Bridal designer Sabina Motasem is this month's girl on fire

Girl On Fire: Sabina Motasem on using fashion to help others and the planet

Sabina Motasem is a mistress of many, many skills. While she started her career as a designer on the high street for high end luxe fashion labels, she decided to embark on change careers and become a graphic designer and began working for financial giant Lehman Brothers. 

Luckily for her, she left the company before they filed for bankruptcy, and finally found the courage to take the plunge and launch her own fashion business. It wasn’t as straightforward as it seems though and Sabina took on many jobs to help ends meet such as working in design and branding for companies such as Selfridges, ASOS and Lacoste.

“I knew I wanted to have my own business one day,” she tells us. “And I knew branding and marketing would be key to being able to build and create a brand.”

It wasn’t until 2007, that her design career really took off with the launch of her luxury bridal label.

Initially the fashion label was designing elegant fashionable dresses before the bridal industry took over when a friend complained that in the sea of lace and frou, frou wedding dresses, she couldn’t find a simple, elegant dress.

The label has gone from strength to strength. Sabina was selected to showcase her collection at the Zandra Rhodes’ Fashion and Textile Museum and has won numerous awards including most recently the Best Contemporary Global Bridal Designer for 2020.

Of course, lockdown has meant a total adjustment while weddings have been put on hold, but Sabina hasn’t been idle. Instead, she’s rounded up a selection of seamstresses who work with her, plus 20 amazing volunteers, to produce scrubs for the NHS. Everyone worked remotely, while Sabina single-handedly managed all the logistics and did all the socially distanced deliveries!

“As well as dressing chic brides, I also love how I have been able to use my fashion skills in a completely new way to help our community in times of crisis,” she says, going onto explain that her father was taken into hospital at the beginning of lockdown with COVID-19.

“My father was rushed to hospital when he couldn’t breathe just weeks after having a big heart op,” she explains.

“It really brought the pandemic into sharp focus for me and made me want to do something to help.  I thought about ways I could use our collective expertise and network of cutters, factories and seamstresses to help medical staff during the Coronavirus crisis.”

So far, Sabina and her team have cut, made and delivered just under 1400 scrubs and 2000 masks to over 20 hospitals, medical health centres and care homes in London, Bucks, Herts and Hampshire.,

A new beginning

Not one to rest on her laurels, Sabina has a new project ready to go! While she won’t be leaving the luxury wedding market for good, she says the new mood made her realise her priorities – and that perhaps it wasn’t couture gowns.

Her new project is a vegan and sustainable fashion line and the first few dresses will be wedding dresses, all made in London, all of fantastic quality, but all vegan and completely sustainable, with prices starting from £950. 

“It means I am going right back to my fashion roots, but I’m still committed to dressing chic brides who want to wear our couture wedding dresses,” she explains.

“We are still doing our couture line, but these dresses are available online only now, and not through private appointments, due to COVID and the intention of keeping everyone safe during this difficult time.”

Anise is part of Sabina Motasem's new vegan and sustainable dress lien
Anise is part of Sabina Motasem's new vegan and sustainable dress lien

She’s also come up with a way to ensure her new line is zero waste, by offering craft kits to create your own masks or cute little fabric flowers, from leftover fabric.

“My idea is making masks from all the leftovers, doing little kits,” explains Sabina.

“I’m a graphic designer as well, so I can design a little branded kit. It’s just then that you’re learning to make something that can help a vulnerable person.”

One thing’s for sure – Sabina isn’t letting lockdown rain on her creativity and has been busier than ever during this time.

“I can’t do nothing, I’ve got to do something,” she laughs.

From couture wedding dresses to sustainable fashion, we’re sure this girl on fire will make a success of whatever she turns her hand to next.

On Fire Life Questions

What’s one of the favourite things about your job?

I love how our dresses makes our brides feel amazing on their big day, and love seeing how they’ve styled their Sabina Motasem frock to suit their own individual style. Designing dresses was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was a little girl. We’ve been dressing timelessly chic brides since 2007.

What is that one kernel that you’d like/wish that other women knew?

This question cannot be distilled into one single point! Woman always do much better when they draw upon all the ‘kernels’ gathered from those around and before us – and that’s why I needed to reach out to my four sisters, Jemma, Shakila, Samina and Sabirah. It’s such an important question and they are some of the most amazing women I know.

We women have to start believing that we are enough. It’s OK to be emotionally driven. It isn’t a hindrance like we were taught as girls. There is a great deal of power in female empathy, in regards to creating good. Look at Jacinda Arden and other female leaders during this crisis. As women we are told we cannot be successful if we’re too emotional, but it’s the thing that really helps us connect to people.

