‘Sports and fashion have always coincided,’ said David Lauren, son of the legendary Ralph Lauren. Both sports and fashion are expressions of self — and in many ways, the marriage between them is a given. On the one hand, a growing roster of designers are embracing the might and muscle of athleticism in their sartorial offerings while on the other professional athletes like Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis and Neymar are creating waves as fashion heroes. In Kuwait, Balsam Al Ayoub, Kuwait’s former champion athlete and sports icon who is also known for her sartorial sense has turned to ‘fashion for a cause’ after retirement from professional sports. Last year, Balsam launched her first design line quite fittingly titled ‘Sewing the Wounds’ in cooperation with Abolish 153, with a percentage of sale benefiting the Abolish 153 cause.
Balsam Al Ayoub is a former professional athlete who along with her sister made history as the first Kuwaiti fencer to compete and win at international levels. Apart from being champion athletes and sports ambassadors, Balsam is also a successful social entrepreneur and an activist who uses sports as an effective tool to challenge gender prejudices, mentor future champions and empower youth and women.
Balsam’s introduction to fashion designing took place many years ago when she started creating fashionable sportswear. “As an athlete, I struggled to find clothing that would suit my culture. The big design labels were not conservative enough, and I wanted to wear something that was modest and conservative, but nothing was available. In fact, I had to wear six pieces from a particular design house to cover myself properly,” she said. It is a known fact that Muslim women struggle to find costumes that allow them to perform at world-class levels while also being covered according to societal norms. They need modest uniforms that regulate body temperature but at the same time enable them to compete with others without being at a disadvantage. It was to address that challenge that Balsam took to designing sportswear in 1999. “I designed the entire range of costumes for a fencing competition that I organized for women,” says Balsam. Her designs which saw a merging of convention, elegance and practicality were appreciated.
Balsam’s tryst with fashion began at the age of six. “I inherited my talent for design from my mother,” says the low-key designer with a select clientele. Her mother Fatima Al Omani used her natural fl air for fabric and design to execute custom-made outfits for her friends and clients in the tailoring workshop she owned. “As a young girl, I did not wear ready-made clothes. I accompanied my mother to the fabric market, bought fabric, designed my dress and got it stitched from the tailor,” recalls Balsam. Her mother closed the tailoring shop after her workers left never to return during the Iraq invasion.
Balsam dedicated her formative years to building her career as a sportswoman, but she didn’t lose her love and feel for textiles, colours and cuts. In 2002, Balsam tried her hand at fashion, but her mother resisted it. “She felt it would make me lose my focus, but I was passionate about fashion and textiles. It was not a passing fancy. People do not understand that it is very difficult for creative people when they cannot express themselves. “It is this urge to give expression to her creativity that at times compels the sportswoman turned designer to steal out of bed at the dead of night to her studio where she cuts and pastes a design idea that has been forming.”
Balsam Al Ayoub is not a trained designer. She designs by instinct, cutting and pasting fabrics onto designs with the same ease with which she manoeuvred the strip. “However, I am different from other fashion designers in Kuwait. My work is generally related to a cause,” says the designer who has worked on special lines with international companies for professional female athletes who are selective about their choice of sportswear. As a social entrepreneur, Balsam has tried to finance her projects in the past through sponsors and donations, but lately, she has turned to fashion designing as a sustainable means of funding. Last Ramadan, Balsam launched her design house under the label of Balsam Studio with ‘Sewing the Wounds’, a line that benefitted Abolish 153. “I introduced my brand to the women community in Kuwait by connecting it to a cause that affects women in a very personal way.” At present, she is working on another project where her designs will be used by artisans in Africa to raise awareness about empowerment under the label, Balsam Africa.
Balsam Al Ayoub’s designs are like her. They are classy and elegant, and they make a strong statement with their simple but sleek lines. Her present Ramadan collection titled “Women from Another World,” feature designs that are almost Hellenic in their simplicity and starkness; the colours are muted, pearl-like in their finish and sheen, the embellishment is delicate. “This line combines beauty and simplicity, and I feel there is real value in the design in terms of its sophistication and feminine appeal.” In a way, Balsam’s designs are an authentic refl ection of her personality and physical stature. Balsam agrees, “I believe my designs, which are very special refl ect my image, and they do not suit everybody. I don’t design on order, but people who are interested in my designs patiently wait for my pieces.” Balsam is working on a line of limited edition abayas for a renowned fashion label for Eid. The collection will be made up of abayas in an interesting and bold palette in sleek, smooth lines that will give the design the look of a cape. “The design is for women who want to look classy and elegant irrespective of whether they are covered or not,” urges the designer.
By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times
Photographs by Faisal Al Duwaisan