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Mimi Shakhashir: A Bohemian Rhapsody

Mimi Shakhashir

She describes herself as a “free-spirited traveler and curator” and injects her designs with inspiration from a global culture and personal heritage. Mimi Shakhashir is the woman behind the brand, Kaleidoscope by Mimi.

The Lebanese designer launched her first collections of clothing and soft home furnishings in London in 1999 which were retailed in some of the city’s renowned luxury boutiques and across the UAE.

Mimi has an ethical approach to her brand and the manufacturing of her garments and gives back to the communities she employs to create them, empowering them financially and allowing them to enhance their craft businesses and take care of their families whilst offering up unique and timeless pieces to her clients.

She quotes the likes of Mark Twain and Richard Branson, and we can see why she applies some of their simplistic and achievable life philosophies to her own life as they make total sense to the core of Kaleidoscope by Mimi.

As she travels across the world to source the talent and expertise that go into her creations, we talked to Mimi about her inspirations, brand and empowerment.

Tell us a little about your brand, Kaleidoscope by Mimi, where did you begin?
I started designing clothes when my daughter Jana was born through the desire to dress her according to her personality. I found it difficult to find clothes to do the trick, as she was a very interesting, multifaceted girl and I wanted to show her uniqueness and true identity through her clothes on the outside! My style is ‘bohemian glam’ because I am nomadic at heart and I can't settle on one style, I like different colors, patterns and texture, that don’t necessarily work together. Tribal-Moroccan-Indian-Euro-Oriental-Gypsy-Folksy mashups all in easy breezy, laidback cuts and a lot of accessories. Versatile in ways that can be dressed up or down to any occasion and situation. I found a gap in the market and I couldn’t always find clothes that I liked and wanted and I knew there were more people like me.

What do you love about work and where do you find inspiration for your collections?
What I love most about my work is that it doesn’t feel like work. I am so lucky to have been able take my hobby and my passion to the next level and turn it into a business. I love this quote by Mark Twain, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” and it’s so true!

My ultimate goal is to make women happy! I use cuts that are ‘one size fits all’, and that looks amazing on women of any shape, height, or form. They suit everyone and make everyone happy and look great.

My biggest pride is also that in our collections we make a difference to the communities in which the raw materials are sourced or produced. Our embroideries are hand made by women to preserve and protect traditional arts primarily through assisting artisan cooperatives.

I get most of my inspirations through travelling, wandering through souks, and seeing different craftsmanship. I am mostly inspired by the 70’s and 60s trends through my mom’s photo albums and pictures of her and her friends wearing such unique style especially kaftans, a time where everything seemed to work. The length of the dresses, flowy florals, wildly patterned kaftans, to geometric lines, each had her own mysterious allure and the essence of confidence was woven into each and every gown. Kaleidoscope by Mimi is not about fashion– it’s about global style which makes a statement and a lasting impact.

What made you want to take an ethical approach to your manufacturing process?
I have always been a giver, I got it from my mom. I always felt the need to share. Happiness is not complete if it’s not shared with someone else. Brands can be ethical in different ways and I believe every little thing helps! So as much as I can, I source locally and ethically made materials from my travels and make everything in workshops – not in factories. I want this brand to make a difference, no matter how small.  All my tailors have families and communities linked to them where I know that any amount is going to enhance lives, educate their children and eventually make a difference to their community. We work a lot with women foundations and small businesses ran by women in small communities around the world.

Who are the women that inspire you and why?
My style icon Iris Apfel and designer Zandra Rhodes for their originality, authenticity, and tenacity. Their looks make them immediately recognizable, it’s like an extension to their personalities. Both have made significant contributions to fashion, and their style endures because they are unique, and they take chances and put their heart and soul into their work.

You've lived in France, and the UK and travel the world frequently, how do you feel travelling and experiencing different cultures has shaped you personally and as a designer?
One of the best things about traveling is that you get to refresh and reboot your senses and enhance your creativity. It gives you time to think about your goals and passions in life. Travel inspires me to be more creative because it reminds of things that I loved and treasured during my childhood and it unlocks emotions and pleasures I completely forgot about and reawakens, desires and touches my soul in so many new and unexpected ways. By seeing and experiencing other cultures, I open my eyes wide. I am always moved by the beauty and grace of the local people, their happiness, peace and acceptance of their destiny. Travel makes me embrace life in the best and most positive way possible and inspires me to aspire for more in life. New environments ignite self-development, we meet new people in new cultures that ignite ideas and inspiration. From the simplest conversion to just learning about local craft, the intricate workmanship of palaces and temples I visit, that in no way shape or form could be replicated today in its full splendor.

