Laila, you grew up in Morocco, then you moved to Washington DC. Now you live for 12 years in New York City and created your own fashion label. Why New York? What do you like about New York?
Laila: I knew I wanted to live in New York since I was a teenager. I grew up in a sheltered environment, both in Rabat, Morocco and Washington DC. By the time I was in college in Montreal, I was longing to live in a city where I could forge my own path, relying solely on my skills and motivation, and where one can never dream too big.
I love New York because it brings together people of widely different backgrounds who aspire to be the best in the world in their individual fields. The energy of this city continues to fuel my creativity and my passion to this day.
Why did you choose to become a designer? What makes your fashion special? How and where do you produce?
Laila: In college (McGill University, Montreal), I studied biology and business management. I wasn’t too sure where I was going with that until I took Business Strategy. I loved this class because I was able to be rational and creative at the same time. It was then that I realized that I wanted to run my own business. After a little soul searching, I decided on a fashion line.
What makes my fashion special is that it is completely tied to my personal tastes, and each collection is in essence a visual representation of my state of mind at the moment that I’m designing it. The process is therapeutic in that it really makes me think of what I am visually attracted to, and why.
I produce the small runs in New York, in the Garment District and the large runs in China. When I introduce a style, I usually start off with a small run to test it out. If it performs well at retail I may recut it in China. I work with wonderful factories with whom I’ve developed trusting relationships and that I depend on heavily during the production process.
What were the biggest obstacles you encountered? Did you ever think about giving up?
Laila: Yes, I have thought of giving up several times, but I think that’s just part of being an entrepreneur. Persistence is key.
One of the biggest obstacles has been to reach an audience that is constantly bombarded with ads from large fashion companies that have huge marketing budgets. It continues to be a challenge, but the advent of social media has allowed small brands like mine to carve out their own niches and maintain a following.
New York is one of the hot spots for fashion and beauty.How New York is different from other fashion cities, like Paris, Milan?
Laila: What is wonderful about New York is that the consumer is very open to try out new brands. New Yorkers love wearing something unique that no one else has. They are less brand loyal than Paris or Milan, and women are more willing to take risks and look unique.
The world loves Indian history, culture, food and also fashion. Sarees are very famous everywhere, however they did not conquer yet Paris, London, Milan or New York. What does it need to make Indian fashion fashionable outside of the Indian hemisphere?
Laila: I think that Indian culture has had and will continue to have a very strong impact on fashion, particularly women fashion. There is an abundance of textures and patterns that designers often draw inspiration from. I think one way of modernizing the Sarees is to think about what makes it so popular, and how those things relate to other parts of the world. Is it ease of wear, or does it enhance a woman’s sense of femininity to drape these luxurious fabrics on herself? What does that mean for a woman in New York or Paris?
Did you ever encounter anything that was targeted to you being a woman?
Laila: In business, no, not that I can recall. Or at least I didn’t notice it.
How can fashion affect people’s lives? How did it affect your life?
Laila: Fashion impacts peoples lives the same way anything beautiful impacts peoples lives. Each person has their own biases and perceptions when it comes to beauty, and one needs to open themselves up emotionally to let their senses guide them towards what they find visually appealing. Developing an individual sense of style that embodies the essence of who the person is can be an incredible experience of self-awareness and healing.
I feel empowered and confident when I feel that I’m presenting myself visually in a way that enhances who I am inside.
How do you think New York defines beauty? How do you let along with it? What is beauty for you?
Laila: I think of beauty as any stimulus that has a positive or soothing impact on my emotional state. The beauty of New York lies in its diversity of cultural references, a bold authenticity, and the willingness to be unique and take risks.
If you wear to pick a brand you want to work for as a designer – which one would it be, why, and what department would you like to work in?
Laila: I would probably opt to work for a brand that has a strong unique identity, one that is very different from my brand. It could be Isabel Marant for example, with its eclectic bohemian aesthetic contrasting with my clean minimalistic point of view. I think it would be an enriching experience for me to explore the bohemian, carefree version of myself. I would work in the design department.
If you had three wishes, what would that be?
Laila: Beyond the obvious non pragmatic wishes ( world peace, socio-economical justice, save the planet), the things that I want to achieve are:
Achieve a work life balance that allows me to have a flexible schedule, not be tied to a particular location, while continuing to be inspired and produce things that people will love.
Expanding into other product categories, perhaps in the technology field.
Have a positive impact by empowering other entrepreneurs to find their own path and giving them tools to make their dreams a reality.
What is something you would like to share with women and girls, young entrepreneurs?
Laila: Be a dreamer, and don’t let anyone deter you from pursuing these dreams. Take small risks and build on each success. If you have an idea for a product or service, test it out by making a first prototype, gauge the reaction, and then improve. Big dreams are achieved with small steps.
Is there a difference between being a female or a male entrepreneur?
Not being a male entrepreneur, it is hard to answer. Based on my experience with how men can have more difficulty with dealing with their emotions, I would say a female entrepreneur will rely more heavily on intuition. And we’re probably more patient.
Is there anything else you want to share with the audience at WomenNow.in?
Laila: India has one of the richest cultural heritages in the world. It is also becoming one of the largest consumer markets in the world. So many designers in the USA and Europe are tapping into this cultural richness with Indian inspired products. If I were an Indian woman designer, I would look inwards and think about what I want to communicate about myself through my clothes or accessories that is not available in the market. If it’s something unique and that really draws on a deep intrinsic feeling, then chances are millions of other women will relate to it as well. You are better positioned than anyone from other parts of the world to make things that appeal to this massive market. Take advantage of it and make something.
Check out fashion designer Laila Azhar’s website here: http://www.lailaazhar.com/