Between Mariam AlJamali and Sheyda A. Khaymaz
Sheyda: Hi Mariam! Thanks for agreeing to talk to us. Would you like to tell us a bit about FLAWS and how it all started for you?
Mariam: FLAWS is an urban wear brand with a message which was started in Oman by four childhood friends; Myself (Mariam AlJamali), Zaima AlAdawy, Meera AlBusaidi, and Samaah AlAnsari. Having studied abroad for four years, we wanted to make sure that we had something to do when we moved back to Oman. I contacted a few friends, and we planned some ‘creative’ things together. We didn’t think much of it initially. However, as soon as we met up, we realized that we want something more meaningful. So we thought of doing something similar to Humans of New York. You must have heard of it?
S: Of course. I’m familiar with HONY.
M: We felt that there were a lot of people with great, unheard stories here in Oman. So we started going around and collecting stories and images, and finally accumulated around twelve stories. But we weren't quite sure how to share them, we thought “who’s going to read this?” Although these stories were exciting and inspiring, we felt that we needed a better way to communicate them. We realized that what we want to do is send a message that positively impacts the lives of youth today. Our goal is to produce merchandise with messages that are expressed in Arabic. We created entire collections as well as individual pieces. All our products explore the connotations behind society’s views of “character flaws.” We believe that you can still respect and honor your cultural heritage without sacrificing your individuality and self-expression. The youth is an essential part of shaping the future and we want to contribute to a future where individuality isn’t looked down on and people don’t judge you for expressing yourself.
S: It looks like your experience as a student abroad shaped your perspective regarding what you want to achieve with FLAWS? Did you study in the West? And how did you manage to translate those experiences into the Omani culture? FLAWS looks and feels very contemporary and Western. Was this a result of you feeding what you gained from your studies into your new endeavour?
M: I think we already had that progressive perspective growing up. However, studying abroad definitely helped shape and refine this perspective as we were continuously exposed to all of that. I feel that some people go abroad and when they come back they just want everything to be different, so they begin to act like they’re not even from here anymore. I believe we gained a better understanding of how different cultures can coexist without sacrificing traditions. I studied my undergrad in the US, and attended Grad school in London. Zaima, Samaah and Meera completed both of their degrees in the UK. Regarding FLAWS looking contemporary and Western; that’s always been us — even growing up here in Oman. However, we try to make it evident that we’re Arab by utilizing Arabic in our pieces. Although it seems like a lot of people are doing that nowadays — Arab or not.
S: Yeah, Arabic became trendy all of sudden. I see that so often; using Arabic script as an aesthetic, or in general, using elements of different cultures as exotic accessories.
M: With Arabic, it doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. Sometimes the letters aren’t even connected which I find funny.
S: So, you see FLAWS as a platform for communication and telling stories rather than a mere fashion brand. I really like that idea. Can you elaborate on that?
M: Yeah, we’ve decided to tell these stories through clothing since it’s a great means for self-expression. Clothing can play a big part in expressing a person’s individuality so we thought we could tell everyone's unique stories through apparel. None of us pursued a creative degree so this was also a good opportunity to explore our creativity, and since we each have different styles it was interesting to see how we combined our ideas to create a cohesive brand image.
S: So none of you come from a creative background? This is really interesting! I too see clothing as one of the most powerful tools of self-expression but at the same time, it can be a form of rebellion as seen throughout the Western history with punks, hippies, etc. I’m really interested in the notion of individuality, especially interrogating the East/West divide when it comes to expressing your individuality. You know how difficult this can be if you’re a part of a traditional Eastern culture, especially as a woman. Can you tell us a bit about how FLAWS was received in Oman?
M: Since Oman is a really small country, what people say about us is somewhat important. We have to tread lightly sometimes and make sure that we word things correctly so people don’t misunderstand us. Surprisingly, a lot of people here know about FLAWS. However, I have to admit, most don’t know much about our message. So we’re currently working on delivering our message more effectively in videos and such. I think Oman being a small country helped us a lot with getting that recognition. When we first started, we stood out, since there weren’t many urban wear brands around. However, FLAWS didn’t even intentionally start as a fully operating clothing brand. We initially made a logo, made about 12 sweatshirts and had a photoshoot, but this was only for fun. We didn’t think much of it. After we launched our Instagram page, the follows started coming in and people started ordering and we were genuinely confused. We went into panic mode when orders were way more than what we had already produced. It suddenly hit us how big this was becoming.