I am a lover of culture and diversity. I love authenticity and I have always been a massive fan of global art and textiles. The magnificent colors, shapes and diverse patterns have always intrigued me. I love the way textiles were used as a form of identity with tribes around the world, having their own unique patterns to identify them with specialized weaves and stitches.

What is your favorite world destination and why?
India for sure, because of its rich culture, history and amazing colors! I have never been more moved and inspired than I was when I visited India. From the people I met to the old palaces visited and stayed in, it has affected me deep in my soul and maybe changed me a little and humbled me to witness struggles and hard times of some people and made me want to be a better person and a definite boost in humanity.

How would you describe your most recent collection?
During the holy month, we celebrate the common threads that tie us together as regional and global societies, and underscore the authenticity and humanity that is echoed in all of our work throughout the year.

This Ramadan, we are channeling Hedy Lamarr, iconic Star kaftan from the 1941 movie Ziegfeld Girl set in the 1920s, a time when Hollywood had a fascination with star and moon shapes. We are using hand embroidered moons and stars to embellish metallic kaftans. The embroideries are hand made and beaded by a range of artisans and craftspeople in NGOs and creative collectives around the world, through which a sustainable source of family and community income is developed. Ramadan has a special resonance for Kaleidoscope by Mimi as our brand is based on the values of community and strong ethics, ensuring the artisans and their communities with whom we work are recognized and rewarded through our collaboration.

Who is the Kaleidoscope by Mimi customer?
The Kaleidoscope woman is confident, she knows her style and is not afraid to show it. She is spontaneous and versatile. The Kaleidoscope woman is also emotional and wants to make a difference. She is conscious about the ethics of how garments are produced. Increasingly, it's going to be part of her purchase decision for more mature consumers because the ethical story gives them as much pleasure as the product itself.

As an Arab woman entrepreneur, how do you feel you use your position to promote female empowerment?
I feel we all have a duty to make the world a better place and some things can be so simple, yet we never think about them. IF every person did something small eventually the result will be big. We have to reach out and touch the rest of the world, nowadays it’s so easy. With Social media and the internet, it is so easy reach people, to connect and to make a change. I believe we all have a social responsibility and duty to make the world a better place.

Being a business woman and creative comes with its obstacles, how do you face these challenges and keep yourself motivated?
Trying to establish a brand, exceed the competition and keep the business profitable is a challenge no matter how many years you’ve been in the business. I am motivated when I see the people involved in the business and the benefits their livelihood is getting. I remind myself why I’m doing this and remind myself of who I am and what I want to achieve.

I am always willing to learn. That’s my true challenge and I embrace it. I am not afraid to admit that I don't know everything and that I make mistakes. It is important to know your weaknesses and to constantly want to improve them. Even when you are confident in your abilities, you should always seek to boost your skills. Learn as much as you can from the people around you, read books to increase your knowledge and go to workshops to improve your skills. Find a mentor but also listen to your instincts. I also believe in my gut feelings.

Saudi Arabia is changing and there are many reforms taking place in way of women's rights and gender equality, what do you hope to see for the future of Saudi women?
I had never felt more proud to be an Arab woman than when I moved to the UAE. The UAE is home to some of the most influential women in the Arab world and women who are making history. When I thought Dubai couldn’t get any better, Sheikh Mohammed tweets “Women proved themselves in many workplaces and today we want them to have a strong presence in decision-making positions in our institutions," As a matter of fact the UAE is one of the first countries, not only Arab but in the world, to have equal pay and equal rights. That’s what I hope for women all over the world. We need to see more women across the globe working in big industries that are meant to improve the future of tomorrow.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Richard Branson said, “My mother, Eve, always taught me never to look back in regret but to move on to the next thing. A setback is never a bad experience, just another one of life’s lessons.”

What strategies for success would you share with other enterprising women in the region?
Have an identity, differentiate yourself from other brands and remain focused on the core ethos of the business.  Having a brand represents a lifestyle, a personification of the brand. You need strong self-belief.  It is crucial to believe in what you do. Take good quality advice and don’t be afraid to be different in the way you run things. Evolve with the need of the market. Stick to your values in your private life as in your business. You should follow your heart, your instinct and always surround yourself with people you look up to and aspire to and can learn from.

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