The Abaya Engineers The Abaya Engineers

With its edgy designs, Rouge Couture aims to bridge the gap between tradition and high fashion.

Sara Al Madani is a woman of two worlds. At a very young age, the Emirati entrepreneur and fashion designer has made name for herself in the UAE. The fashion house she co-founded Rouge Couture, specialises in unique Abaya and Jalabya designs that blend traditionalism with the fast-changing nature of high fashion. Looking through the aisles at Rouge Couture’s boutique in Dubai, it’s obvious why the brand has managed to stand out from the crowd. You cannot help but be somewhat surprised with its youthful and vibrant retro-like atmosphere. Mannequins sport mix-matched styles both black and colourful, that are both modest yet edgy.

Sara herself has managed to perfect this look, and her dynamic personality can be seen in many of the pieces on display. “It is risky to mix these elements together; not a lot of people can do this and be successful and you can easily cross the line and destroy both images. What people like about our designs is that we mix them very well together where it stays a traditional piece which is still modest, but it can grow as fast as the trends are,” says Sara. Now that her brand has seen some global exposure, she says more Western retailers and fashion designers are becoming more and more intrigued by the reinvention of Abaya wear. “They were very shocked, as they couldn’t believe how stylish our fashions could be.”

L-R: Rouge Couture founders Sara Al Madani and Apple Wang

The past few years for Sara have been anything but ordinary. Sara and business partner and best friend, Apple Wang, started Rouge Couture in 2008 out of a small shoppe in an Ajman industrial area. After becoming friends the two young women felt inspired to harness their passion into a joint venture. After they sold some of their belongings in order to invest time and money into the business, Rouge was able to put itself on the map by opening its flagship boutique in Dubai in 2010. Despite the team’s challenging start, Sara says it’s their strong partnership that has carried the brand success .“What I like about my partner, is that when I’m  weak she’s strong and vice versa,  there were so many times we could’ve given up but we didn’t, so taking that extra step,  is what made me here right now.”

Since then, the fashion house has quickly expanded and now operates out of branches in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman. There’s no question that the Abaya business is one of the most popular picks for Emirati women today. What differentiates the Rouge brand, Sara says is the brand’s quality and unique styles, offered at an affordable price range. She says, that too often, so many potential customers are priced out, as Abaya retailers aim for the big spenders.

Looking back at the beginning of her journey, Sara says the biggest obstacle she and Apple have faced was launching at a time when the environment  was not so conducive to their line of  business.“We felt like we were two women in a man’s world back then. Now, the whole environment has changed so much and we have so many institutions and initiatives that offer us so much support.” They currently serve as ambassadors to the Sharjah Business Women Council where they mentor other young women who aspire to launch their own businesses.

Last year, Sara was nominated for the SME Advisor Stars of Business Awards, and she took home the award for Emirati Entrepreneur of the Year. Shortly after, she was invited to showcase its latest fashions at a major fashion show in Paris- its biggest show to date. “It felt like I was on the edge of glory. They handpicked traditional designers for the Middle East. Experience wise, it was great; I saw and learned things I’ve never done before. Everything happened like a chain reaction and each new award or event would open new doors for us.”

With a strong footing in the UAE and GCC markets, Sara has her eyes on the western frontier. She plans to expand to do more fashion shows abroad market the company’s collections to global retailers and buyers. As of now, Rouge is working with eight markets, and aims to triple this number in the near future. “My main target is to show the Western world how the Arabic tradition is beautiful and how it can be mixed with any type of fashion and an Arabic woman can be part of the fashion industry with what she’s actually wearing rather than what’s underneath.”

One of the biggest milestones for the brand came earlier this year when Sara and Apple were asked to design an Abaya and dress for Madonna, while she was touring in the UAE . “It was beyond a pleasure, because not a lot of people were able to give her something. The pieces had her personality in it, and for us to design them made it a real achievement in that area. We gave a traditional piece to her, someone who is famous for always making her own traditions,” says Sara. News of the specially-designed piece put Sara and Rouge Couture in the spotlight, as many were curious to know what type of style the Material Girl would actually wear.

Some of the brand’s top-selling pieces have been centred around celebrities with previous collections inspired by Lady Gaga and Alexander McQueen. Sara admits that some of the brand’s marketing campaigns have caused a bit of commotion on the local fashion scene. One campaign depicted fashion forward abaya-clad women performing very male-oriented jobs, while another labeled Fashion Creates Jealousy, aimed to turn some heads, with half-beaten, arrested models posing for their mug shots.  Sara, however is completely aware of how and when to push the envelope and is not afraid to make some noise to help get the brand more exposure.

When asked how she feels about being an example for Emirati entrepreneurs, Sara says she is honoured to fill that role. “It’s a pleasure to be at this stage at a young age. It gives you a place in society and lets you know that you are someone who is recognised. I feel proud of myself when I do interviews and travel abroad.” She can’t help but feel like she is an ambassador to some degree, in terms of educating others about her country’s true identity and culture.“The word Emirati shocks some people as they don’t how a woman would be able to be an entrepreneur in our country or region, they don’t know how the country has changed and developed. This is a great opportunity for me to sit down with them and discuss these things.”

Over the last few years Sara watched as more and more Emiratis have become interested in entrepreneurial opportunities. Some have tried to buy their way to the top, while others started from the bottom. Sara is an advocate of the latter approach, and says it was the road of hardship that taught her the important lessons along the way. The future of Emiratisation looks bright in her eyes as she sees a few great role models inspiring the rest of the crowd.  “Each new entrepreneur that comes out gives the rest a lot of motivation to do the same. For those unsure of where to start, I want to tell them that there’s so much help out there for them, the government is giving these individuals everything they need from funds to contacts to education, so take a chance, grab it and go with it. It is a pleasure that I’m part of it and I just hope other locals will also take a chance instead of just letting them pass them by, or having it as just a thought.”

Sara says there’s a misunderstood perception among the youth that you need a lot of money to start a business, and she says her company is a great example of how two young people with great ideas and limited resources can turn their dreams into reality. However, she points out the journey of any real entrepreneur is always a long one, with obstacles and lessons to be learned along the way. “You can’t just wait for fruits to appear. Plant a seed first; you can buy the fruits ready, but planting a seed and waiting a bit is more rewarding. It takes time but it’s worth it in the end.  A pocket full of hope takes you way further than a pocket full of money; this is a quote I live my life on, and that’s why I’ve been successful at what I’m doing now.”


Rushika Bhatia Editor

Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.

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