Rima Ashemimry is a shrewd businesswoman. Her confidence and firm affirmation about who she is makes her unique, and yet, the kind of woman anyone can relate to. She speaks exclusively to AW about her challenging childhood, the journey that has been rimalya, and her pride in her heritage.
From her delicate mannerisms, to the loose folds in her abaya, and the slight lilt in her otherwise American accent, it's difficult to guess where Rima Ashemimry comes from. Owner of the fashion label, Rimalya, Ashemimry is truly a global citizen – she spent most of her life in the US, is currently based in the UAE, but is 100 per cent Saudi at heart.
She started Rimalya with her sister Sara in 2005, a year after moving to the UAE. The brand was a product of Ashemimry's passion for fashion and her sister's entrepreneurial instincts, evident in the fact that it had an initial start-up balance of a mere USD 550 - roughly the price of a pair of Bvlgari sunglasses. Rimalya has since expanded into an established haute couture brand with a made-to-wear line, and has grown from an idea created by two sisters into an entire manufacturing operation.
In spite of spending 20 of her 35 years in Miami, Ashemimry's heart is still very much in Jeddah, her hometown, which she left at the age of 11. “I moved to the States with my father following my parents' divorce, and lived there for 20 years before I got married. My husband, a Kuwaiti, and I decided to move back to the Middle East, which we were both keen on doing. His work brought him to the UAE, so we moved to Sharjah initially, where my his business was based. It was a difficult time – a lonely time - for me, as I was isolated from all my friends and family,” she says.
In fact, Ashemimry felt so lonely that her younger sister Sara would come to visit her from KSA every weekend, and it was during these visits that they had the idea of starting a fashion line. “As clichéd as it sounds, I've always been interested in fashion,” Ashemimry explains. “My fashion journey started when I was a teenager growing up in Florida. My father was always very adamant that his children learn how to be independent in all ways, including financially.
We didn't have a cushioned upbringing where all our whims and fancies were catered to without a second thought. Although he was a giving father, and, of course, provided us with a comfortable life, he didn't want to spoil us and cater to all our extravagances. Like all the other American teenagers, we were expected to get part-time jobs to not only give us financial freedom, but to teach us discipline, hard work and responsibility as well,” she adds.
At 16, Ashemimry began working part-time at a retail store, and her ‘sales assistant' role went a lot deeper than just encouraging customers to buy the clothes. “I was always honest with the customers,” she remembers with a laugh, “If something looked terrible on them, I would tell them, and then help them find something more suitable. My managers could see that I had really built up a good rapport with my customers, and I started building my own client base. I was then given the responsibility to work in the fashion office of the retail store.”
During college, where Ashemimry studied an eclectic mixture of interior design, fashion design and international marketing, she also worked as a fashion assistant at Saks Fifth Avenue, and it was there that she was exposed to the real world of fashion. She came in contact with designers and buyers, and handled VIP customers who personally sought her recommendations.
“I really enjoyed putting together outfits that I knew brought out the best in the customer – that would play down big hips, created waists, busts, and lengthened legs. Clothes are fascinating, and the power they have in making or breaking a person's entire projected personality is immense.
I loved the feeling I got when I'd help a customer put together an amazing outfit, and they walked away feeling content, confident and satisfied,” she smiles.
When brainstorming potential business ideas with Sara, who had recently completed her degree in marketing, fashion design was naturally at the top of her list. After all, friends and family were already reaping the benefits of Ashemimry's couture knowledge by seeking advice, asking her to accompany them on shopping trips, and so on.
She also regularly designed home interiors on a freelance basis, which had further established her sense of tasteful fashion in their wide circle of influential family and friends. However, with no capital, no tailors and armed with just enthusiasm and an eye for fashion, the sisters were stuck on how to make their dream a reality.
The easiest route would have been to ask their family for financial assistance. However, determined to test their own capability, they opted not to. “We invested a grand total of AED 2,000 - equivalent to around USD 550.
With such little capital, we had to keep it simple, so we came up with the idea of twotone sheilas that were a brand new concept at the time. We also created ‘travelling' sheilas for women on the go, who couldn't be bothered to fuss about with pins and clips to keep their sheilas secure,” she explains.
