There are many hidden gems all over the world, trying to achieve, make a difference and turn dreams into reality. Arab Woman Mag had the pleasure of interviewing one of those gems; Sarah El Mahi; a Moroccan Fashion designer/Artist born in the Netherlands in the city of Rotterdam. She is an entrepreneur at heart who started her fashion label #URBANBIRDS. When she earned her BA degree in Fashion Design, she went on to earn a Master degree in Arts, Culture and Society at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. She has enjoyed a lot of success with her menswear collection #BacktomyRoots and #URBANBIRDS and got the chance to know many new places and faces in the fashion industry. From the nomination of Fashionclash shoe design challenge to the stage of theater of De Roma in Antwerp for her TedX Flanders presentation of the collection and the link to 50 years of Migration!
How do you see the difference in opportunities for women, comparing between Morocco and the Netherlands?
Well the differences in opportunities for women between Morocco and the Netherlands are very divided. If we talk about economical opportunism, than we can state that Europe has always been ahead in this area. Hence, the migration of people from all over the world to Europe, because of the work opportunities. But also the idea of “equal rights” between men and women. The main reason for the migration of Moroccan people to the Netherlands is the work opportunities after WOII; the first generation came here as guest workers and eventually brought their families to Europe and established their life here. This created a large globalized society with a great multidiversity in ethnicities, especially in the city of Rotterdam. But now we are in a shifting paradigm. The economical opportunism for women in Morocco is also on the rise. Due to many different rights for women according to the law. But I must say that it is a very hard task for a woman in Morocco to achieve successes that are very normal in the Netherlands. This could be because of education and financial matters but also the great difference in what is acceptable in culture.
What moved you towards fashion design?
I have been an artist my whole life. I started drawing from a very young age and it was very clear to me that I needed to do something with my art. I have always been passionate about fashion, and creating imagery that would end up on the catwalk. This became a medium within art to express myself but also to tell my story or start a dialogue in a non-traditional way. When I was sixteen I stared my study of becoming a tailor, a very technical education and when I finished this study I continued at the Willem de Kooning Academy the University of Arts in Rotterdam. It is here that I truly created my own signature and identity in my arts. This was also the starting point of my label #BacktomyRoots and #URBANBIRDS. I believe that education is everything. After WDKA I decided to continue my studies for my Master at the Erasmus University in Arts, Culture and Society.
How did you use your designs to bridge the gap between cultures?
I believe that I am a mutated form of the original. My parents are from Morocco and I am a proud Moroccan, but I am also Dutch. I myself am a hybridized entity of two cultures. So my way of expressing myself and both my cultures in my designs my collections, is by using that what is authentic to me, and those are my roots.
It is my mission to translate my vision to a new generation lost in old traditions within a new reality, to inspire ‘Urban Birds’ to take the flight back to their roots and understand that we are a new hybrid form of the original. The designs I make bridge the gap between cultures because they are a mix of East meets West.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
I find my inspiration from my Moroccan culture and Dutch Calvinistic way of thinking. Combined with many beautiful messages from Islam and nature. For example #URBANBIRDS is a menswear collection based on the MIGRATION story of our ancestors’ their ‘way to the North’. A journey from North Africa Morocco (Europe) to the Netherlands, Rotterdam, to be exact. #URBANBIRDS is partly inspired by the documentary ‘Earth flight ” where birds take their annual trip back to their roots. Which is also the link is to the Islamic moral, ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un‘ إنا لله وإنا إليه راجعون / from Surat al-Baqara 2: 156. “Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return “. This translated beautifully in the journey that birds make in their earth flight.
Will you consider bringing your designs to the Arab world?
Of course I am considering bringing my designs to the Arab world, it is here where it becomes full circle. I have already done this in Morocco the past two year and created a new imagery with the Dutch based designs with Moroccan mosaic prints in the city of Meknes Morocco. We photographed those in the old pales and mausoleum of Moulay Ismail with Moroccan models.
What are some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
There are some challenges I faced due to my choice for the “ethnic” story I want to tell with my designs during my study at the Willem de Kooning Academy University of Arts. It is a non-traditional in the culture of that institute and never been done before there. This is because it is a white dominated world within those walls. So my concepts were very new and confronting to them. In spite of the fact that I always portray a positive social message with my creations.
I got a lot of negative criticism during the presentation of my concepts/ designs. But alhamulilah after I finished my studies at the University of Arts and brought my collections to the real outside world I have gained so many positive reactions and opportunities! My way of facing adversity is by believing in my own story and contribution to society. I strongly believe that Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity 2:286.
What advice do you give girls who want to enter this field?
The advice I would like to give girls is to never give up on their studies, no matter the consequence of adversities. Because education will give you the power and tools to become what ever it is you want to become. This will only benefit you! And the advice for becoming a successful designer or artist is to truly stay firm in your beliefs and to really base your designs on good research. Enjoy the journey and not the end product. Because you will make a lot of mistakes, but you will have to cherish every step of the way to enjoy your final products! Never give up!
What do you hope to achieve in the future (dreams/goals)?
What I hope to achieve in the future is to create a platform of young urban birds all over the world. And to gain success with my collections of the #URBANBIRDS line worldwide, but to also contribute as an ambassador of migration linked to art and the dedication of stimulating education in a cross national way. Especially with the link to Morocco and the Arab world, as a Arab woman, Artist, Designer, Muslim and Scientist.
To find out more follow these links:
Youtube channel: Sarah Serranno