A Conversation with Alaa Balkhy on Conscious Creation

by Haneen AlEid

In her iconic illustration ‘Baba, I want a Birkin,’ Alaa Balkhy seamlessly weaves local and pop culture. The Jeddah and New York-based serial entrepreneur has achieved massive success as a leading Saudi Cultural Consultant, Art Director, Illustrator and Fashion Designer.  As someone who notoriously encourages her hundred thousand followers to go vintage, local and sustainable, we gain insight into what inspires her during the creative process and what it really means to positively contribute. She unfolds exactly what makes a purchase valuable, why we should chase stories, Arab inclusivity and the importance of community.

Nour Magazine: Your luxury slow-fashion label, Alaa bint Hashim, was established in 2019. You called this launch AN ODE TO JEDDAH, your birth city in Saudi Arabia. Has this always been your source of inspiration during the creative process?

Alaa Balkhy: Jeddah? Yes. The thing is, my interests are more branding related than the actual fashion part of it. Even though for me, fashion is fascinating, it’s all about storytelling and that’s why brands create campaigns and editorials. So, it was always a story about Jeddah and the visual branding. I really wanted to see something that is like ‘Alaa Hashim’ with ‘Establishment in Jeddah’ under it, I think that was important to me.

NM: The Alaa bint Hashim AW’20/21 Fashion Story was ‘Fish Out Of Water.’ What inspired this collection?

AB: Definitely the Red Sea. Jeddah is called ‘The Bride of the Red Sea.’ There are also many great fashion designers in Jeddah. The products we come up with are not only fashion-related and we collaborate a lot with other people. So, I think we’re more than just a fashion label, we’re more of a design studio. After seeing it grow and seeing all the design projects we’re doing, I think we’re not just designing a collection; maybe what we’re doing is finding people that share the same ethos and working with them. And that’s what we did with some of our purses that have not launched yet, chandelier purses, with women from AlUla and are literally hand beaded. We just pick up what’s visually pleasing. For example, we decided we want to do gloves and that picked up because it’s visually so beautiful. We don’t have stock- when people order them we make it and when we feel like we wanna make it we make it. It’s more ‘made to order.’

NM: You have made many cultural references throughout your collections. Your recent black Eid dress incorporates palm trees and embroidered dates. You’ve also created coats that double as abayas and light summer gloves illustrating images of the Red Sea like angelfish and black cods (a tribute to the rich marine life in Jeddah). Do you think it’s necessary for local fashion labels, especially in the Middle East, to embrace traditional Arab identities and symbolism in modern fashion?

AB: I think it’s so important. Again, it’s the story. You can create something that has so much value but people don’t know what it is or what’s the point. People don’t know that this took 30 hours to embroider or this is a specific type of fabric that you can only find in this specific region or city that’s in Syria. People know the value of things because of the story. That’s why museums are valuable- the way they explain artefacts. Otherwise, it’s a vessel…Yay… And then what? But then when you’re like, ‘this is from 1000 BC,’ you’re like, ‘wow!’

NM: What message do you hope your designs communicate to the global market and to the consumer?

AB: I just want them to feel joy and appreciation and see the value in it. It’s definitely a collectable. I’m never gonna say ‘it’s a must have’ or ‘in season’ or ‘on-trend.’ It’s just something really nice, created with so much thought and made slowly with heart. Real. The black and white dresses that we did took so much time. When people acquire these pieces, it’s not a fast purchase. I don’t want people to buy it quickly, wear it, and throw it out quickly. I want them to consciously buy it, consciously acquire it and then keep it forever. There’s so much emotion that goes into it because it really is a part of me.

NM: Your garments are produced in Jeddah by an all-women team. What other initiatives have you taken to stay true to your values/roots?AB: It is made in Saudi but not made by Saudis. The whole garment production industry in Saudi is not factory based it’s more workshop based. It is made by an amazing group of women. The thing is, for me, this should be normal- you treat the people that work for you well- basically, you treat them like humans. Whoever you hire gets paid well, gets vacation, no ones working for you 24 hours a day. You have to know who these people are, their names and aspirations because, at the end of the day, they’re helping you create. For example, my tailor has been working with me for 9/10 years now. Thinking now, it’s crazy. It’s like we’re family and were the same age so when we talk they’re like ‘Alaa you’re my sister’ and I’m like ‘I am your sister.’ To me, it’s just important. These people that are creating this work for us, it’s important to value them. That’s a given so `I don’t want to be accounted for something that’s supposed to happen. This is natural.

NM: You came up with Minnana, an Arabic podcast that gives women the opportunity to communicate freely. You’re also the force behind a game-changing global database of Arab creatives (The Arab Directory). Why did you feel it was important to personally take responsibility and provide a platform for Arabs? 

AB: The Arab creative directory happened last summer when social media was on fire- especially in America. And everyone was looking within their own circles in their own industries. Within our own industry, we always look towards the West. There’s always an ‘oh, she studied in America’ or ‘ This person is Western educated’ so they must be better. Or this person speaks better English so they must know better. We just weren’t represented enough and the excuse was that there aren’t enough Arab creatives or Arab photographers. And I was like ‘No way the isn’t’ and I just started a Google Sheet. People filled it- not me. And I just feel like it’s important not to be apologetic about who you are and where you come from. 

I think everyone is doing their part. There’s a collective conversation. It’s me and like 3000 others fighting for their own community to be represented. So whether it’s for me at 32 or someone at age 18, they’re like oh wow this person looks like us, this cartoon looks like us, this cartoon speak like us, this brand has visuals that I can relate to as opposed to something being unattainable because it’s so white or western. Or, I feel like I don’t deserve this because it’s not for me- but you deserve everything.

NM: You’ve collaborated with various brands, ranging from Netflix to Cartier. As an acclaimed Saudi woman creative based in both New York and Jeddah, what advice would you give to rising Arab creatives?

AB: I can tell you the cheesy thing like ‘Be yourself,’  but just connect with the people that share the same dreams and values. You never realize how important it is to have a community. Also having a community outside of your circle which social media has helped create. With social media, we can create circles in other places in the world with people that share the same values, ambitions, and dreams. Platforms act like a window to each other. We can say, ‘Hey, I love what you do, I think it’s very cool, let’s connect.’ It’s all about connecting and finding your community and collaboration is also so important. 

NM: Is there anything else you’d like to add to say before we conclude? 

I just think now is our time. Wallah, there’s so much. Everything we create now is touching history. Everything. And it’s crazy to think that you can create something new, whatever it is- a podcast, video, film and in 10 years it’s going to be so much more valuable. So I think just create it- whatever it is, just create it. Communicate it to the world, just do it! For example, in our podcast, MINNANA, even though now it’s a year old, so much has changed, especially in Saudi, for women in Saudi, and in the arts and fashion scene. Everything we do now, we’re archiving. And that’s so important because we, as Saudi women and Arab women, don’t have a lot of archives. We don’t have a lot of images in the public domain of what life was or what we used to do or sketches or poems. Of course, there is some, but not nearly enough. We’re just starting to document and archive instead of just being here. 

NM: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I really enjoyed this!

AB: No, thank you!