S: That’s brilliant! It looks like people in Oman did need something like FLAWS!
M: I think it also encouraged a lot of people to start their own thing.
S: I want to ask you about your photoshoots. The images on your website are so dreamy and have a distinct aesthetic. Do you collaborate with people from creative backgrounds to produce your content for both your website and social media?
M: Everything is done by the four of us. Although we did have two photoshoots with other photographers such as CHNDY & Novemberus who are both Omanis.
S: You do sound quite creative. I admire that! You show people that you don’t need to follow a certain (pre-determined) path to be a creative, study art & design, do unpaid internships like everyone else. Creative pursuits can be something way more accessible and inclusive. Add a self-starter spirit to that and you can create a successful outcome.
M: Thank you. That really means a lot to us.
S: For sure. We initiated Lungs with the same spirit as well. So we have so much solidarity for creative women collectives. So, FLAWS' primary message is to embrace our imperfections, correct? By “imperfections” I mean, of course, what contemporary society deems unacceptable.....whether it be that extra pound on your belly or your kinky hair. Especially in the fashion industry, general standards of beauty often imply a White Western look, slender body type and lighter skin. Although, we are currently seeing a lot of efforts to challenge this outlook and there is a rise in consciousness about inclusivity. For example, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty products sort of gave the industry the middle finger and showed them how to become truly inclusive.
S: Lungs is deeply engaged with identity politics and every day becoming more and more of an activist platform. Do you think about representation and visibility at all in relation to your brand? You initially introduced yourself to us as a “collective of Omani women”. How important is this identity for FLAWS and for those who want to engage with you? You also talked a bit about not wanting to erase your tradition but integrating your progressive ideas into it. Does this have anything to do with being a millennial and having grown up in the Internet age? So, being a woman, being a millennial, being an Arab..... what role did these have in shaping FLAWS?
M: I believe it’s really important to us because we want to show the Western world what people here are capable of. It’s crazy to think now but when I lived abroad I got a lot of questions like “do you live in the desert?” Even when I was joking around and telling people that I lived in a tent and rode a camel to school some actually believed me. So it was either this or the “oil rich Arab” stereotype.
S: Yeah, I totally get what you mean! But that’s also a view that was perpetuated by the Western media. So, I think what you’re doing is vital in changing people’s ideas of the Middle East and the Arab culture. "Rich Arab” and other stereotypes can be eschewed with truthful representation, do you agree? Also, what is your approach to diversity? Because to me, this sounds like the core of what you do in general. If you celebrate your differences i.e. your flaws you also celebrate the diversity in personalities, body types, skin tones, worldview. How important for you to be inclusive?
M: I believe that inclusivity is a big part of breaking down those stereotypes. We want to show people that there is more than just two extremes of Arabs: filthy rich or ‘living in the desert’. However, it’s not just the Western world either. When it comes to the fashion industry, Oman is lagging behind our neighboring countries in the GCC. We want them to know that we’re here and our voices are coming out strong. This can only be done by including diverse voices in what we produce.
S: Definitely! Rooting for Oman!
M: As for the practical approach, we actively look for lots of different models and we work hard to include people that are not considered the standard for beauty in the Arab world (which is fair skin, straight hair, etc) Also with the sizing, although we don’t get a lot of requests for XXL, we try to have at least one piece in stock from each design just in case.
S: So, what’s next for FLAWS? How do you define growth? Have you got any interesting products coming up? Also, how can people find you, order your merch and engage with you?
M: What’s next for us is to try to get FLAWS out there more, join events in the US and the UK. Another market I personally really want to explore is the Japanese market. I think I could speak on behalf of the team that growth for us is never about money. It never was. As long as we get our name out there to inspire people and encourage them to be themselves, then we’ve accomplished what we started this for . . . and of course to get Oman on the map in this industry! Moving forward, we’re working on a new collection though we’re still in our initial research stage. We’re trying to dig deeper with this collection, not only with the message and content, but with new fabrics too.
People can find us on:
Any questions they can drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
S: Sounds exciting! Mariam it’s been a pleasure! Thank you for taking the time for us and best of luck to you.
M: Thank you.