How This Mama Created The Coolest Mommy-and-Me Modest Fashion Line
Every mother knows what it's like to live that multi-tasking life, and this is especially true for designer Abeer Al Otaiba. Raised between Egypt and France, the New York- and Dubai-based mama began her career in civil engineering and eventually added philanthropy and fashion to her portfolio.
Enter SemSem, Al Otaiba's luxury label geared towards women and girls seeking modest style. Named after her daughter, the high-end line is beloved by stylish celebrity mamas like Blake Lively and Kourtney Kardashian and supports gender equality and equal education for women and girls by partnering with non-profit organizations. (For fall/winter 2017, SemSem is teaming with Angele.H International, which helps women artisans in Madagascar lead healthy, stable lives.)
Here, we chat with the philanthropic designer and mother of two to learn how working in a male-dominated field inspired her to push her own boundaries, how she spins her engineering skills into SemSem, why modest fashion isn't just a fashion trend, and more. Read on below, then shop the line here.
Tell us about your career journey: what led you to go from civil engineering to fashion design?
Fashion design was a childhood love of mine, but I come from a family of engineers, and I was raised to challenge boundaries. I pursued a career in civil engineering as an opportunity to do something unexpected. Working in a predominantly male-dominated field I pushed myself to succeed and set an example for other women drawn to roles traditionally held by men, particularly in the Arab world.
After moving to Washington I focused more on philanthropy — but I still had a continued desire to build something meaningful to foster my passion for fashion and philanthropy. By launching my own brand that is dedicated to promoting and supporting gender equality, health and education for women and girls, I was able to both create something that is visually and intellectually beautiful.
How are the two industries similar, and how do your engineering skills inform your designs?
The technical aspects of both industries are quite similar. Engineering and fashion are all about performance and attention to detail. Engineering has afforded me a clear understanding of planning, execution, and how functionality and artistry work together. The evolution from concept to design involves a great deal of creativity and innovation in solving design challenges and in combining different materials. All of which serve me well in fashion design.
What sparked the idea to create a line for mothers and daughters?
Being a mother of two opened a piece of my heart I didn’t know exists. Samia, my daughter, is the inspiration behind SemSem. I have always been inspired by the special bond between mothers and daughters and Samia brought that inspiration to life. She motivated me to create something that spoke to the bond between mother and daughter, and would also meet the needs of women around the world that are challenged to fulfill numerous roles on any given day.
What's a common misconception about modest fashion?
I think the misconception surrounding modest fashion is related to perception and timing. Modest fashion is not a current movement, but it is being portrayed that way, in my opinion. The idea of fashionable modesty has existed without being labeled for years. Right now, the industry is highlighting the idea of modesty in fashion, but many brands — like Marni and Mary Katrantzou — have chosen to address how women dress in a range of ways. With SemSem, I like to offer options so there are appropriate pieces for a breadth of situations.
Why is it important to add a charitable component to your label?
As a mother raising a young woman, I believe it is important to support and call attention to women supporting women. For me, the notion of giving back and being philanthropically active is bigger than a focus on corporate social responsibility — it is personal. Through SemSem and in my daily life, I am dedicated to shining a light on gender equality, literacy, health and education among women and children around the globe.
Each season I partner with a different charitable organization because I understand the idea of overcoming personal challenges, and I am dedicated to supporting women not only in the form of funds donated, but also in the form of knowledge shared. Sometimes education, mentorship and friendship are equal, if not more helpful than, funding.
To me, the most meaningful part of life is how we treat others and do what we can to make the world a better place. As women, we are empowered by our actions, emotions, and struggles as well as our ability to balance a multitude of things while giving back to our community. I aspire for these moments and feelings as well as all the women who inspire me daily to push the limits.
How have your experiences in both the United Arab Emirates and the United States influenced how you approach motherhood?
My children were born after I moved to Washington, but my time in the United Arab Emirates certainly informed how I approach motherhood. As a country, they empower women and encourage them to be leaders in their communities. The UAE is where I thrived as an engineer and I enjoyed the challenges of working in a place that seemed to be growing at the speed of light.
The UAE believes charitable giving coupled with strong partnerships, helps deepen existing relationships and forge new connections, while promoting social and economic development for all people. They support disaster relief all over the globe, small businesses and most recently, the UAE pledged millions to support the Women Entrepreneurs Fund with the donation aimed to specifically help women in the Middle East. I am proud to share my experiences of living and working in a place that is so dynamic and forward-thinking with my kids.
In the US, I have three full-time jobs: mother, wife of a diplomat, and business owner. Being a mother who is present for her children is very important to me so I always put my kids first. My day consists of taking my children to school, play dates, diplomatic duties, and philanthropic responsibilities. Then, when everything is done, it’s time for SemSem. Like most working moms, I’m often up late answering emails and catching up on work.
Over the years I have learned a successful mother is one who understands the importance of patience, respect, flexibility — and above all else, love. I try to lead by example and encourage my children to think freely with an open heart.
What values do you hope to instill in your daughter?
Be true to yourself, kind to others and dream big.
What's your everyday style like, and what are your favorite beauty/skincare products?
My style is influenced by various roles and responsibilities. On any given day, you may find me running the kids to school, hosting an official event at the Embassy and designing the following season's looks late into the evening.
In general, my sense of style adapts to my various roles and stems from my lifestyle, background, travel and experiences. While I personally favor feminine and classic styles with an edge, I am also drawn to pieces that make a subtle cultural statement through texture and pattern.
My favorite beauty and skin care products are Organic coconut oil, Eau Thermale Avène Spring Water, lotion and sunscreen, RMS Beauty Living Luminizer and Charlotte Tillbury’s Instant Magic Dry Mask.
What's your best advice for women and/or mothers looking to switch up their career?
Never be afraid to act on a dream. Remember your strength as a woman, surround yourself with a team you can trust as well will fill your voids, and know we are often capable of more than we may realize.