that’s what I am trying to say.
It is as if you transform fashion into a thing of art. Do you intentionally play with obstructed views on Instagram, questioning and exploring fashion beyond fashion, capturing bits and pieces of your life in a highly cinematic style?
For me, Instagram represents a creative outlet. It is a place where I can reflect on what is inside my mind. It is all about feelings, something that touches me in that very moment, the emotion. So, whatever touches me, I reflect. I consider my Instagram page, which is the only social media that I am on, as a narrative.
You seem deeply enticed by the diversity the world has to offer and this oftentimes shows in your posts. Knowing everything you know today, where do you see connections and differences between the past, the present and the future of fashion?
It comes naturally to me. I feel very privileged to have been brought up in a way that I was exposed to different cultures, especially western and eastern. So, it’s like second nature to me. This is not something I cultivated intentionally, it just so happened in my case. The reflection of it is that I just see beauty and elegance in everything. It does not really matter to me where do things come from or where the person comes from. It has nothing to do with it. In terms of diversity and its representation in fashion today, I do not necessarily believe that things are better today. When I was growing up, fashion editorials did not set criteria of how many models should be of one ethnicity, and how many of the other. Actually, it looked like everything was in perfect symmetry, almost like it just so happened. You know, we chose this model because she is beautiful, not because of the color of her skin, her eyes or her hair, or of what background she was from. I am so lucky to have seen and have been exposed to such times when it didn’t even occur to me, honestly. I saw more diversity, to a degree, than I do now. I feel that diversity today is almost forced, almost like a conscious decision, and ticking a box. Back then, in the past, it was not like that. It was in harmony. At least to my eyes. On the other hand, in some aspects, things have certainly changed. I have never dreamed I would see a model that was wearing a headscarf for example, on the cover of a magazine. That is one of the few amazing side effects of having a political movement that may not be as progressive as it should be but manages to ignite a change. For instance, in the United States, such an embrace of cultures was considered not acceptable. Let us remember the recent campaign for Nike’s first-ever made-for-athletes hijab. That would certainly never happen ten years ago. Ten years ago, Halima Adem could definitely not be seen on the cover of Allure magazine.
I noticed that you prefer designers that are nothing short of inventive and ofttimes avant-garde. Does the unconventional approach in design play a key role for you?
Actually, I would not say it like that. I appreciate beautiful design, period. It has nothing to do with how the designers are viewed. Actually, I dislike categorization. I don’t love it when people are put into categories. It’s a little bit like music. You know, when people categorize music as R'n'B or country or hip hop. Why do they do that? Why do things have to be put inside a bracket? If it is a good song, it is a good song. It doesn’t matter what genre it is. So, that’s really the way I view fashion. If it’s good, it’s good.
Do you shop online or does the feel of exploring fabrics, cuts, and shapes in person make the shopping experience more relevant?
I do shop online, of course. I will never compare shopping online to the beauty of going through the process, or the ceremony that I was privileged to have witnessed in my lifetime. I am not talking only about getting excited while trying on something new, but also having it bought, or put in a shopping bag, taking it home or taking it to my hotel room. Those are all the things I do not feel when I am shopping online. More importantly, what I find bewildering is that I never felt that online shopping could present so many choices and more selections. Most of the big department stores would be afraid of carrying such a business model because of sales, wanting to be consumer-friendly, and wanting to be commercial. I am so lucky today because I can immediately get what I want. It is very easy for me to make my selection. Of course, spending years as a buyer, and having the experience of being an owner of a concept store, helped me adapt. But, the truth is, I have always been that way. When I liked something, I could spot it immediately. It didn’t take much for me. But, I must tell that online shopping is still not something I would like it to be. Hopefully, I am waiting for more online sites that create the experience that very famous multi-brand boutiques and emporiums have done for the fashion of the ’80s and the ’90s. I think it would be quite helpful to have, for instance, a Dover Street or 10 Corso Como experience online. It would be wonderful to have better curation. But, I understand the challenges of being commercial at the same time.
In terms of media coverage, and promotion of fashion design, what ever happened to great reviews? Do quality reviews exist today or does the money, as a prerogative, make the world go round?
I believe that things have changed drastically. I think that the fashion industry as a whole, as many people view it, is no longer what it once was. In any way, at all. It is a completely different ball game. It’s just not what it once was. The truth is, that a young and upcoming designer could be spotted or become a success story individually is a very difficult thing to achieve today. It’s almost, again, the analogy of the music industry. Now, fashion is one or the other. If you really want to be successful, you either have to be a part of a large conglomerate, or you have to be somebody that’s very buzz-worthy, and somebody that is creating what I call the merch. For everything in between, I think it is difficult. There are very few exceptions, but generally speaking, it’s very, very difficult. A long time ago, that was not the case. The industry was truly based on the merits of the talent, more so than anything else. It’s the same with modeling. Today, you can hire a model based on the followers she has, versus how appropriate she is for the look you’re going for. I believe that speaks volumes and it’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just a sign of changing times.
As someone that is interested in feminist ideas and their representation in fashion, do you agree with the uprising idea that clothes should be perceived as means of expression, beyond mere trends and consumerism sans real purpose?
