The Arab diaspora is one of the most widespread diasporas in the world — there are 20 million Arab immigrants living in nearly every corner of the globe. With such a large immigrant population, the Middle East/North Africa region has proportionally more citizens in its diaspora than most regions. Regardless of the distance between people of Arab descent, they face a common struggle: the struggle to retain their cultural identity and preserve their heritage while living among non-Arabs.
This struggle is especially prevalent in the lives of Australian siblings Rahma (17) and Adam (20) Elatrebi Soliman and their close friend who is practically family, Aisha Sellami (19). This Australian trio has created the clothing brand, Soliela, which serves to unite all members of the Arab diaspora and preserve the culture so many struggle to keep alive. Rahma and Adam are both of Egyptian descent and Aisha is of both Egyptian and Algerian descent. As the children of Arab immigrants living in a Western country, Rahma, Adam and Aisha have experienced the identity struggle many in the Arab diaspora face first hand.
I recently sat down (virtually) with creatives Aisha and Rahma to discuss the origins of their innovative clothing brand, their accomplishments with Soliela thus far and future goals they have for the brand. Here’s what they had to say about Soliela:
The Unconventional Start to Soliela
Aisha, Adam and Rahma have been interested in fashion and, more broadly, art for their entire lives. Rahma recalls her and Aisha growing up constantly going to op shops (the Australian equivalent of thrift stores) where they were inspired by the generations of designs that existed in one setting. Through the op shops, Rahma says they were exposed to so much fashion, and they began to appreciate everyone’s unique style. Rahma expands on this saying, “Going to these op shops everyday of my life, you get exposed to so much, and you’re able to appreciate what a grandma’s wearing and also what a homeless person is wearing.” The non-mainstream styles that inspired Rahma and Aisha in their childhood are reflected in the uniqueness and objective beauty of their clothing designs.
In addition to their exposure to art since youth, Rahma and Adam had wanted to make a brand for ages. In particular, through their visits to Egypt, they became obsessed with Egyptian fashion and the highly regarded Egyptian cotton. Notably, Rahma and Adam were shocked to find that there was barely any Egyptian cotton in Egypt. This ironic scarcity of Egyptian cotton lingered in the back of their minds and would soon reappear with the creation of their brand as they focused mainly on using Egyptian cotton for their pieces.
As for the actual creation of the brand, it was sparked by an unexpected event in which Rahma and Adam had to combine their creative forces in order to sustain themselves while their mother was visiting Egypt. The story goes as such: Around four years ago Rahma and Adam’s mother went on a trip to Egypt and left them with enough money for the duration of her stay. When their mother’s trip was unfortunately extended due to the death of a family member in Egypt, Rahma and Adam ran out of money but did not want to stress their mother out anymore than she already was. Instead, they innovatively designed a T-shirt with the name “Soliela” on it (which previously was Adam’s instagram handle) and sold it to people in their school. This idea was a great hit as they profted around $2,000 from pre-orders alone. Due to the shocking success of their shirts, Rahma and Adam decided to turn their idea to an actual business, and thus, Soliela was born.
The Theme of Duality
As mentioned before, Soliela served to represent the dual essence of being of Arab descent and living in a non-Arab country. This representation is primarily present in the derivation of the brand name. The first part of the brand name, “Soli,” is derived from the English spelling of Rahma and Adam’s last name, Soliman. The second half of the name “ela” is derived from the Egyptian street slang for the word boy, “يلا” (pronounced, yela). The second half of the name also doubles as a reference to the other part of Rahma and Adam’s last name, Elatrebi. With these English and Arabic elements combined, the name of this brand is a perfect reflection of the purpose of Soliela as well as who the brand primarily caters to: Arabs living outside of the Middle East and North Africa.
While it is clear that the main audience of the brand is members of the Arab diaspora, Aisha explains that it is not exclusively a brand for people of Arab descent. She expands on their audience with two categories: a primary audience and a secondary audience. The primary audience of their brand is Arabs — they are the people who the brand is for and about. Aisha says the ideal person wearing the brand is “that Arab kid living in France who eats couscous at home and wears those coats and, I don’t know, steals cars at night and is stuck in between and is stuck growing up and that is who we want wearing the clothes. For that comfort on their journey.” Additionally, the secondary audience would be non-Arab people who enjoy the designs of the brand. For the secondary audience, the brand would become a way to change the narrative that Arabs are lucky to be in a Western country and that their home countries are rubbish. They want to change that narrative and display the beauty of the culture.
The Intersection of Fashion and Politics
Similar to the unification of the Arab diaspora and the dual essence of the brand, Soliela frequently embodies the intersection of politics and fashion. They have released various pieces dedicated to certain political issues, figures and causes.
Most recently, Soliela dropped a winter scarf with the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh pattern. All proceeds from this scarf were donated to the Olive Kids foundation. On an Instagram post about this piece, Soliela wrote, “Due to what has been going on in Palestine for the past 72 years and the Annexation of Palestine that will be taking place on the 1st of July 2020, we have decided to drop a winter scarf, with the Keffiyeh pattern. This traditional pattern worn by Palestinian farmers became a symbol of the Palestinian resistance movement. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to @olivekids, an Australian registered foundation that seeks to facilitate financial support, educational and medical assistance to Palestinian children.” The scarf was a major success for Soliela, as it sold out in less than an hour with customers from all over the world. Below is a photo from their campaign for the Keffiyeh designed scarf:
In addition to using fashion to assist Arab countries suffering at the hands of Western forces, such as in the case of Palestine, Soliela also creates clothing to help alleviate issues between Arab countries. Most recently, Soliela released a graphic on their Instagram that depicts an animated soccer ball in the northern region of Africa. This graphic resembles the love of soccer throughout the Middle East and North Africa which is one thing that unites the North African countries Algeria and Egypt. Soliela creative Aisha intentionally incorporated soccer into this design to reflect and encourage the unification of MENA countries. She condemns division and conflict between any Arab countries and chooses to embrace the similarities of the Arab world. The graphic for this cause is shown below:
The Future of Soliela
With all Rahma, Adam and Aisha have accomplished so far with their brand, they are still only in the early stages. Rahma hopes that after she graduates high school she will have more time and can put more effort into the brand, which will allow them to start releasing more consistent, larger clothing lines. In addition, Soliela creators hope to expand their brand beyond clothing and explore the world of design further.
Aside from the above mentioned goals, they have no specific vision for the future other than to have the brand be a constant reflection of their ideas and creative growth. Rahma, Adam and Aisha hope that along the way, the reinforcement of Arab culture through Soliela will normalize Arabs loving their culture and reverse the stereotypes and misrepresentations that have been enforced throughout the Western world. Ultimately, in the words of Adam, they hope “Soliela will trigger the next Islamic Golden Age,” one in which Arab culture and creatives are recognized and appreciated globally.