Keep highlighting the accomplishments and perspectives of other women. Know that women are hard-wired into competing with each other historically to reach a status of safety, whether that is through social, political or economic means. Also, challenge language used towards other women, including your own such as ‘bossy’ and ‘arrogant’, that men are likely not to be labelled…. Not quite one kernel, but many!

What’s your quote that gets you through testing times?

Not a quote as such, but a poem:

Don’t Quit by John Greenleaf Whittier

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is strange with its twists and turns
As every one of us sometimes learns
And many a failure comes about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow—
You may succeed with another blow.

Success is failure turned inside out—
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell just how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit—
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

How do you approach the work/life juggle?

Finding a good work/life balance has always been a bit of a challenge! The lines seem to get a little blurred, especially when you’re doing something you love – and of course lockdown has made this harder for everyone.

Once we’ve finished the working day, we’ve been cycling round Hackney and Islington to deliver scrubs to local health centres and medical health workers, who have contacted us. My other half is now very familiar with the drill of me ringing a buzzer, standing back, and flinging an A3 padded envelope of newly made scrubs to the person who answers the door, abiding by social distancing rules!

This is giving us much needed exercise. However, don’t expect a Joe Wicks-esque transformation anytime soon; my early evening bike rides inevitably finish with a very, very nice drink which am sure isn’t part of his routine!

What would you tell your teenage self?

Stay true to yourself. Life will sometimes not make sense and sometimes you’ll find yourself in places where you won’t know what to do… but if you trust your gut instinct in these times you won’t go wrong. Time will eventually reveal why it was the right gut decision to make.

What’s your best self-care tip?

It might be lockdown, but I think it’s really important to still get up at the normal time, get ready and dressed for the day, as if I am going in the studio. It makes such a huge difference to my mental wellbeing.

I like to feel good in something comfortable rather than just PJs and oversized tee shirts, which sometimes makes its appearance when I’m having one of those Waynetta days!

I made myself some gorgeous comfy dresses during lockdown that looked smart for a zoom call, but fabulous enough to chillax in too from day to night. These “dress-up” and “dress-down” trans-seasonal pieces will form the basis of a new fashion line, launching soon under our debut sustainable and vegan ready-to-wear range.

What book, film or song has been a big influence on your life?

Thumbsucker. I love this movie so so much. After making several wedding dress gifts for friends who couldn’t find a simple elegant and chic wedding dress almost 15 years ago, I was lucky enough to get a place on the New Entrepreneurship Scholarship programme which gave me a small grant and intensive business training. I wanted to make the most of this opportunity as I could, and so that led me to the Horsham Neurocare centre so that I could find out what all my strengths and weaknesses were and know what areas I needed extra support and training in through a day of psychometric tests and IQ tests. I got a little more than I bargained for though. Through this process, I discovered I actually had mild ADHD and had it since I was a child in the ’70s. 

I was told it was “mild” because I’d somehow figured that there was something not quite right and I’d already implemented coping strategies that worked for me, like colour coding lists, and writing a daily journal. I had no idea before this point, it makes so much sense now why sometimes things were a little difficult to focus on and why sometimes I was doing too many things, and then feel like something really wrong with me. I spent my whole younger life thinking and believing this. 

Thumbsucker made me feel that there wasn’t anything really wrong with me. There’s this bit in the film that makes me cry every single time – it’s where Tilda Swinton looks at her teenage son, who’s feeling everything that I’ve felt too, and tells him that she’s been looking at him his all life and that he’s fine, he’s great the way he is. They way she looks at him with love and the way he suddenly realises he’s doesn’t need to feel lonely, he is enough. 

It’s a bit like thinking of it as having unique special Marvel or DC powers – a much more positive way of accepting who we are maybe. We’re all different, why not embrace who we are than try to be something we’re no

What’s the one thing you’d like to be remembered for?

That I cared about others, that I did what I could to help the community – and that I designed beautiful dresses that women felt fabulous in.

Any tips for coping with lockdown?

Keep busy and keep being creative! Keep learning, keep doing things. I’d say that life is as busy as it was before lockdown for me.

As well as making scrubs, masks, finishing the new collection and shooting it while sticking to the social distancing rules, we’re working on creative ways to transform all our offcut fabrics into crafty DIY kits for kids and adults to make masks, scrub bags and hats, bags and fabric flowers.

Elsa Sass, is a new wedding dress in Sabina Motasem's new vegan and sustainable wedding dress line

What is the first thing you want to do when lockdown is finally over?

The first thing I will do is shoot the rest of our new sustainable and vegan dresses and launch those, alongside our new fashion range!

I’d also like to go to my favourite restaurant Berber and Q first – although my boyfriend is campaigning for a seaside weekend away!

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