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
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