Aroosi Iqbal has been designing clothes since she was 12, and can still recall her first design. “It was a white dress with red edging. My mother bought the fabric for me, we sat together and I explained what I wanted, so we drew a picture of it and took it to the tailor,” says the 36-year-old.
It’s a special memory that has led to a successful career in fashion design. At the age of 17, then a student in Pakistan, she held her first exhibition. Today, Mrs Iqbal owns two Abu Dhabi boutiques and counts members of the royal family as regular clients – impressive for someone who never studied fashion design, because her Pakistani parents wouldn’t allow it.
“My parents were from the old school of thought. They said ‘you don’t need to go to fashion design school. If it’s a passion, you can always do it on the side – we’d rather you become a doctor.’ But honestly, I don’t think it’s affected me because I’ve learnt through my work. And the business and finance degree has come in handy for running my business.”
Mrs Iqbal’s father, who moved to Dubai in 1974, was an art collector and a calligrapher, and Mrs Iqbal believes she inherited her artistic flair from him. Her designs are influenced by her Pakistani heritage, but when she moved back to the UAE after studying in her home nation and started designing dresses for the UAE market, she also had to adapt her designs to appeal to Emirati tastes.
“It was challenging because I had to establish a whole new market. Full-length dresses are more popular here, whereas in Pakistan we usually wear a shorter tunic with pants. And here, the style is more embellished and worked. Emiratis like silver and gold and like to get dressed up, especially for Eid. It’s nice to see that rich Emirati heritage reflected in the dresses.”
Mrs Iqbal has raised three children – now aged 14, 12 and five – while designing and exhibiting in Abu Dhabi at least twice a year. In 2012 her designs were made available at several stores, including Regal Store in Khalidiya.
“Before I ventured into opening my own boutique, I wanted to test the waters and see whether it would really be profitable. It was a success, so I opened my first shop, on Airport Road, in July 2012,” says Mrs Iqbal, who says her start-up costs were Dh250,000.
“I chose the Airport Road area because it’s an established market for tailors, abaya stores and small boutiques – though my designs are unique because they’re from my own imagination.”
On the store’s opening day, Mrs Iqbal questioned her choice of area after a customer asked her: ‘Are you sure about opening this store here? I’m not sure people will buy these designs because people come to this market for stone-studded dresses, and your dresses don’t have stones on them.’
“I was upset but I thought ‘no, I have to believe in myself’. That customer was wrong – we got a very good response, because younger ladies really appreciate the designs being practical yet contemporary,” says Mrs Iqbal, who has plans to launch an Emirati bridal collection soon.
Aroosi Iqbal Couture stocks garments that are tailored to fit the client. They also offer made to order dresses – clients choose the fabric and Mrs Iqbal’s 10 Abu Dhabi-based employees take measurements and make the clothes, mostly by hand. When her Abu Dhabi staff are too busy, dresses are made in Pakistan then sent on to the UAE. Customers can also request fabric patterns in different colours. Cotton dresses are Dh350 to Dh1,200 and pure silk dresses Dh650 to Dh12,000.
Mrs Iqbal uses Instagram and Facebook to post new designs and alert clients to new collections, which has enabled her to build up an international clientele. “It’s a proud moment when we have clients driving all the way from Saudi Arabia, just to see our designs. We’ve also had customers in the UK, South Africa, Qatar and even Pakistan,” she says, adding that her business is expanding with a new store that opened this year in Al Nahyan Camp and plans on the horizon for stores in Dubai. She admits her biggest critic is her 14-year-old daughter, who helped design her new store and often advises her on new trends.
But her biggest challenge is balancing her business with her domestic needs.
“Sometimes you’re running to meet deadlines and it’s stressful juggling work with family life. But I love it. There’s beauty all around us – in nature, art, and architecture, and by observing those things you can focus on creating. That gives you an edge over others, that creativity that comes from within.”
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