We meet Arwa, a designer behind the contemporary women’s ready to wear brand tailored for “The Suitable Woman”. Like her eponymous label, she is an eclectic mix of contrasts. While raised in conservative Jeddah, Al Banawi also spent a large part of her childhood in Germany and Switzerland. Her travels abroad instilled a deep love of and appreciation for fashion. A former investment banker, she saw a void in the market for womenswear. Designed for “the suitable woman,” her aesthetic is subtly androgynous yet undoubtedly feminine.
-You grew up in Jeddah but spent a lot of time in Switzerland. How did this international background influence your personality and style?
Jeddah is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and has a huge influence on me. It is just one of those places that is rich in heritage, culture and history. I frequented Zurich and Munich while growing up, to visit family; so these cities are now second homes. Munich and Zurich have this underground art society with a lot of street wear designers. Mixing both of those worlds together inspired the brand. I always say that I’m very Saudi, but also very European. In my designs, I’m always trying to mix Saudi heritage with cool underground street culture, e.g. I used to design abayas, with a modernized twist. And that’s how all Saudi girls dress when they travel, even if they are conservative and covered. I wanted to create a brand that speaks of edgy, modern, urban business women that can be from Saudi or Europe.
-How do your parents and family inspire your career?
I must say the biggest influence in my life and fashion is my family. My grandma is a very inspiring person, she’s Lebanese and moved to Saudi when she married my grandfather. Even now she’s so chic! When you see her in her house, sitting in an antique chair, smoking shisha, wearing her silk pajamas with her hair always done, she’s like a piece of art herself. My dad is an impeccable suit dresser. He always had his suits made by Italian tailors. My mother is a painter, she loves vintage clothes… It’s very inspiring to look at their photos from 70s and 80s era.
-Were they supportive of you making a career switch from banking to design?
My dad preferred me to work in financial business, so I studied finance. Meanwhile I worked on my fashion blog that focused on trends and street wear. Once I worked in a bank for a while I realized I needed a creative outlet.
-Who is your style icon?
I love Audrey Hepburn! I adore watching her movies, the way she dressed and spoke. My mum and grandmother are huge style influencers in my life. My mum always gives me some of best advice when it comes to my brand. Before I launch a collection, my mum has to approve it. She’s an eclectic and eccentric artist, so she understands how to mix colors and work with prints. She doesn’t like me to be safe with my designs. She’s not shy with colors, she’s very fearless when it comes to creative aspects. She is a constant source of reminder to take those fashion risks. She appreciates it when I go all out and put every emotion, every idea I have into the collection.
-You recently launched a collaboration with Adidas. How did this idea come about?
Adidas is a brand I’ve always looked up to. Ever since I was in high school, I was obsessed with their ads. It’s a brand that empowers kids and youth. It was my dream to collaborate with them. I met the team here in Design District, and D3 played a huge role in connecting us. The Adidas original team liked my last collection, the style and aesthetic and that’s how the collaboration happened.
-Do you play any sport?
Ever since I was 15 I used to play tennis. In Jeddah I used to play three times a week.
–What is your style statement and do you wear your own designs in everyday life?
I do wear my own clothes. I don’t shop that much. I’ve done six seasons now, we have suits, pajamas and some elegant outfits as well. I’m always in my clothes, and I also love vintage! E.g. my dad has a collection of Gianni Versace from 90s and I love it!
-What does “being different” mean to you?
“Being different” is being yourself. Sometimes there is a social pressure; sometimes you have to be someone you are not. I even notice it with women who ask me for styling tips. I stress: Don’t try to be someone else, don’t wear clothes that make you feel uncomfortable. And you don’t have to show too much skin! A beautiful woman to me is one, who is intellectual.
-What is one thing you would never wear?
Never say never! You change your mind so often… But I despise the sheer dress trend.
-How do you usually start your day?
I always say there are two ways to start the morning, either you dance or you laugh. It has to be one of those! When I wake up, I have to watch an episode of ‘Friends’, ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘Will & Grace’ with my coffee or I put salsa music on and dance in the bathroom. I love salsa! I even took a few salsa classes in Jeddah!
-What is your ideal weekend? Any favorite places in Dubai?
My weekends are very chilled out. I love to relax at home, invite some friends and order some nice food. I’m a big foodie and I love Chinese food. Royal China is one of my favorites. And Miss Lilly’s is a really cool spot. I know almost everyone when I go there.
-What is the last thing you regret buying?
I bought these Christian Louboutin shoes convincing myself I can wear 15 cm heels. I love Louboutin and I always go for 10 cm heels, but these shoes looked so beautiful! The second time I wore them when I went out, I tripped! So I put them on the shelf like a piece of art, hopefully one day I’ll give them to my daughter, but I can’t wear them anymore. Khallas!;)
-Can you describe the woman you are designing for? Do you have anyone in mind while working on the collection?
I’m designing for the “woman of now”, “woman of today”. I ask myself: what does she do? She is about 25-30 years old. She’s building a career, networking. I don’t believe a woman should be equal to man, and that’s also the story behind the brand. I don’t like when women think: “Because I have to be in a position of power, I have to look like a man”. It doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive, raise your voice. I like a woman to be a woman, to look like a woman. Be a woman of power, enjoy being a woman, enjoy your body, your hair, your face, take care of yourself!
But I do believe in equal rights amongst man and woman – in everything: in the house between husband and wife, raising children together… We have different powers, it’s in our DNA. For instance women have the sixth sense, men don’t have it, and that’s the power that God gave us. We are more intuitive, men can be more organized.
My inspiration is always life, the society. E.g. in my collection with Adidas I paired an evening dress with sneakers, because that’s where the society is now. If we look back 5 years ago, if you wore sneakers to the restaurant – here in DIFC or in Paris, they would say: “No, sorry, you are not allowed to come in sneakers”. Now it’s different! Sneakers are something cool, that’s what people wear now, even men – they can wear sneakers with the suit. So making a collection is about capturing that social state of mind.
-If not clothes, what would you love to design?
I’d love to design hats. I love them, I have a collection of hats at home and always take some with me when I travel! Furniture is also something I would love to get into one day. I’ve designed my showroom, even the table here… One of the most inspiring cities for me is New York and I love the style of this city.… So I wanted to keep this industrial, raw style here. I love flowers, plants… I love art, so I have some pieces here. By brother is an artist, so I have his painting in my showroom. I’m sure he’ll have big future. Another painting I have is of my friend Abdullah Qandeel. He’s also very talented and inspires me.
-What is the single best piece of financial and fashion advice you can give?
Don’t crowd your wardrobe! Invest in something that is timeless, something you could pass down to your daughter one day. And yes- I’m still good in the financial aspects of the business!;) What I always recommend, even when my younger cousin who just graduated asks me: “What shall I do now?” I say: “Get a job!” Don’t even think. Just take the first step, get the first job. You have to know what it feels like to work hard and get a salary at the end of the month; you need to go through this in your life. Even if your family supports you, you have to know how it feels. You will learn a lot from the people around you, and you get to understand: “this money is earned by my hard work, I made this”.
Follow Arwa @arwaalbanawi