A true inspiration: we interviewed Salma Awwad – the first female Arab former Editor-in-Chief of Harpers Bazaar and founder of her own own innovative fashion-tech brand Sawwad.
A graduate of Parsons, she worked in the luxury industry for 15 years for the biggest names in the fashion and beauty industries, such as L’Oreal, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani. At only 24 years old, Salma became regional manager for Lancôme Make-up (L’Oréal’s most prestigious brand in their entire portfolio). How did she do it? Keep reading to find out..
Hi Salma! Could you briefly introduce yourself?
I’m an Egyptian Canadian, born in Kuwait and lived in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Canada (From East to West: Halifax, Montreal and Edmonton), Dubai and New York. Currently moved back to Dubai and leading my own fashion-tech brand Sawwad.
What was your first job? Do you remember the interview?
Yes! In University I used to teach fitness classes at the YMCA Montreal. Post-graduation I started in a marketing position at Yves Saint Laurent Beauty and Narciso Rodrigues in Kuwait. Which is what positioned me perfectly for my following job as the regional manager of Lancôme Make-up and brought me to Dubai with L’Oréal.
Early in your career you started combining your career in design and in media/ editor, can you tell us how this came about?
Careers now are more fluid than ever, a career in beauty led me into discovering my strength and affinity for fashion design, and a career in fashion design led me into fashion editing, styling and eventually being the Editor in Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, where I was directing the voice of an entire industry in the region. And now this is leading me into building the future of fashion – Fashion-Tech – through digital animation and avatars. My movements are in accordance to the market’s needs, where I see my creativity and voice could have the biggest market impact. I am always curious to discover how far I could push my own abilities and my own imagination. Right now, I have a plethora of ideas in the bank waiting to explode onto the scene – bringing my vision to life is what drives me each and every day.
You went on to becoming the first female Arab editor in chief of one of the most renowned fashion magazines in the world. What did this achievement mean to you?
A blessing. A responsibility. A new adventure and an opportunity to make a difference. I’ve always trusted my own voice and I knew I had something to say – to alter people’s perception of what modern fashion really is and what is the responsibility of a fashion publication in the new ecosystem. I took it as an opportunity to challenge and raise creative standards of the region; to inspire our readers to stop and reflect by offering them ideas and visuals which have never been tackled before.
What do you think made you stand out in the process of achieving such a prestigious role?
My versatility. That was what I was clearly told when I was approached for the position. The fact that I had both regional and international experience, both fashion and beauty experience, worked in both the creative design and commercial marketing side of the business and had a clear vision and drive. Your passion moves people. I understood the why behind what made Bazaar an industry leader and clearly mapped out how we could not only maintain, but elevate such a market position.
What are three words that describe your working style as an editor in chief?
What do you consider to be your first “big break” in your career?
I’ve had many big breaks – each time I pivot in my career path I put my eye on a target and don’t stop till I achieve it. Being the regional manager for Lancôme Make-up (L’Oréal’s most prestigious brand in their entire portfolio) at 24 was the first one, Working for Ralph Lauren with the incredible Ralph Lauren himself in New York as a fashion designer straight out of graduation from Parsons was the second, and of course being approached by Harper Bazaar’s to be the first Arab female Editor in Chief was the third. I don’t think that I have reached the pinnacle of my career yet – so I look forward to catching more big breaks in my future
What is your advice to young professionals who want to follow a similar career path to yours?
Identify what you love and don’t worry about knowing it all. Just dive in. Find a place to start no matter how small it may seem at the onset. Dive into that career path fully trusting that your passion will light up your way. Be open to discovering new talents within yourself. Light-bulb moments are your instincts communicating with you – uncovering more of your potential and diversifying your horizons along your way. Allow yourself to flow with the movement.
Can you tell us more about Sawwad?
Sawwad is evolving into a Fashion-Tech company, first of its kind – based around the creation of fictional characters vs collections. The storyline begins with chapter 5, Awaken the Dragon, which will be released on October 1st. We take our audience on an epic journey of metamorphosis and adventure as each avatar flourishes into Sawwad’s universe – which encompasses their own fashion line, visuals, animations as well as musical score.
Sawwad is built on values of strength, resilience, openness and the importance of spiritual connection and human compassion in a fast-paced tech-savvy culture. As we move into the fourth industrial revolution (the AI revolution) we celebrate our Arabian roots and connect with global archetypes.
The word “Sawwad” comes from the Arabic word “Aswad” which means Black. Sawwad translates to “The essence of Black” or “Darkness” – hence our slogan “From the darkest moments, shines your brightest light.” This is the DNA of Sawwad – it is a beacon of hope for anyone in search of a new ray of light.
As a hiring manager, what do you look for in candidates? Do you have any tips that make a candidate stand out for you in an interview?
Passion. Demonstrating an understanding of the hard work it takes to build a brand. Coming prepared, on time and positive. Having a visual portfolio/ presentation or any visual aid corresponding to the position at hand. I usually give a small assignment to the top 5 candidates. Punctual submission and inspiring delivery are key.
Is there any failure/challenge that has taught you an invaluable lesson?
Many! If you don’t fail you don’t learn. And if you learn, then it is not really a failure. Finding a place to manufacture our products in the exact way we want was the most difficult hurdle yet, so many failures and heartaches along the way, but it only affirmed that this is a one of a kind design. If you want to lead an industry and make a real global impact, get ready for all kinds of colourful roadblocks along the way.
Lastly, as a professional in the fashion industry, what is your take on the future of the fashion industry post-covid?
I believe it is time for a drastic fashion evolution to take place, a much-needed change in the industry which brings with it a breath of fresh air through forces of revolutionary thinking. If anything, the unfortunate pandemic made us all take note of this reality and realize its imminence.