Modern life means facing decisions again and again. From how to address a problem at work to what to wear, the need to check yes or no is never-ending. Most choices are of the humdrum variety, but some forever change everything that comes after.
Abeer Al Otaiba became an engineer because she didn't want to disappoint her family. "I always knew that when I grew up, I was going to be an engineer because my mom is an engineer, my dad is an engineer, my uncles are engineers..." she recalled, remembering that as a child growing up in Egypt and attending school in France, she didn't have a dream job as much as a strong desire to do something, achieve something. "I was studying engineering, but I knew, this is not it." Flash forward a few years and a trip to the paediatric surgeon was the moment in time that revealed the path she'd been looking for. Here, the SemSem founder and creative director's conversation with ELLE.
Were you always interested in fashion?
I've loved fashion since I was a little girl. My parents would go to Europe and come back with clothes for me that I'd alter and personalise. I'd wanted to study fashion, but I come from a family of engineers, and I didn't want to disappoint them. I studied civil engineering, and at the end of the day, the attention to detail, the high design quality, and the functionality are things I realised I could use in fashion.
What was the specific moment that made you decide to pursue a fashion career?
It's a difficult story to share, but thankfully one with a happy ending. Shortly after my daughter Samia was born, she required lung surgery. Handing my infant daughter to the surgeons is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Being a mother opened a piece of my heart I didn't know existed. My daughter Samia is without a doubt the inspiration behind SemSem, and though I've always been inspired by the special bond between mothers and daughters, Samia brought that inspiration to life. She is thriving today, but the experience encouraged me to speak up and give back in a whole new way. I became an advocate for women and children's issues, and it's my sincerest hope that I can be a voice for women around the world. We are powerful, especially when we work together. My father always reminded me that we are as strong as our collective voice, and therefore our singular intelligence is made even more impactful by building a phenomenal team. This is something that I take into account when building my business, as well as when I consider my impact on the world.
SemSem, [my daughter's nickname], came to be when I started thinking about what I wanted to wear and couldn't find anything in the market, [but] I also wanted to create something that had to do with my passion while also giving back. The whole thing was more about, "How can I use this to do something?" Every season we partner with a charity and a foundation. Gender equality, education for girls, working with women in Afghanistan and Madagascar...everything we do focuses on women and girls.
Once you decided to make the switch, how long did it take to get things off the ground?
It was a very lengthy process. After four collections, this is the one I'm finally proud of. This is what I've been trying to achieve over the past two years. The hardest part has been finding the right people. I'm based in DC, and I'm managing everything remotely: My staff is in New York, and my head of design is based in Paris. Trying to juggle everything and find people to depend on, that I can trust 100 percent to understand my vision and what I'm trying to achieve is the hardest part. I always follow my father's advice: You shouldn't have to be the smartest girl in the room, but you have to surround yourself with people who know what they're doing, and listen to them. It's what I try to do in my life in general. I surround myself with people who are experienced in whatever they're doing. I listen to them, and I learn from them.
What pieces from your engineering background do you use in the fashion world?
I love to create things, I love to build. When I have a project, everything starts on paper, and that's exactly how it happens in fashion. You start sketching, then there are buildings, houses, or a bridge in front of you. It offers a sense of fulfillment, and you see with your own eyes what you've been working on for months or years. An engineering project sometimes takes years. For me, the whole process from start to finish is very fulfilling.
As the woman behind a brand focused on female empowerment, how are you raising Samia to be strong?
What I try to do with both my son and daughter is focus on acts of kindness. Every day I say: "Tell me something kind you did at school today, something kind someone did for you today." My daughter is four, and I always encourage her to dream big. "What do you want to do when you grow up?" At this age, they all want to be princesses, but it's like, "No, that's not enough. You can be an engineer like Mommy or a lawyer or a doctor." Operating as a female civil engineer in the Arab world was challenging, but I am stronger person because of the path I chose.
SemSem's spring collection benefits Every Mother Counts