Photo Courtesy of Rawa Awad. (Model pictured. Photo cropped for proper positioning.) Photo Credit to Jim Hesterman.
Rawa Awad is the CEO and creative director of Ethár Collection, a luxury modest formal wear line based in Arizona.
UR: Walk our readers through your journey in 2013 during Ramadan and how it lead to starting Ethár Collection.
RA: 2013 basically was a moment in my life where I really wanted to take initiative of my direction, of where I was going. I had a lot of fear and anxiety of where I was going in life and what I was doing, so I just told myself, I’m just going to nip it in the bud and I’m just going to do this. My brother and sister-in-law had invited me to stay up with them in L.A. so I figured, this is a unique opportunity. I may never have this opportunity of staying a whole month in L.A. so I’m going to pursue a love for [a] passion. I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I didn’t have any other gameplan other than I was going to go to the L.A. fashion district every single day for thirty days. That was my game plan. That’s all I came with.
So the first day of Ramadan, me and my sister-in-law, we went down to the fashion district. We had no idea where to park, we had no idea where to start, and so we just started to go store to store looking at the garments that were being sold, looking at fabrics, everything that comes with the L.A. fashion district, and it was pretty intense. You will see all sorts of things and all sorts of languages are being spoken and in the madness there’s a real beauty, but [to] somebody that not from the fashion industry that’s just walking in their very first day, it’s very overwhelming. We walked for maybe 2 miles, and we’re fasting mind you, no drinking, no water, anything like that, and the sun was on us. It was a hot summer day.
We stumbled upon this store—Carmelo’s Textiles—I still remember it. She was a Persian woman who was so so kind to us and so we just started asking questions. And we thought we were all cool, asking these questions that we thought showed that we meant something, but she saw right through that. She knew that we had no idea what we were talking about and so she’s like, “listen up, girls.” She pulled up these two chairs for us and talked us through the process…
We took the fabric and considered it a day of victory for us. We made a major breakthrough that day, we bought something. That was a big thing for us. Then we drove all the way back to Orange County and then we were like, “Shoot! What do we do with this fabric? How do we actually transform this into a dress?” The following days, I sat and just did research online and just figured out, I have fabric, what do I do with it? How do I make it into something?
…I started to do a lot of research and then I started to hone in on the aesthetic that I wanted, because I knew I could start making anything but if I wasn’t really directional then I’m just going to start spending money for no reason. Which ironically, that is what I did. I left L.A. with a lot of money spent, but it was good… [In L.A.] we were carrying all this stuff and going from store to store and asking all these questions and you’re redirected from place to place and there’s so much value in that. There’s so much skill and so much knowledge you learn from being there. From that experience, I learned that there’s so much I don’t know and there’s so much opportunity for me to grow in this industry. What I was making was something very unique because everybody that I was showing my designs to [and sharing] my thought process with was telling me, ‘wow. This is really creative, this is really different. This is really something that people haven’t done and there’s a real need for it.’
UR: Ethár Collection centers upon providing women with luxury modest formal wear. Explain to our readers how you saw this gap in the market and why is it important to fill that gap?
RA: The driving force behind this is that I’m very driven by my faith and my beliefs and values. These last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching of finding my direction in life and I’ve started to think about what inspires me. I’ve noticed that the people that inspire me the most are people that are really committed, dedicated working women. I started to think about, okay, where are these women going? What are they doing? What are they accomplishing and what are they impacting? I started to see that a lot of these women are so committed and focused—across the board—any industry that they’re in and they’re breaking through the glass ceilings. They’re finding their place in areas that other women have not been able to and specifically, Muslim women, and on top of it, the covered Muslim woman. She’s very visual in her success and in her growth and where she’s come [from].
But the problem with that is that she’s finally reached these places of all of her hard work and her intellect and her commitment. Then she reaches these places of going to the White House, speaking at formal events or going to galas. Then, a struggle of imagery comes into play. Like, how do I dress to fit this part? How do I be professional to fit this setting? There’s a real kind of insecurity there that a lot of Muslim women struggle with because they wear the scarf for everything that it stands for and all the beauty and empowerment that comes with it. Then when it actually came time to dress for it in these occasions, there was a void.
I’m so inspired by these women and because I really find them to be at the core of our community, I wanted to be a part of their lives and help remove a burden for them by providing them something that could alleviate that frustration. So when they get invited to a gala, they don’t even have to think about what they’re going to wear because I have that covered. They just have to think about, okay, what’s on my schedule today? Who am I going to help? Who am I going to impact? What are we going to take down? What are we not going to do? I’ve got you covered for everything else. To me, I just wanted that powerful imagery of dignity and honor that comes with wearing the headscarf.
UR: Is there an example of a response you’ve received from customers that stands out to you?
RA: When I was working on this project, my whole framework was for the Muslim American woman or the Muslim Western woman, around that demographic. But what has really surprised me is the overwhelming response of just the American market. Women across the board, regardless of what their faith is. They have become kind of my number one customer actually, it’s just your average woman that appreciates modesty. I think it’s refreshing that they have that option available to them where not everything has to be exposed or not everything has to be just like what everybody else is wearing. They find some uniqueness in the Ethár garment and so I’m very, very happy that what I originally thought was unique to the Islamic faith, I’m really happy to see that it’s playing out as a universal value that everybody appreciates.
