Effa Al Dabbagh is the Creative Director of her eponymous label. Born in Saudi Arabia, Effa graduated with a BA (Hons) in Fashion from the UK. Her rich cultural heritage, coupled with her career as a brand manager and fashion buyer, working with internationally acclaimed brands such as Christian Lacroix, Valentino and Lanvin, greatly influenced her brand and collections. Effa Al Dabbagh understands quality, luxury and craftsmanship.
Where are you originally from?
I was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, my family originates from Makkah, and I was raised and educated in the UK before moving to Dubai where I am now based.
How did it all start, your journey, are you self-taught or did you study design?
It started with my love for art and my appreciation for fashion. As a young girl I used to sit and sketch in my room for hours on end. I then went on to study fashion formally and gained my BA (Hons) degree from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design in the UK.
What’s your earliest memory of designing?
I used to sketch dresses for my dolls, probably starting the age of 8 or 9 and I even remember sending the sketches to the doll company ‘Sindy’. I even received a thank you letter from them which encouraged me to do more! The first design that was actually made was the bridesmaid dress for my sisters wedding. We were 6 girls dressed identically in my design. I was 11 years old at the time.
How would you describe your signature and style, as brand and as a an individual, are they similar?
Yes, they are very similar; I don’t think that there is anything from my collection that I wouldn’t wear. My style is all about elegance and femininity, beautiful cuts and attention to details.
Describe your brands, Abaya’s (Abaya’s are long sleeve and long length beautiful loose garments worn by Muslim women) and Ready to Wear?
We have Abaya Couture which is our mainline of special occasion Abayas, these are made using very special fabrics, embellishments and details. Our Miss Effa diffusion line of Abaya’s is more contemporary and urban in its aesthetic and the pieces are both versatile and elegant for daily use. We also have our collection of Ready to Wear which is focused on evening wear and contemporary modest wear. Our Miss Effa Luxury Kidswear is a collection of special occasion dresses for little girls that want to be like mummy. Lastly we also have a range of turbans and coloured scarves that accessorise our collections.
Beautiful Abaya Collection AW/16/17
Miss Effa Luxury Kidswear
Has your heritage influenced your work?
Mostdefinitely, although I lived the first half of my life in the UK, so there is also European influence in the Effa aesthetic, there is also a strong influence from my Middle Eastern culture and my understanding of the lifestyle of the modern Arab woman. My love of colour embellishments and glamour comes from my heritage.
Has your work evolved over the years or is your signature still the same?
It has definitely evolved, as individuals we grow and develop with time and this is reflected in our work, however certain values of the brand will always stay the same. Our brand values are, Elegance, Quality, Beauty, Women’s Empowerment, and Heritage. There are also certain signature elements that you will find in each collection such as lace, pearls, our signature feminine cuts and certain colours that we frequently use.
Gorgeous Abaya from the AW16/17 Collection
Was it easy to start your business, and how and when did you start it?
I always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, I actually new I wanted to be a business woman before I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer. I started in 2007 with a small collection of blouses, and the collection sold out, I grew the business and developed the collections gradually, opening my total concept boutique in 2011 in Dubai, UAE.
What was the first piece you ever made, do you still have it? The first piece I ever made was the brides maid dress. It was made of pure silk taffeta and trimmed with lace. I still have it.
What is your favourite piece you ever designed?
It’s hard to choose a favourite, but each season there is always one Abaya that I cant stop wearing. This season it’s our trench style Abaya in taupe that I’m loving!
Trench Abaya AW16/17 WE LOVE
What inspires you and has inspired you all your life, do you have a muse, a book, a person?
I’m incredibly inspired by nature especially gardens and flowers, and I also love to look at historical buildings and places. I have a passion for beauty and beautifully made things, this could be a vintage French chair, and fine bone china tea set, or an exquisite piece of jewellery. I love visiting old palaces and museums that are filled with beautiful artefacts.
How does your process start for each collection?
I start with my theme or source of inspiration, sometimes this comes to me spontaneously and sometimes it comes through research. After which we work on the mood board, colour pallet and the we start sourcing fabrics. After that I start the sketching process. For a collection of 25 pieces, I may do 50 or more sketches and then I choose the best ones for sampling. The whole process takes up to 3 months.
Effa’s inspiration comes from nature
How long does it take to make each piece?
Once the sketch is done, we decide on the fabric and details including the way it will be cut, the finishing, buttons trims etc. After that we make a paper pattern and we start making the first sample. If we are making a new cut or silhouette we will sample the design in an inexpensive fabric to see how the piece falls and how the fit is. After we are satisfied with the pattern we will go ahead with the final sample in the actual fabric. I’m involved in the whole process and do fittings throughout. Through this process we fine tune the design until it is perfect. The whole process for each design can take from 3-4 days up to a week.
