Fashionable, flamboyant, funny and fun-loving. sarah Belhasa admits to being all this and more in a chat with Umaima Tinwala.
Where it would take the more sartoriallychallenged among us hours, maybe even days, to put together a perfect ensemble – gorgeous flowing abaya, matching Sheila, and perfectly co-ordinated make-up and accessories – for Sarah Belhasa, it is second nature. “I don’t even think about it anymore,” she says, off-handedly, “I just know what goes with what, and I put it on.”
But before you mistakenly take her devil-may-care attitude as arrogance or carelessness, consider this. Belhasa is the owner of one of the most prestigious multi-brand boutiques, Studio 8, located on Jumeirah Beach Road, Dubai, UAE. She is on the advisory board of the Dubai Fashion Week. She counts renowned designers like Manish Malhotra and Hasan from HSY among her close friends. And on the famous celebrity Paris Hilton’s recent trip to Dubai, her boutique dressed the contestants of Hilton’s show, and Belhasa herself rubbed shoulders with the young socialite.
These are only a few things that indicate a shrewd businesswoman is behind that glossy exterior, one who knows what she wants, and how to get it. Belhasa’s intelligence is well-complemented by her pleasing personality and friendly approach to everyone she deals with. And she knows it. “Most people I meet like me. Maybe that’s why I have been fortunate enough to have things happen so quickly and easily for me,” she smiles.
One of Belhasa’s earliest memories is of a time when she was to accompany her father to school for open day. As she readied herself, and took endless number of hours to do so, her father was exasperated. “I kept looking at the mirror, and he got so upset, he finally said the mirror will crack one day if I keep staring into it for so long,” she laughs. In spite of her interest and partiality towards fashion, Belhasa was a good student.
“Education was very important to me, and I was one of the toppers in my class. In fact, I was so good that my professors wanted me to become a teacher myself,” she says. Belhasa spent her early years shuttling between Dubai, where her parents lived, and India, where she was sent to complete her education. “I did my graduation in economics. My grades were really good, and I was encouraged by my teachers to pursue this field of education, so that I could become a lecturer myself some day,” she says.
“Even at that time though, I was so particular about my appearance, that one of the first questions my teachers would ask me for the day was ‘Show me which bangles you are wearing today’,” she laughs.
The recommendation for her education, though, she says, came from the fact that Belhasa shows no fear, and is good with people. “Even as a final year student, I used to give lectures at times. I was also very active in college activities, like the performing arts, and my professors were quite impressed with me,” she explains.
However, that was not to be. For, as soon as she completed her graduation, her father asked her to get married, stating that she had studied enough. “If I wanted to continue my education, the choice would have to be made in my husband’s house, so I came back,” she says.
“I had known Saif for some time already, and when I returned from India, my father told me he was the perfect match for me. In fact, most people around me felt that he and I would make an ideal match because he was the one person who could handle me the way I was,” she smiles.
In a moment of candid confession, Belhasa continues, “Most people think I am very independent, but in reality, I need the security of a home and family. I am a very family oriented person, who likes nothing more than to spend time with my husband and kids. Saif was someone who made me feel that safe and secure, so I knew he was the right husband for me.”
Fashion comes calling
For a few years, Belhasa went through the motions of life, adjusting into her new home, having two wonderful boys, and making sure she was there for them in their early years.
“Saif’s father owns the Emirates Driving School, but Saif wanted to do something on his own. So he decided to open his own driving school, and that’s how we started the Belhasa Driving School,” she explains. Belhasa, given her educational background, and wanting to support her husband in this new venture, promptly went to work with him every day as Vice President of the company, setting up the business, and ensuring it grew in leaps and bounds. But when the company started running itself well, Belhasa found herself bored with the mundane and, well, colourless, office atmosphere.
“Saif encouraged me to do something on my own. I decided to do something with jewellery, as I had come across this fantastic supplier in Paris for accessories,” she says. In fact, the whole idea came about as Belhasa, herself keen on dressing well, always found it a task to find the right accessories for her clothes. “We Arabs like big, chunky stuff, and there just wasn’t enough variety available that catered to our taste,” she complains. Of course, the scene is rather different now, but in those days, there was a demand that Belhasa realized she could fill.
“I set up a deal with this Parisian company and brought their jewellery into the UAE. Only, these were not pieces that were available at their place, as French jewellery is quite delicate. These were my designs, that I created at their factory, working with stones and precious metal,” she says proudly.
She opened her first store, Glitter and Glow, at Century Mall in Dubai, where she retailed a wide range of jewellery and accessories for Arab women. The brand became so successful that she struck a deal with Kimaya, a multi-label boutique in Dubai, to sell her creations there.
It was at a fashion show at Kimaya that Belhasa happened to run into Manish Malhotra. One of India’s leading designers, well-known globally for his unique style and sensual take on women, Malhotra was instantly impressed by Belhasa, and their friendly chat soon turned into a business deal.
“I just asked him if he would be interested in having his own boutique, he said yes, I flew to India, signed the papers, and started scouting for a location,” she says simply.
A fresh start
“Fashion has always been my first love, so when this opportunity arose, it was like a dream come true for me,” says Belhasa, adding, “And to be honest, Arabs are quite Bollywood-conscious, so Manish was the perfect choice.” For Malhotra, this would be his first boutique, one that would lead to many others and make him a household name in Dubai.
It was the perfect deal, and an even better friendship. Explains Belhasa, “It’s very important for me to like the people I work with. And Manish is not just a great designer, but a wonderful human being. Besides, he is a ‘real’ designer. He’s not the sort you would find at parties, socialising and having a good time. He works 24/7, and I can call him at any time and he is always willing to talk shop,” she states.