I honestly believe that people, women or men, should dress in a way that makes them feel their most confident self and their happiest self. Whatever that choice might be. Telling the truth, the clothes should really just be an expression or a reflection of what you like to present to the world. It’s as simple as that. Everything else is beside the point.
Being a cross-cultural platform, the world of fashion has the power to convey important messages. Are you aware of just how important role your actions play in this matter? Respectively, you effortlessly connect the East and the West. You are successfully breaking prejudices and stereotypes about Arab women. Do you perceive fashion as a powerful tool to promote more than just fashion?
I am not aware of that. I am just living my best life and doing what brings me happiness and pleasure. I love what I do so that’s it. Now, if that touches someone, even in the smallest way, then I am eternally grateful and I feel wonderful that I am able to contribute the world, in whatever way that is. But, remember, I am not saving lives. I will definitely tell you that I never quite realized the extent to which I am breaking these stereotypes. I was doing it, changing perceptions, but I didn’t realize I was doing it. Of course, this brings me a sense of pride, a sense of joy because I am not changing perception just about me, but about any other amazing woman from my region, or my part of the world, as well. Somehow, people always tell me that I strive to empower women in my region. No! I want to showcase their power, actually. I see that view as an insult because this Western perception of Arab women is presuming that they are poor and weak figures that someone has to empower. Arab women are a lot stronger than people give them credit for. Our mothers and our grandmothers are central figures in our societies, and without them, things just don’t happen. Yes, that’s under the radar, yes it’s not as obvious, but not less important.
In your opinion, how did the perception of fashion change within the Arab women community? Is it more accessible today than it was a few years ago?
No. Not at all. Arab women have always loved fashion. We were never afraid to celebrate it. It was always accessible because even if they weren’t able to travel and buy designer pieces that they could not afford, they would go to their tailors and showed them what they needed. They used to show them this big, big publications that the Italians used to publish, that had every single collection within the pages. That’s what I grew up looking at. That’s what I grew up to see women do.
I can't help but ask about the most distinguished fashion era− the '80s! Seeing how rebelliously unique your taste in fashion, music, and art is, I have to ask do you reminisce about old times?
Yes, I do, very much so, and I am very privileged to be grown up in such a fantastic era in terms of fashion, culture, music, and arts. There was a lot going on, but again maybe this is just a sign of old age. Every generation likes to think their era was the most special one. My parents reminisce about the 60’s and the 70’s in the same way I reminisce about the 80’s and 90’s. But, still, I am very happy that I grew up in times when things were better and let’s just hope that the fashion cycle comes back to that. It was glamorous, very much so! There was a lot of forward-thinking, always something new and interesting, always pushing to another level, and another dimension. Since the millennium, things went sideways. I recall thinking that 2018 would look like the Jetsons cartoon. I thought it was going to be more futuristic and modern, but the 90s was as far as things got. Afterward, it all went in a different way. Every decade is known for something particular and, a decade from now, I honestly have no clue what this decade that we live in would be known for.
Did the fast-paced dictates of the fashion industry irreversibly affect the quality, exclusivity and the charm of fashion, especially haute couture? Were the '80s posher in comparison to what we have today?
Absolutely! But, let us hold on for a minute. The eighties were not exactly a brilliant decade in fashion. They were very poufy, very over the top, very ridiculous and had a lot of bad taste in it. But, the difference is that back then, designers had a lot more time to cultivate and be inspired, to create something different for each season. Plus, trends had a lot more time to manifest. Today, there’s no such thing. Although, things are slowly starting to turn in reverse. People are beginning to understand that maybe presenting eight collections per year may not be good for the designer. Once the one show finishes, the week after they have to already source fabrics for the next collection. So, in what way can a person have the incubation period to be inspired? It’s just inevitable that things will have to change. Otherwise, people will burn out.
Did the fast-paced industry generally affect fashion? Respectively, does it suffocate the art of design?
It did, of course. The only good thing about this and a thing that I find liberating is that no longer one particular trend rules. Now, everybody gets to dress any way they like and there are no issues with that. The lines got blurred. There used to be a very distinctive difference between certain seasons, for instance. Things used to be very clear. The chunky heel, for example, versus the stiletto. Shorter hem, versus a longer one. Now, almost anything goes. I think that it can be very liberating for a designer. The only difference is that I am not sure that people still understand the notion of being elegant, being well dressed, but without being bourgeois. Whatever happened to being elegant? That, I think, is a little bit lost.
As a devoted mother of three, do you strive to make a change for the sake of your children and their future?
As any mother would. I think it’s just incidental that I am a working mother. The one thing I love about them growing up is that they got to see their mother working, doing things. I think that is very important for them, all three of them.
Speaking of the future, what kind of future do you envision for your children?
That’s not exactly how I am looking at life. I want my children to be happy. That’s what matters to me the most and I will support them in any way they choose, to make them happy. They are now almost all grown now, they’re no longer children. So, the truth is, my role right now is to support them.
Last but not least, do you agree with Diana Vreeland's statement that there is only one thing in life, and that is the continual renewal of inspiration? What is your biggest inspiration?
I don’t think there’s only one important thing in life, but I absolutely believe in inspiration. I, perhaps, believe that the most important thing in life is being productive. And it does not matter in what way is one productive, but true happiness comes from productivity. That’s, anyways, how I view it.
(Interview was orginally published in Gracija magazine, December 2018.)