I love shopping for a dress for a special occasion - the event just seems more fun because I’m wearing a new dress, but I’ll wear that dress over and over again just creating more memories. I don’t really like the idea of wearing something just once, so why would I wear a wedding dress only once? Quite a few brides seem to be thinking the same thing. I recently caught up with Sabina Ali, Creative Director at Motasem to discuss wedding dresses, branding and finding your niche market.
1. Talk us through your fashion CV
SA - I studied Textile and Knitwear at DeMontfort University and went on to work in design and production for Naf Naf, Jigsaw, Marks & Spencer and Virgin Clothing, including a stint at Condé Nast Publications, Channel 4 and on numerous projects as a fashion stylist. I decided on a change of direction, developing my graphic design skills, and worked at Lehman Brothers and Hill & Knowlton, where I became aware of the great importance of branding and finance.
2. What or who inspires you?
SA - I’ve always been interested in fashion and harboured dreams of one day running my own business. As a child I was making dresses and as a teenager I was making clothes for friends at college. I love timeless elegance with a bit of edge and am passionate about creating flattering clothes for women to make them feel sexy and comfortable. But it stayed just that, a dream for many years until I started making cocktail dresses. Dresses are so practical and instantly stylish. Every woman should have several ‘go anywhere, everywhere’ dresses in their wardrobes!
3. How did you create your business?
SA - In 2005, I was asked to design a cocktail style wedding dress, which became a huge hit and other orders quickly followed. There was clearly a gap in the market and the idea for Motasem was born. The ‘wear-once’ wedding dress seemed so extravagant and wasteful. I started working on a collection of dresses which would be versatile enough for a glamorous wedding and for a chic party after the honeymoon. I began spending all my spare time developing the fashion line. Before my day as a graphic designer in the city, I would see factories, pattern cutters and machinists. Evenings and weekends were spent running the business. Enquiries for Motasem’s high quality, cocktail-style wedding dresses began to flood in. Everyone liked the fact you could wear the dresses again. I had to make the difficult decision to leave my full-time job in May 2008 and haven’t looked back since.
4. Where do you produce your garments?
SA - Everything is made in the UK through factories and machinists and I have a fantastic team in place. Dresses can be bought online or through appointments at the London showroom off Brick Lane. Brides can alter their dresses to fit.
5. What is the hardest part about starting a fashion business?
SA - The hardest part is being patient! It takes time to develop the right product that would appeal to your market. The most effective way is to not spend too long perfecting products and instead get them out in the marketplace to get feedback from customers. Keep going back to the drawing board again and again. You’ll know when the formula is right, because you’ll start selling. It can take a lot of money to do this, so working two jobs is sometimes necessary, and I found this to be one of the hardest things to manage. You need nerves of steel and learn to enjoy the rollercoaster ride.
6. How are you finding business in the current economic climate?
SA - I am doing very well, the timing is perfect for brides looking for a stylish, affordable wedding dress. Grooms have always bought suits they could wear again and in the past 4 months brides have been buying my dresses for the same reason. The numbers of civil ceremonies/non-traditional weddings, weddings abroad and 2nd, 3rd and 4th weddings are on the increase, which is also helping sales. The timeless, understated style of the dresses appeals to a wide clientele. The Motasem woman could be a 25-year-old bride looking for a dress she can wear again or a 45+ lady looking for a classy, modern dress she can wear to a business meeting or her daughter’s wedding.
7. How has having a background in design and marketing influenced your work?
SA - It has been invaluable to be able to tap into my experience as a graphic designer as well as fashion. During start up I was able to save a lot of money and understood the importance of branding, which I find is much more significant during the economic downturn. I find it fascinating how brands can communicate their values and message in an impactful, visual way
8. It’s very difficult for a designer to be a business person. Are there organizations that you would recommend for a designer to learn more about the business of fashion?
SA - I think it’s really important for designers to have a business mind as well as being creative. There are many organisations out there to help like the Business and IP centre (British Library), Design London, and local business enterprises like HBV (Hackney Business Ventures), who have been instrumental in helping me start my business. In the summer of 2006, I won an award on the New Entrepreneur Scholarship through HBV. It offered intensive business training and time with an advisor to develop a business plan, pulling together a wide range of my experiences
9. What is the best thing about your job?
SA - Recently I saw a very nervous bride, who was not of the ‘over-girlie’ kind, try on her first wedding dress (Alaya dress) and I saw tears in her eyes because she didn’t realise she could look so gorgeous. I love it when initial designs are developed into clothing and it all coming together beautifully. The icing on the cake is when the customer loves it, and buys it, again and again… you can’t beat that.
10. Which is the best-selling dress?
SA - The best selling dresses in the range are Cecaelia, Alaya and Lotus. Cecaelia is a fitted dress with contrast satin bands, designed so that brides can wear a normal bra and it makes them appear taller and slimmer. The dress can be made individual to their favourite colour and choose matching groom’s scrunchie cravats and bridesmaid’s dresses. The contrast colour in this dress means the dress can go beyond the wedding day by shortening it into a chic summer dress. Alaya and Lotus are two other best-sellers. They are one of those glamorous, head-turning dresses that makes women look stunning
11. What is the most simple change that retailers can make to improve the feel of their online shop?
SA - Online shops need to be easy to use with all the information the customer needs to make their purchase: good quality flat shots of their items, how the dresses can be styled and accessorised with good quality close up shots and measurements. Diversifying product lines to include accessories could boost the number of multiple purchases.
12. What is in the pipeline for spring/sumer and autumn 09?
SA - For S/S, I have expanded the range to include two day-to-evening dresses, Liberty and Spirit made in luxurious silk jersey in mustard and mink. Liberty is a gorgeous mustard coloured shirt dress with voluminous pleated sleeves and ivory buttons and Spirit is a wrap dress with a pleated skirt. I am working on a non-silk version of both of these dresses to retail at £175. I want there to be something for every budget in the range. For autumn, there will be a range of limited edition pieces for the party season and there are plans to add an accessories range with a fully functional online shop of lace shrugs, bags, chiffon scarves, grooms ties and waistcoats later in the year.