Now that they had the idea and the designs, they needed to create the product. Ashemimry went out in Sharjah on foot to find a tailor who would sew the scarves. With Sara marketing the product in KSA, they planned that Ashemimry would design them, create them and ship over to her sister, who would sell them.
“The scarves were a huge success. We manufactured 40 pieces originally, and they sold like hot cakes. Our initial investment of AED 2,000 had now grown to AED 5,000. We were ecstatic that the response had been so great, and this made us even more determined to continue to grow and expand.
My husband had told me that if I managed to sell one thing, and made a profit of even one dirham, that I would succeed in this venture. Now, whenever I feel a bit down, I remember those words and I feel inspired all over again,” she says.
The next step for the brand Rimalya – a play on both her first name and her eldest daughter's name, Alya - was to move on from sheilas and into garments. “Again, we kept it simple. We didn't want to run before we could walk, so we decided to design and manufacture kaftans. I designed them, and had the kaftans made by a tailor - our first employee who was, and still is, a vital part of the company. We hired a stall at a bazaar in KSA, and displayed the kaftans there.
All 50 from our very first collection were sold out,” states Ashemimry. Careful to keep the momentum going without letting it spiral out of control, Ashemimry decided to create a new collection of kaftans for the same fashion show and bazaar in Jeddah, the following year in 2006.
This time, all 300 pieces, encrusted in semi-precious stones were sold out. “As they walked out on to the runway, they sold out,” she remembers with a smile. “I wasn't greedy,” Ashemimry states simply. “I kept the prices of my pieces true to what they were, rather than adding an extra zero at the end to make a hefty profit, and I didn't discriminate with my clients either.” In fact, she even has Saudi royalty on her client list, who are quoted the same, honest prices as regular customers.
Following the success of the show in 2006, potential customers flocked to Jeddah to enquire about the ready-to-wear line, and Ashemimry had her hands full catering to those orders.
“At that point, Sara and I finally realised we actually had a business. Up until that moment, designing had been a passion, but we weren't sure if it would be a viable full-time business.
When all my time was spent focusing on it, when the orders were coming faster than I could cater for them, we realised that our dream was becoming a reality right in front of our eyes,” she says.
Ashemimry wanted a manufacturing license in the UAE, and the right to add ‘Made in UAE' to her labels. However, obtaining a manufacturing license is extremely difficult. This small challenge wasn't enough to deter her, and instead, she thought outside the box and with her husband's help, managed to secure it.
“Throughout my journey I've realised that nothing is impossible,” she confesses. “If you want something hard enough, you'll find a way to get it.” Indeed, following the success of the KSA show, Rimalya was launched in the US, and even showcased at New York Fashion week in 2007.
With the slightly ethnic touch to her designs that aims to flatter all figures, the lines were a huge success. Rimalya now has two lines - the original haute couture line under the ‘Rimalya' label, and ORA, the ready-to-wear line that sells in boutiques across the GCC, including Villa Moda, DNA, Gale, Mahat and S*uce. Although the garments have an ethnic touch, they are, by no means, traditional Arab clothing. Bold, bright and flattering, the clientele for her ranges is diverse and includes Arabs and Westerners alike.
“As with anyone new to a business, we initially encountered many obstacles. One of the problems we faced was a lack of professionalism and unreliability. Some people are not clear with you and make promises they know they can't keep,” she says.
Unfortunately for Ashemimry, she experienced the underhandedness of the business world firsthand following the Rimalya fashion show at the 2007 New York Fashion Week. Anxious for their show to be a hit, when she and her sister were approached by a marketing company who claimed they would take the brand to next level, it was like their dream was being handed to them on a golden platter.
“The agent who approached us was a TV actor, and he pitched us this great idea of providing us with a full marketing deal whereby Rimalya would be put in stores and showrooms all over the US. He talked of his Hollywood friends, and name-dropped actresses like Reese Witherspoon, who, he claimed, would wear our line and push our brand to the next level. It was difficult not to be swayed by the spiel,” she sighs.
Before signing an agreement, Rimalya agreed to give the agency a three-month trial period. During this time, they wowed the sisters by producing a glamorous look book (a portfolio of designs), shot and designed in New York.
