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The Sustainable Abaya Label You Need to Know About

Image courtesy of Aywa

Waqaas Ahmed grew up around a sewing machine. “My mother was a tailor so I was around clothes all the time,” recalls the London-based abaya designer. “In primary school, I was the only student who was able to sew a straight line with the sewing machine. But it wasn’t until secondary school when I really started gaining interest in fashion and making clothes,” he muses. He would go on to obtain his formal education at the London College of Fashion, where he learned tailoring, pattern cutting, garment manufacturing, and hand-sewing techniques.

It wasn’t until he moved to Dubai in 2010 that he discovered the ever-growing luxury market and consumer need for luxury abayas. He returned to London, where he honed his skills with stints at Burberry, Saint Laurent, and Dolce & Gabbana, before launching his own modest-wear label—a first in the United Kingdom.

Portrait of Waqaas Ahmed

Entitled “Aywa”—Egyptian slang for “yes”—Ahmed’s range of ethical and sustainable abayas was born out of necessity in 2015. “A few years ago, my sisters and friends were struggling to find something stylish and modest to wear for special occasions and weddings,” he explains. “The most you would find in England were black abayas with crystals on them. These were labeled as ‘from Dubai’ but were actually mass produced in China.” Thus, the designer began experimenting with different colors, prints, and fabrics that aren’t typically associated with the traditional abaya to clothe his sisters and their friends.

It wasn’t long until the pieces began to gain traction. “My abayas quickly started to get noticed and people would ask where they were from and were fascinated to learn that I was making them,” he recalls. “I started to get personal orders and a lot of women would leave the creativity to me. As more women asked me to make their abayas, I became very committed to creating something different and it made me feel like people loved my work.” Now, each piece ranges from AED 1,800 to 2,800 and can be purchased online.

His aim, he explains, is to “broaden the appeal of the abaya beyond its traditional markets.” Indeed, when you sift through an Aywa catalogue, you will be hard pressed to find minimal, black, floor-trailing styles. Instead, expect an eye-catching line-up of bold and vibrant designs that come in varying silhouettes and lengths. What makes the handcrafted pieces even more enticing is that each garment is ethically produced using organically sourced and sustainable materials.

“We love and prefer working with natural materials and friendly dyes, and not synthetics that can be harmful to the environment and the people who are processing them,” says Ahmed. “We want to actively make choices that ultimately make a difference to the world and the people within in it. If there is a choice, then we will make that choice. If there isn’t, then we will look at alternative ways. We are always learning new things and finding out interesting information as we go along.”

Below, catches up with Ahmed to discuss his design process, inspirations, what it’s like designing abayas for women as a man, and more.

As a man, how do you make sure that you are constantly aware of the needs of your female customers?
“I don’t believe gender plays a role in this. I wanted to create a dream for the women who wear my pieces. I came up with the idea of #AywaWoman, who is an independent thinker—she is sophisticated, stylish, and ageless. She loves beautiful things. All of our abayas are hand-crafted and one-off pieces, and I want women to feel elegant, fabulous, and confident when they wear our exclusive designs. I see my abayas to be timeless and desirable, which make you feel special whenever you wear them and I believe that is how everyone should feel.”

How did your time in Dubai shape your career today?
“Dubai was a very interesting and special time in my life, as this was the first time that I moved away from not just home, but also my country, my family, and friends. I learned a great deal of life skills from people that came from different cultures and all walks of life. I learnt determination, perseverance, and companionship, which I will always cherish and practice in my work ethics.”

Tell us about your design process.
“Once I get inspired by something, I will create a story in my head and visualize the details of the story. I will then start to do some research into what inspired me and create a moodboard. Fabric selection is a big part of of the process. Whilst selecting fabrics, I would also do my initial experimenting of mixing different prints and colors for certain designs and silhouettes that I would be thinking about for the collection. Sometimes I sketch, and quite often I don’t, as I like to let things come to me organically during the process. I then begin the sampling process, plan my patterns and start cutting the fabrics. Seeing my work come to life within my own hands is so rewarding as I physically create everything myself.”

Why is sustainability essential for your brand?
“I believe in making clothes that are beautiful and will last a lifetime. It is our responsibility as humans to look after the environment with whatever difference we can make. We need to take a moment and think about the impact of our decisions. It’s about being respectful and responsible of our choices.”

As an eco-conscious label, what are some of the some of the challenges that you face?
“I think that consumers are not always aware of the idea and ethos behind responsible clothing. They tend not to think about asking where their clothes come from and how they were made. We strive to tell our clients and followers about how our clothes are made and the people and processes behind them. One of the biggest challenges that we faced when we established the brand in 2015, was that we were using natural materials such as cottons and linens instead of synthetics, which were the traditional materials used for abayas. Our Middle Eastern clientele in particular considered our fabrics to be less breathable and heavier, not knowing the properties of natural fibres. At times, we need to educate our clients about technicalities of certain materials, which is also rewarding as we are passing on information, which people may not have known before.”

What message do you hope to convey through your designs?
“I love the idea of telling stories through my work. I want to promote and preserve traditional production methods and craftsmanship, and for my clients to acknowledge and appreciate the hard work that goes into creating luxury clothing that is also sustainable.”

What inspires you?
“I get inspired by anything, and particularly when I travel I am always admiring and absorbing everything around me. I designed an entire collection after we visited a cafe in Tangier in Morocco, and reworked traditional wood block-printed fabric sourced from artisans in Sindh in Pakistan, showcasing them through the abaya. I will always bring something back from my travels and connect it somewhere within my collection. I also love looking at historical costumes, art, and culture. It could be something as small as a piece of detail, to more complex research that I might do. I enjoy the idea of creating diversity within my work— bringing together modern, traditional, masculine, feminine. I love to mix things up and make them look beautiful.”

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