Within a month, Belhasa had zeroed in on a villa along the Jumeirah Beach Road, an ideal spot that allowed great visibility, convenience and an up-market feel to the store. And, admits Belhasa, it really was all as simple as it sounds. “I am a spontaneous person. That could be the reason why people like me. I can convince people very quickly, like I did with Manish, or with Hasan. Or maybe it’s my positive energy,” she smiles.
Whatever it may be, Belhasa soon went from success to success with Malhotra, and added many more achievements to her credit. She was asked to join the Advisory board at the Dubai Fashion Week, and soon became one of the most active members there. Always in the limelight, Belhasa was approached by many designers to open a boutique with them, and, at the same time, was advised to do something on her own, a multi-brand boutique that would be hers.
The idea appealed to Belhasa, and she promptly got to thinking. “I was sitting with Hasan when I decided to go for it. I asked him, and he said yes, he would love to supply to my store. I called Manish, cleared everything with him, and he was more than happy about it. And that’s how Studio 8 came into being,” she says.
Lucky number 8
Belhasa’s impulsiveness must not be mistaken for recklessness though. Her astute mind and quick thinking is one of the reasons why she almost never finds herself in a situation she cannot handle. She considers all options, and is prepared for the unforeseen ones, constantly putting her business on priority.
For her boutique – Studio 8, as the number is a symbol of prosperity – she chooses the clothes herself from the designer’s catalogues, and insists on a deal based on consignment so she can return what she feels does not work. She consults with them for exclusive lines, providing her valuable feedback on colours and styles that Arab women want. She convinces her designers to price their work differently for her, for, she explains, her priority is the customer.
“I want people to be happy. I want that when women walk into the store, they should buy something. After all, isn’t fashion about that anyway? It makes you feel wonderful and beautiful and happy. And that’s the feeling I want to pass on to my clients. I am not bothered about labels. I want good work at a reasonable price,” she asserts.
Belhasa has also made space for an exclusive Arabic room, where she stocks abayas and jalebiyas that are ideal for when an event comes up and you need something urgently. The whole concept of the room is different, more specifically for Arab women, and it is versatile enough for her to add on to, should she wish to do so in the future.
Also, Belhasa plans to allow designers to hold exhibitions in the store, providing more variety to her clients, and ensuring they keep coming back. “The idea is to keep it simple. I don’t want Studio 8 to be like a warehouse, and yet, I want to offer my clients as much as possible. I already have a lot of requests for exhibitions, and am considering a few of them,” she explains.
Striking a balance
Juggling the roles of an entrepreneur, mother, wife and savvy fashionista cannot possibly be easy for this young woman. And yet, she seems to do it so effortlessly, it makes you wonder. But in reality, it’s all simply about priorities.
“As I said before, I am a very homely person. Yes, I love fashion, and I love my work, and I spend a lot of time on what I do, but at the end of the day, I want to go home and spend time with my husband and my sons,” she says. Belhasa makes it a point to have lunch and dinner with her family every day, and spends quality time with her sons.
“We always catch a movie and have lunch together on Saturday. It’s a routine we love, and hope to keep up for as long as they are willing,” she smiles.
Parties are a no-no for her, which seems surprising, considering her flamboyant personality. “I cannot make the time for them really. I go for events, which is important because I need to keep an eye on what’s happening in the market, but I avoid parties. I prefer staying home with my family. As for socialising, I meet my friends at most of these events anyway,” she says.
And there is not a note of wistfulness in her voice for the choice she has made.
“Sometimes my friends do call and ask me to join them for lunch. But then, they wake up in the morning, go to the gym, go to the spa, check out the events for the day, and then ask me to lunch. But I have already had many meetings since morning and am too busy to leave the boutique, so I have to say no,” she explains.
Her comfort also comes from the fact that her work is well-supported by her family. “I was asking my sons the other day what they like and dislike about me, and they said they like to see me in the media, being quoted or photographed at fashion events,” she smiles.
And of course, there is staunch support from her husband. “I doubt Saif can ever see me sitting at home doing nothing. He is one of my biggest supporters, always encouraging me and pushing me to do better,” she says, her smile growing with each thought.
Looking towards the future
“I am the sort who gives 100 per cent to everything. Either I do it fully, or I don’t do it at all,” states Belhasa. Glad to have finished that part of her life where kids are too little to leave behind, Belhasa is looking forward to a future of growth and prosperity.
“I think it’s because I have always been an achiever. My father pushed me on stage as a little girl and encouraged me to excel. I can never forget that feeling. As headgirl of the school, scoring the highest marks in economics, and always participating in cultural events, I got used to being in the limelight. I cannot allow myself to decline now,” she explains.
Addicted to success, Belhasa is planning other Studio 8’s in different parts of the world, like London and Russia, to name a few. “There is a lot of demand for this kind of work in London. I’ve seen the way people shop there – I do it myself! So it’s a good business opportunity. And Russia, of course, is happening big time in terms of fashion.
Most designers run out of stock because of the heavy demand in Russia. That’s something I think I can get into now,” she muses.
And all the travelling and added workload that these plans will entail is hardly a deterrent for Belhasa. “At the end of the day, I am working sincerely and making use of my talent. I know my limits, and I would never cross them. I am working hard and I am sure my compatriots are proud of me. Women in the UAE want to go out, work and experience life in a different setting. And I am doing that without compromising on my culture,” she explains.
“I don’t believe in the word impossible,” she states in conclusion.
Article by: Arabian Woman
September 2009 Issue