A series of disappointments, embellishments, and sometimes outright lying followed the initial fantastic start as the agency failed to deliver on any of their original promises, such as getting Rimalya into Coterie, the most prestigious fashion expo in the US, which would have garnered the brand even more international recognition.
From overpricing costs (that, upon investigation, often transpired to be triple of the actual costs), to going as far as to pretend that Miss Venezuela would be modelling the collection (when the real model was a contestant that didn't make the cut), to even trying to take ownership of the ready-to-wear line, ORA, it became clear that the agency was taking them for a ride.
It was when they tried to claim ORA to be theirs, merely because they had designed the logo, did the penny drop for Ashemimry. Immediately getting her lawyer in the US on the phone, she realised that the agency had no right to claim ORA as theirs as it hadn't been registered. In fact, the agency itself wasn't even registered.
Without wasting any time, Ashemimry quickly registered ORA under Rimalya LLC herself. “With the US/UAE time difference, I used to stay up all night just to coordinate my work with them, and all they did was take our ideas and tweak them – they didn't bring anything new to the table. I don't want to go into the actual amount we invested in them – from flying them out to Dubai to visit the factory, to business trips in New York, and paying for all the overheads, as well as the agency's retainer fee – but it was all adding up.
As they continued to drain us, Sara and I sat down and calculated how much we had spent on them, and the results were shocking. And at the end of all the sleepless nights, the intense pressure, and, of course, the costs, all we got from them was a glorified look book,” she says.
The financial impact that the trail of deception had on Rimalya was crippling. Newly-wed Sara invested every single dirham she had saved for her new life into the brand, and Ashemimry did the same, even selling her jewellery in order to save the brand she and her sister had put their hearts and souls into creating.
“It was a very difficult time for me,” she reveals. “I was worried that if I turned to my father for help, he would advise me to cut my losses and forget about the business. But, after all the time, effort and love we had invested, I couldn't bear to do that. Instead, I put everything I had and more into saving it – whether it was my time or my money.
My husband was absolutely amazing throughout this period, and without him, my business may have fallen through. From the beginning, he has been the foundation of Rimalya, and his belief in me and faith in my business has resulted in my success today,” she says with pride.
Being the determined woman that she is, she refused to give up on Rimalya, and decided to learn from her mistakes instead of caving in to them. Now, Rimalya is marketed completely by Sara who, in just a few weeks, did what the agency couldn't do in three months. Due to Sara's efforts and expertise, the brand was showcased in Paris, which led to Rimalya being sold internationally.
Muslim or Christian, Arab or American, teenage years are universally acknowledged to be a difficult and trying time. Add to that the usual sense of insecurity and disorientation, a sense of displacement, a longing for ‘home,' and the challenges that accompany all immigrants, it's unsurprising that, as a teen, Ashemimry had a rebellious streak.
“At one point, I told my father I'd dropped out of school,” she remembers with a laugh. “He reacted the way most fathers would - he was absolutely livid. He couldn't accept any child of his without a college degree. Recently, however, my father and I were talking, discussing our businesses, and he sought my opinion on some of his own ideas. In that moment, I felt as though I had conquered the world. To have earned such respect from my father is one of my biggest achievements,” adds Ashemimry with pride apparent in her eyes.
Ashemimry clearly gets her fighter instincts from her parents. Her mother, being a single parent, did not want to feel like a burden to her family.
This, as well as her own ambitions, drove her to enrol in English courses. She also managed to secure a job working in a bank, and has since worked her way up to the position of regional manager.
“When you have such a strong and inspirational woman for a mother, there's no room for failure or self-pity. I have my father to thank for my ‘fighter' attitude as well. He was always so tough on us, especially the girls, because he never wanted any of us to be under someone's mercy.
When I used to work for him in the US, I once made the mistake of going to work two minutes late. In front of everyone, he told me to get out as I had no respect for time, and I should have calculated the time it would take me to reach the office. Some perceive this as harsh, and, at the time, I didn't appreciate it. Looking back, however, I realise why he did what he did. He was an amazing father and he always strove to constantly teach us and challenge us,” she explains.
