Celebrity-loved Saudi designer Yousef Akbar: Fashion Trust Arabia win was ‘life-changing’

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DUBAI: Saudi fashion designer Yousef Akbar was all over the news as US actress Sharon Stone wore one of his creations to the 2023 Women’s Cancer Research Fund gala in Beverly Hills.

Stone isn’t the first celebrity that Akbar has dressed, either. Since the launch of his brand in 2016, Akbar’s avant-garde creations have been championed by other A-listers, including American supermodel Chrissy Teigen and former Destiny’s Child star and Beyonc? bandmate Kelly Rowland.

Being a fashion designer was never a childhood dream for Akbar, he tells Arab News. He studied supply-chain management at university and — outside of academia — was a keen, and talented, ten-pin bowler.

Akbar says that during his childhood in Jeddah he used to love sketching and drawing, but a career in the arts was not something he ever considered.

“Being an artist or a designer was so unthinkable that it wasn’t even worth dreaming about — it was completely out of the question,” he says.

Akbar’s parents were fairly traditional and wanted him to focus on a steady career for his future, so he spent most of his adolescence studying. In his spare time, he went bowling. He was good enough to earn a spot on the national team, competing at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha where Saudi Arabia won a bronze medal in the team of five event.

“We were very successful, and King Abdullah invited us to the palace to reward us,” Akbar says. “We were asked to write a letter with our request (for the reward), and I asked for a scholarship for higher education, which was granted.” Soon after, he headed to Australia to study logistics and supply-chain management at the University of Sydney.

As a student, he loved going on shopping trips with friends. Although he couldn’t splurge as much as he would have liked to. “Coming from a regular middle-class family and being on a student allowance, I didn’t have thousands of dollars to shop. Also, I couldn’t find the type of clothes I wanted to wear in regular menswear stores,” he explains. “So, towards the end of my Master’s degree, I started looking for fashion courses where I could learn to make my own clothes.”

He signed up for a fashion design degree at Ultimo, a technical and further education college in Sydney. Initially, he was disappointed in the course.

Chrissy Teigen with her husband John Legend in LA in 2019 wearing a Yousef Akbar dress. (Supplied)

“Once I got in, I thought I would be able to pick tailoring as a subject — you know, learn how to make a jacket for myself and get out of there. But tailoring was a second-year subject, so I had to complete the first year to get there. Additionally, womenswear was compulsory in the first year, which really annoyed me — I was barely interested in menswear, let alone womenswear,” he says.

However, as he got into the swing of things and started learning about design, something clicked, and Akbar discovered this was something he wanted to take seriously. “Once I had that realization, I worked hard and was fortunate enough to graduate top of my class in 2016,” he says.

That same year, he launched his eponymous brand — a commitment he was perhaps not quite ready for in retrospect.

Akbar (bottom right) and his national bowling squad teammates meet King Abdullah after winning bronze at the Asian Games in 2006. (Supplied)

“If I’d known how difficult it is to start a label, I wouldn’t have done it,” he says. “The fashion business can be complex and isn’t something they teach in depth at fashion school.”

He adds that starting a brand takes a lot of money, and as a graduate student; his savings fell short. “Another challenge was realizing that graduating top of your class means nothing. There are (plenty of) talented designers out there, all competing for a handful of stores, clients, buyers and PR placements. Talent alone isn’t enough.”

Despite his collection being well received and Teigen wearing one of his dresses to the 2016 American Music Awards, the sales weren’t coming through. He contacted countless buyers and stores without getting a response. It got to the point where if someone wrote back with a “No,” he would take solace in the fact that they had at least looked at his collection. Then, in 2017, a disagreement with a PR agency in 2017 meant that his brand had to hit pause temporarily. “They scammed me out of my money, putting me out of business,” he says. “So even if I had an order, I had no resources to make it. But it was a life lesson, and now I’m wiser.”

A year and a half later, he heard about the prestigious Fashion Trust Arabia competition and decided to apply for it.

“I was so surprised to be a finalist and even more surprised to win it,” says Akbar. Winning the 2020 prize in the evening wear category turned things around almost instantly for him. Aside from the significant prize money, Akbar also received mentorship from some of the biggest names in the fashion industry.

“Part of our prize was collaborating with (prestigious London department store) Harrods, and if it did well, they said they would continue to buy. Thankfully that’s still a success,” Akbar says.

The designer considers himself extremely fortunate to have crossed paths with FTA co-chairs Tania Fares and Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa (the sister of the ruler of Qatar).

“For so long, you think it’s impossible to make it and are shut out of this business. People tell you, ‘You’re so talented’ and yet nothing’s working — it’s disheartening. In retrospect, I could have had a great job and an incredible income with my degree in logistics, but I was still living the poor student life in the fashion world. So when you get this big break, it’s life-changing,” he says.

Akbar now works out of a design studio in Sydney with a small team on a freelance basis and often commissions artisans in India to produce his embroidery.

He recently partnered with an LA-based PR agency specializing in celebrity placements, leading to Stone and Alicia Keys wearing pieces from his Spring/Summer 2023 collection.

“It’s incredible seeing all these different women wearing my dresses, and Sharon Stone is exactly the kind of woman I want to dress,” he says.

Clearly, things are moving in the right direction. Akbar’s expert draping and bold designs have captured the attention of international stylists and stockists. His advice to emerging designers? “Do this because you truly love it, stay true to yourself, don’t compare your journey with others,” he says. “And have thick skin.”