Afra, Ahad and Alia Bin Haidar, the sis­ters be­hind UAE de­sign la­bel Il­lus­trella, have made it their mis­sion to bring back the glamor of the 1940s, dis­cov­ers Lyn­d­sey Steven

Villa 88 - - Contents -

The sis­ters be­hind Il­lus­trella have made it their mis­sion to bring back the glamor of the 1940s

AFRA, AHAD AND ALIA BIN Haidar are all un­equiv­o­cally, unashamedly ro­man­tics at heart. Hav­ing grown up in the UAE watch­ing 1940s West­ern and Ara­bic films with their mother, they found them­selves com­pletely en­ticed by this quixotic era.

Con­sid­ered to be the golden age of Egyp­tian cin­ema, the 1940s to 1960s are punc­tu­ated by ma­jor his­tor­i­cal events. But what re­ally en­thralled the young sis­ters were the dresses worn by the ac­tresses – dresses that they, to­gether with their mother, would copy and make at their ate­lier at home.

A mile­stone decade for style, the 1940s was a trail­blazer for new sil­hou­ettes and

the sis­ters all agree that their souls be­long to this by­gone age. “Au­drey Hepburn, El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, Ava Gard­ner…” they gush with misty-eyed nos­tal­gia in their “of­fice slash ate­lier – a very mini show­room” at the Bin Sougat Cen­ter in Al Rashidiya.

“When we started Il­lus­trella, the beauty of the ’40s and ’50s was gone, so we de­cided that this brand would bring back the fem­i­nin­ity of those decades,” ex­plains Alia, who, armed with a ma­jor in PR man­age­ment from Zayed Uni­ver­sity, is Il­lus­trella’s PR and mar­ket­ing mas­ter­mind. All three are in­volved in the de­sign process, but each has her own niche. Afra was orig­i­nally an ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent, who de­cided to merge her ar­chi­tec­ture ideas into de­signs be­fore she moved to Es­mod for one year, where she won the prize for best de­sign. “The teach­ers were wowed by her,” says Alia, proudly. “At the end of the year, she said, ‘ Why not? Let’s start our own line.’”

Ahad grad­u­ated from fash­ion school in Dubai. “I would say she was the first Emi­rati who stud­ied fash­ion,” says Afra. “I grad­u­ated in 2004,” re­calls Ahad, swiftly in­ter­rupted by Alia with peals of laugh­ter: “It was 2003, be­cause I got mar­ried in 2004!”

Vis­its to Il­lus­trella are by ap­point­ment only. The brand caters to “ladies [who are] strong enough to pull off our de­signs – from all back­grounds and cul­tures,” Alia says. “This is not an Emi­rati brand that caters ( just) to Emi­ratis. There are no rules.”

Work­ing on three seg­ments – ready to wear, ready cou­ture and abayas – Alia in­sists this is not some­thing that can be found any­where else in the lo­cal mar­ket. “As you know, there are not many lo­cal de­sign­ers who have this range that they ac­tu­ally [cre­ate] them­selves. Usu­ally, they are maisons that have de­sign­ers un­der them. Here, the three of us work hand-in-hand do­ing ev­ery­thing.”

By ‘ev­ery­thing’, she means the de­sign process all the way to the work­shop and ev­ery de­tail in be­tween. “We look into each thread that is used. If we find some­thing we don’t like, we’ll open up the piece and do it again. We’re talk­ing about qual­ity con­trol, be­cause this is not a mass mar­ket brand.”

It’s an ethos and a strat­egy that has paid off. Il­lus­trella – a com­bi­na­tion of the words ‘il­lus­tra­tion’ and ‘sorella’, which means ‘sis­ters’ in Ital­ian – has only been around for two and a half years and has al­ready caught the at­ten­tion of the Mid­dle East’s pre­mier lux­ury web­site, Ou­nass, on which Il­lus­trella launched their abayas last July. “They were look­ing for lo­cal de­sign­ers,” Alia says. “We had some peo­ple speak­ing to them, and they came to look at the col­lec­tion and showed a lot of love for it!”

While they’re un­der no il­lu­sion that op­por­tu­ni­ties like this don’t come by ev­ery day, the sis­ters are not scared to back them­selves, with Alia point­ing out: “Those run­ning Ou­nass iden­ti­fied some­thing dif­fer­ent in us – they be­lieved in the beauty of the brand.”

It’s no se­cret that one needs grit, stamina and self-be­lief to sur­vive in a fickle in­dus­try that can spit you out as quickly

as it wel­comed you in. Luck­ily for Il­lus­trella, Alia’s elo­quent pre­sen­ta­tion of – and be­lief in – the brand; Afra’s pas­sion­ate cre­ativ­ity, which lends the la­bel a dra­matic, Ital­ian qual­ity; and Ahad’s steely ded­i­ca­tion (she even made her own wed­ding dress from scratch) mean they’re here for the long haul.

They’re not afraid to set their sights high either, con­fi­dently drop­ping their name along­side the world’s great­est lux­ury brands. “We’d love to col­lab­o­rate with Dior. Peo­ple of­ten say our dresses re­mind them of Dior. When they look at pic­tures of our col­lec­tions and see the lines, the moods of the frames, the flow­ers, the can­dles, the chan­de­liers, they [clients] com­ment that this brand feels like it’s tak­ing a Dior path…”

One of their proud­est mo­ments was when Mila Litv­in­jenko, founder and direc­tor of Ser­bia’s Aura Cos­met­ics Com­pany, chose one of their gowns – a gor­geous off-theshoul­der black vel­vet bodice with a gra­di­ent color full tulle skirt – for a gala din­ner in Monte Carlo. “She had a Dior dress lined up, but she chose ours in­stead. She loves it so much she re­cently wore it again to the Elle style awards in Bel­grade.” “Yes, we al­ways com­pare our­selves to big brands! We have big dreams,” laughs Alia.

Afra, who Ahad says has de­signs lined up for the next five years, agrees. “Some­times I lock my­self in my room for a week to de­sign. Alia nags me to so­cial­ize, to meet clients and cus­tomers. I say: ‘For­get about me. Think of me as Gianni Ver­sace and you go as Donatella!’” @il­lus­trella

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