Business is clearly part of the Ashemimry's family gene pool. Her father, at just six years-old, would make his own candy to sell, and when he was slightly older, would buy videos and hire the out to his neighbours for a tidy profit. At 16, his determination led him to become the youngest pilot in the entire region of Najd, and he later became King Faisal's pilot as well. Today, it's no surprise that he is a successful businessman and entrepreneur.
“The recent economic crisis has been tough on us, as with everyone,” Ashemimry reveals when explaining her business choices. “For purely financial reasons, I have expanded the clothing manufacturing aspect of my business as that creates steady revenue. My factory now produces for many corporate uniform suppliers, and unlike fashion, it is a reliable source of income.”
Next on Rimalya's agenda is obtaining premises and expanding the brand. “Since Sara moved to the US last year, she has been working on the market there, developing a contact base, and refining marketing strategies.
We also need our own store here in the UAE, and that is a priority. The revenue that is coming in from the manufacturing side will seep into that,” she explains.
Indeed, the fact Rimalya not only manufactures its own garments, but the fabric as well, gives it an edge over other designers in the region. Although fabric is occasionally bought, when Ashemimry wants a particular cloth to have a certain thickness or texture to it, she will manufacture it herself.
“I'm grateful that the UAE has given me the chance and opportunity to have my own business, as well as my own manufacturing license. This gives me the honour to put the ‘Made in UAE' label on my garments that are then distributed throughout the UAE and beyond,” she smiles.
Despite the fact that her home, and that of her brand, is in the UAE, Ashemimry misses KSA dearly, and always maintains her connection with her home country.
For a Saudi woman to turn around and tell the world that yes, she was raised in the US, and yes, she lives in cosmopolitan Dubai, but actually, her heart will always be rooted in KSA – a land painted to be void of women's rights – is a big statement.
“At the end of the day, I'm a typical Khaleeji girl, and I am proud of it. I ensure that my daughters are raised in a way that does justice to our roots, in terms of religious teachings and our traditions.
My entire family and my husband have been hugely supportive of my business and career endeavours, and, in fact, this is generally the case in Saudi society today. Gone are the days when it was generally frowned upon for women to have careers. Now, although there is a minority of people who still have that narrow-minded thinking, most people are not like that.
We also have a great ruling family who are bringing about change and reform in our society – not just talking about it,” she asserts. As for the woman's role there, Ashemimry firmly believes that Khaleeji women are stronger than most others, and merely because they have to fight twice as hard as any other woman to succeed. Success, however, does not come at the cost of her morals.
“I once rejected a client because they had an issue with my assistant's nationality. As long as somebody is doing their job properly, why should their nationality come into the equation? I do not tolerate racism or prejudice, and I never allow something as trivial as money to prevail over my morals or beliefs,” she says.
In fact, despite having achieved so much, when looking back at her life, it's not her business she is most proud of, but her two daughters; Alya and Lulwah.
“Alhamdulillah, my children are amazing, and when I watch them interact, without even realising I'm watching or listening, I feel so thankful that they are well-grounded, decent, unspoilt kids,” she smiles.
Caring and sensitive, Ashemimry's parental skills have been praised by her friends, who believe that she is a fantastic mother, which is also clear to anyone watching her interact with her daughters.
“I can't give 100 per cent of my time to my daughters, and 100 per cent to my career. However, I make sure that the time I do spend with my family is quality time,” she says. Whether it's making sure they're doing their homework, or reading to them in bed, or having pyjama parties, she is anxious to give them a wholesome upbringing. In fact, one of the first things that strike you about her home isn't the elegant décor or even the beautiful artwork adorning the walls, but the family photos in various corners, the wide array of non-fiction books weighing down the bookcases, and the huge selection of DVDs. The comfortable villa in Dubai's prestigious Jumeirah area is not a mere show home – it is very much lived in.
Far more than a fashion designer, Ashemimry is first and foremost a mother, a wife and a daughter. She is also a shrewd businesswoman who knows exactly what the strengths of her business are, and, although she is prepared to explore any avenue in order to succeed, she is not prepared to sell her soul in the process.
And those are the qualities that have seen her through tough times, carried her through disappointments, and brought her to the successful position she is in today.