Effa in her studio, the design process takes up to 3 months
Where are your beautiful collections sold?
In Dubai I sell at my boutique EFFA In Palm Strip Shopping Mall and also in USH Boutique, Be You Boutique, Ginger and Lace, Red Carpet in Galleries Lafayette. I also sell in House of Fraser, Abu Dhabi, Boutique Muscat in Oman, and I Love Hishma in Jeddah. Our Kids collection is in Level Kids in Dubai.
Effa’s boutique in Dubai representing a luxury product and experience
What is distinctive about both your brands, your USP?
It is our unique elegant style and a combination of high quality and attention to details. My goal is for the woman to feel confident and beautiful from the inside out when she puts an EFFA piece on.
Who is your ideal women?
She is sophisticated, empowered and confident, she is often very successful in her career and has an appreciation for refined elegance and quality.
What have the challenges been in your career, past and present?
Challenges are there in every business, one of the challenges I face is finding reliable suppliers in an industry that is still young in Dubai. Intellectual property is also a challenge as there is not much awareness when it comes to IP rights in the region and we have faced several issues with our brand and designs being copied.
How do you juggle creative and business?
It can be a challenge! Its difficult to switch from right brain to left brain constantly. I have learned to design only when I’m feeling inspired. If I feel blocked creatively, then I take a break and do something else. Sometimes I might even travel for a few days, which refreshes my mind and gets the creativity flowing.
Do you think the industry has become easier or more challenging to get your brand recognised?
I think there has become a saturation of the market with thousands of designers, and with globalization leading stores and boutiques are choosing established big brands over independent brands, however on the flip side with social media and the internet it is much easier to get exposure for your brand than say 10 years ago.
How easy has it been building your brand and getting support?
It can be difficult when you are managing a business on your own, but I highly recommend finding a mentor. I have been blessed with an amazing mentor Asil Attar, co-founder for SALT, this has been an amazing source of support and encouragement for me over the past few years.
Effa receiving her award in 2014: Named one of the ‘Top 100 Leaders Inspiring A Kingdom – Saudi Arabia’s Entrepreneurial Elite’ by Forbes Middle East.
What would your ideal position be within your business?
Creative director, at the moment I wear two hats, the creative hat and the management hat. I have to manage tasks such as accounting and HR and financial management. There are areas that I would like to eventually hand over to a General Manager.
How does your day start and finish?
I wake up before dawn for morning prayers and then I usually go back to sleep for another hour or two before starting my day. I might check my emails over my morning tea after which I will go to my studio where my office is. There I work on my designs amongst other things. Sometimes I might take a break during the day and sit and do some work in a café, or simply enjoy a good cup of coffee whilst go through a magazine. I’m usually finished from work by 6 or 7pm. In my free time I enjoy attending events, fine dining and just spending time with family and friends.
Looking back would you have done anything different?
Not one thing, everything including the failures have been learning experiences and the brand wouldn’t be what it is today without them.
What would you do other than this and why?
If I wasn’t a fashion designer I would be in the jewellery industry or own a café. I have a passion for food and cakes. These are things that I hope to pursue in the future.
What would you say to someone who is just starting on their passion?
Follow your passion, and stick with it. Persistence is key, but also be open to opportunities that may not necessarily be part of your plan. You never know where your success lies, and stubbornly sticking to one plan may actually deprive you of other opportunities.
What does the future hold for you, your brand, new categories, new markets?
My goal is to expand with franchise concepts across the GCC. I believe the brand has something unique to offer and this is the right time for this step.
What is your greatest accomplishment? I think starting this business and growing it on my own with very limited resources and capital. That makes me proud.
Ready to Wear vs Couture, please give, your thoughts challenges and preference?
I believe in quality and enjoy luxury. My aim is to create a beautiful, unique and refined product that is handmade in an ethical and happy working environment, and that comes with a certain cost. My Abaya Couture clients enjoy this luxurious product and made to measure service. However, offering luxury that is accessible to a wider group of people is also important to me, and that is one of the reasons I introduced the MISS EFFA diffusion line of Abaya’s. Also peoples dressing habits are changing and the same customer might buy Abaya couture pieces for her nights out and special occasions and she might choose the understated MISS EFFA Abaya’s for other occasions.
You are known for your beautiful Abaya’s, is that something you are now going to focus more on and why do you think that you have been so successful in that?
Yes, I love designing Abaya’s and its always exciting for me to challenge the stereotype of what it means to be an Abaya. I believe what I have offered the Abaya world a quality product that is truly luxurious, elegant and modern with a European edge. I was one of the first designers to introduce different cuts and the belted Abaya in 2007, and I think that my consistency in terms of style and quality plus the careful balance between pushing the boundaries and respecting tradition is something that keeps me at the top of my game.
To know more about Effa Al Dabbagh’s brands and to buy her collections, please go to www.effa.ae