Heba Sulaiman: Student Entrepreneur

Heba Sulaiman is a third year student at the London College of Fashion. She was born and raised in Kuwait and moved to London to pursue her degree in Fashion Design. In 2016, as only a second year student, Heba launched her own fashion line and business. As on how, she has two completed fashion lines and is currently producing a new one. Her business is thriving in London and Kuwait, and she hopes to keep expanding.

BT: When did you first know that you wanted to be a designer?

Heba: At a very young age, my preferences gravitated towards arts as a career rather than just child’s play. If it weren’t for my days in middle school, I would not have found comfort in art class - something that allowed my mind to relax. My art teacher felt like a second mother to me. Watching her draw, I was encouraged to begin to draw myself and express my feelings through art. As cliché as it sounds, it’s true. Having realized that, I found a different form of expression--fashion. Instead of typical statement making through outfits, I realized I could make statements through individual pieces, and that’s where I headed through my drawings. You could feel my mood with each piece I created; if I felt calm and at peace, I’d use the lightest of pastels and sketch on delicate embroidery, and if I felt angry I’d add on chains, loud shoulders and spikes. Now, I’m working on a collection that expresses the way I feel I am perceived as an Arab Muslim in the West. I realized I have the ability to convey a message through apparel without having to speak.

BT: How did you prepare to apply to the London College of Fashion?

Heba: The schools I attended did not prepare me to enter the fashion industry at all. There was an incapability of preparing you for a career in a creative industry. It is not the education alone, but also the environment and people around you that you learn from. Before attending university, I did not have a single friend I could talk to about fashion design, the design process, fashion history, and designer backgrounds. But I did have friends who would show up bragging about the trendy items they were wearing, yet had no clue of its background. I ditched my friends for years to watch and take notes on designer documentaries and work on my portfolio. Fashion goes beyond what you see on the racks; the more high school classes I attended, the more I questioned what on earth I was doing at my school.
This form of anxiety made me research schools I dreamed of attending instead. I continued my research until I found the University of Arts London, the university I currently attend. I grew up watching virtual tours of the school, dreaming of what it would be like to attend, and all the people with similar interests and ambitions I would finally get to fit in with. I was 12 at the time, and saw online that the University offered short courses for 16-18 year olds. I waited to turn 16 to finally take a few courses at UAL during my summer vacation.

I felt a bit odd that all my other friends were attending summer camps where all they did was play games and sports, or surf all day, because I chose to work for the summer instead. It ended up being one of my best decisions. The course opened my mind in terms of perspective and creation. The assignments we were given consisted of playing with materials such as broken plastic and garbage bags. While in Kuwait, I would not dare use anything except for the latest editions of Vogue, thinking that I would look best and that I had to keep etiquette in work, not knowing that creativity in design required the complete opposite. Had I not taken a summer course prior to applying to my school, I would not have been prepared for or aware of the industry’s actual work process and environment.

BT: How has it been so far? What is your favorite aspect of your education there?

Heba: So far it has been a challenging yet rewarding experience, although it took some time to realize it. During my first year, I was required to take a class called ALAC, which I felt was forced upon me, but I realized its value later on. The class was supposed to be taught as an academic English class, but felt like the least academic subject that could be taught at a university. I would walk into class and the most random topic, such as the color of a nail polish, would be the topic of discussion. Day after day our discussions grew into deeper topics such as perspectives and perceptions, cultural appropriation, gender stereotypes, LGBT representation, and gentrification - important matters that need to be thought through, and not taught in high school. I dreaded the class, but I eventually realized how essential it was in reshaping the way I think. This is actually my favorite aspect of art school – the way it continues to reshape me entirely year after year.

BT: When did you start your own line?

Heba: Around the end of August in 2016 I launched a gym shirt line in order to test the waters, sort of trial run before the debut of my jacket project. ‘Athleisure’, at the time, was the trend with the biggest spotlight, so I decided to enter the market with something more reliable, later transitioning into what was my focus at the time, the Jacket Project. Next, I am looking to release a more ready-to-wear collection.

BT: Can you tell us about it? What inspired it?

Heba: To be honest, I came to the realization that I was not where I wanted to be in life. I saw the opportunities pass me by while I was too busy getting an education, and being socially occupied. In that moment I decided to take matters into my own hands and create a name for myself, the Jacket Project resembles the time when I wasted all my potential on non-beneficial, time-consuming social activities. Hence the anti-social themed jacket that blossomed through my floral themed jackets and into the eagle.

BT: What does it take to run your business?

Heba: It takes a great deal of time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and everything else in between. It’s a one-woman job, from production, to inventory, shipping, sending out email confirmations, and going on hectic mail runs in the pouring rain - but it’s all worth it. It’s even worth the doubtful, underestimating stares that are made based on the fact I come from a wealthy country, Kuwait. It’s the same people that give those looks that think I have all my work done for me. It takes a lot to laugh off these comments made by people, but my work will prove for itself the true effort I put into this business.

BT: How do you manage to do it as a student?

Heba: Obviously it’s no easy job, balancing schoolwork, the brand, and internships from time to time and having to create a clear line between personal and graded projects is a lot to handle mentally as well as physically. It takes a great amount of discipline, something I may not have perfected in my first couple years at university. Being forced to balance different areas of my life at the same time allowed me to mentally mature at a very fast pace. It’s tough, but what makes it worth it in the end is seeing my work being worn by the people around me, knowing my name is sewn on the inside of each piece.

BT: What advice do you have for students wanting to pursue their own businesses?

Heba: Growing up, I received support from everybody around me until they realized I was serious about a career in fashion. Once that support began to fade, I was ashamed to say I was attending a school of fashion, and would instead say I was studying business - knowing I would not be asked any further questions. Although this was the case, I continued to work towards my goal of completing a university degree in fashion design. Realizing I did not need support from anyone, I knew I did not need to graduate to start building a name for myself. It started with 1-day work experience behind the scenes at fashion week shows, to starting my own brand.

The idea is, do not wait for anyone to support you, no matter how important to you they may be. Do not wait for anyone to point you in the right direction. As much as you know people love you, and want what’s best for you, at the end of the day you know what’s best for yourself. If you’re lucky enough to have a strong supportive group around you - always seek criticism, and not compliments. Don’t let negative comments make you doubt yourself: use them to push yourself to grow. As long as you have the proper mindset and discipline, you will be able to do everything on your own without asking for help.

BT: What are your plans for true next few years?

Heba: I plan to continue working towards my degree and taking part in internships to gain more experience in every aspect of the fashion industry. I will also continue to release more collections, and collaborate with more artists and creative. By the time I graduate, I hope that I would have opened my first store in Kuwait. Following, I want to focus on expanding my brand globally, and opening up stores in the US and Europe.

InterviewsRasha Suleiman