UR: The word ‘ethár,’ what does that mean? Describe how it reflects your ideal client.
RA: Choosing a name for a brand or a company of any sort is extremely difficult. I went through a long list of names and I ended up settling on Ethár. The whole concept of what I was trying to do is getting down to the idea of why we even wear the scarf, for example. The idea of the scarf, so many people relate it to liberation and I find that to be so vague because what are you liberating yourself from? Are we liberating ourselves from other people’s opinion of ourselves? Are we liberating ourselves from society? What exactly is that liberation coming from? And so I started to think about, to me, the real true liberation is when you can free yourself from yourself. From your own desires and your own wishes and then you can start living a life not dictated by your insecurities or what other people’s opinions of you may be, because that’s really limiting. So, if you could start thinking about your own internal liberations and freeing yourself from yourself, you could then start thinking about life bigger than yourself. You can start thinking about creating that bigger impact. The word ‘ethár’ itself actually means ‘selflessness.’ It’s a very big concept in Islam where you’re supposed to kind of embody this selflessness, like, what you want for your brothers? What do you want for yourself?
UR: Samah Safi Bayazid, a Jordinian filmmaker, wore an Ethár Collection over coat to the premiere of her and her husband’s film, “Fireplace” which documents the experiences of war torn children in Syria. What was the process like of creating a garment for her to wear? What was the experience of seeing her wear one of your garments to the film’s premiere like for you emotionally?
RA: When I was originally making garments for Ethár, there were a few women in my mind that came into play. Like, who was I going to dress and who was I going to go after and what does that an Ethár woman look like? So, Samah was actually one of them. From the very beginning, before I’d even met her, she was always in the back of my mind because she was creating a very big impact. Not only in the United States, but globally. A lot of her work is across the world and the awards that she’s accomplished is phenomenal. It was one of those things like, am I going to sit on the sidelines or am I going to do something about it?
Back in December of 2016, I was actually in Chicago for an event and she happened to be at that same event. I emailed her before the event and I just threw it out there. At the event, I went up to her and I was like, “you know what? This is what I’m doing. It would be cool if you just showed up [to a photoshoot that night] and maybe wore one of our garments and then we can interview you and it could be part of something that we’d post online.” This was before I had launched, but this was kind of the direction that I wanted [to go in.]
She was so graceful and showed up to my hotel room at midnight and we did a photoshoot. It was amazing spending that time with her and just getting to know her more on a personal basis. It was so cool and it made me realize, really, anything is possible. Who would have thought that a director that I was designing for in Phoenix, Arizona—I’m a nobody here—[that I would] reach somebody globally before I even launch, before I even had a following, or even a name. We stayed in contact and she was so supportive and she told me, “a lot of the stuff that you’re doing are not things that I’m seeing on the runway.” And she travels a lot and she works with a lot of designers personally, so that gave me that additional support that I needed.
Going back home a month later, she had contacted me and was asking me to make a personal piece for her for an event that she had originally scheduled. Due to some scheduling conflicts, she didn’t actually end up going to that event, but again, that follow up [showed] that she had supported me. So I knew I really wanted to show that gesture of support again to her. We had talked about different pieces and she had loved the coat so much, so I just sent it to her as a thank you—nothing in mind, no agreements on when she was going to wear it or anything.
Out of nowhere, a few weeks ago, I open up my Instagram and I see a photo of premiere night. She’s wearing my coat, and I was just like, ‘oh my god.’ I wanted to be on the red carpet, I wanted to dress her, and I never actually planned it, but I think because I just was so intentional in the beginning and genuine in trying to create relationships with these really strong women, she saw that and she respected that—that on her red carpet night, she chose to wear my piece. So, that was really great and that was really inspiring. Especially as a young designer, somebody that’s just coming up, you do get stuck in your head a lot and you get caught up in the numbers on social media and Instagram [that] you forget that really, a lot of success comes from just being genuine and authentic. And when you start building relationships, people recognize and pay attention to that and they value and support that. I kind of felt like this was God’s way of telling me, ‘keep moving forward. You’re doing something right.’ Even when you don’t expect good to come to you, it’s going to come to you if you’re good.
UR: What are your thoughts and perspectives on the rise of modest fashion in the global fashion industry? (We think of Nike’s Pro Hijab for athletes, designers and brands from low to high fashion like Tommy Hilfiger and Zara creating specially collections for the Ramadan holiday.)
RA: I’ve actually thought about this a lot and I can’t give you one solid answer because I think there’s good and bad in everything. I think the good is that they’re really recognizing a community that has been underserved and under recognized. There’s always the sense of validation that people get when the ‘big guys,’ the quote unquote big brands bring attention to something because there’s an awareness that comes with that. And I think from that [comes] something really, really good. The only problem, is when you start thinking about, how are they seeing us? Are they really empowering us or are they seeing us as dollar signs?… Are they designing pieces that really do speak to the modest needs or are they speaking to just slapping a hijab on a model? I think there’s so much good there, because it’s creating a space for the Muslim modest industry, it’s creating a spotlight and that adds a lot of value—that in itself and a lot of marketing power—but I think there’s still room for the Muslim woman designer or male designer to come in and really from the bottom of their heart solve the needs and provide better solutions to a lot of people.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.