Janan Shihadeh is a woman most at home outdoors, paintbrush in hand, in Egypt or Chicago, painting one of the murals for which she is renowned.
A restless artistic polymath, Janan is a muralist, tromp l’oeil artist, painter and furniture designer, a customiser of bags and, soon, leather jackets. It takes a certain confidence to take a paintbrush to an Hermès Birkin, as she is doing when I arrive. Clad in sweatpants and a shirt, she’s seated on one of the Philippe Starck for Kartell chairs at her dining table-cum-studio, strewn with paints and brushes.
Janan Shihadeh in her favourite embellished jacket by Valentino
Janan has lived and worked in this apartment since 2013, with her twin children, Samo and Taya, both 17. TV was banned in favour of drawing and painting as they were growing up and both have their mother’s artistic genes. Samo’s paintings and drawings are dotted around the flat, a mural dominating the bathroom, while Tala already has her own fashion blog and eagerly whisks Bazaar’s stylist off to rifle through her mother’s enviable closet.
Gamely agreeing to don an MSGM dress and pose on the roof of her building, against the brutalist backdrop of Downtown Dubai, is typical of Janan’s sense of daring. That her style icon is Bazaar’s global fashion director Carine Roitfeld, all kohl-eyed Gallic nonchalance, is no surprise – “I love the way she dresses, more than Anna Wintour. I like her rock-chick edge.”
Though Palestinian, Janan was born in Chicago then moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia, before being sent to boarding school in England. She loved those teenage years at the family house in London’s Chelsea and her style and personality are tinged with a certain British irreverence. “I lived during the punk era of King’s Road. I think that was the best time, during Batcave, Siouxsie and the Banshees. I’ve got loads of clothes from that time.” Janan wanted to go to Central St Martins art college in London, but her father insisted she go to the American University in Cairo where she sketched constantly in lectures – “I’d tell the professors that sketching helped me focus.”
But then she escaped, to the scaffolds of Washington DC where she worked for DC Artworks for two years, a company that would “take dilapidated areas and beautify them, painting murals on the buildings.”
After meeting her husband Omar Shalaby – “the love of my life” – she moved to Cairo where she lived for 20 years, until the 2011 revolution forced the sudden move to Dubai for her and the children’s safety. Omar still lives in the Cairo house and Janan returns often, currently working on two painting projects in the city.
“In Cairo, I missed being up on the scaffold. I was always outdoors painting,” says Janan. Then several interior designers started asking her to paint murals for their projects. “So I started painting the walls and ceilings of the rich and famous in Cairo, including the president’s,” she says with a smile. “At the time there wasn’t really anyone else doing what I was doing, so it was great experience. It was very raw; I had to make my own paints and glazes, grinding pigments myself. You couldn’t just go to a shop.”
An Hermès bag customised by Janan
The alchemy of artists’ equipment has intrigued her since childhood. “I read this book on art forgers to learn how they made their materials. Because people would come to me and say I want an 18th century Chinese lacquer dining room. So I’d have to figure out how to do lacquer.” Once a client brought her a 200-year-old Iranian door and asked for a replica, “so I had to chip off some of the paint, put it in solvents and figure out what it was made of.”
Though certainly impulsive, such attention to detail is also reflected in her love of inlaid furniture, inset with bone, ivory or precious stones, and her apartment is full of pieces she has designed herself. Pride and joy is her ‘optical illusion’ sideboard, walnut inlaid with bone – “I kept returning it to the craftsman in Egypt because I wanted a seamless finish. It took four months.”
Whether it’s the quality of a bone inlay or the neon yellow varnish she’s worn on her toes for the past five years, Janan has exacting tastes. And when it comes to furnishing her houses, she says, “If I can’t buy it, I make it.”
She often refers to her style as daring and neon is a particular love, her artist’s eye lending a sense of colour to the apartment. “I put colours together you probably wouldn’t think would match. I always look at nature for inspiration; some colours on fish or birds shouldn’t work, but it does."
She also reads avidly and visits a lot of exhibitions. The differing aesthetics of her three homes belies an impulsive nature and reflects her style evolvement over the past two decades. “I’ve never had a tattoo because I’ve never made up my mind what I would have. I change my mind about colours all the time.”
Her Cairo home is dark, eclectic and full of antiques, with leather embossed walls. “I have what I call my Count Dracula dining room, a red table with leather chairs. When I decorated it 20 years ago there was demand for Neo-Classical style and I got into antiques.”
Her holiday home in El Gouna on the Red Sea in Egypt is Cairo’s neon antithesis. “It’s loud and colourful,” she says. “Outside is fluorescent green, you can see it from the plane. All the furniture is neon.”
A double portrait of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo by Spanish painter Weaam el Masry hangs in the living room
Though she speaks about El Gouna with more affection than the relatively spartan Dubai apartment, her only home with white walls, she loves the location. “It’s so central. I’m surrounded by great restaurants and bars, Zuma, La Petite Maison, Indie Lounge, so I can go out and meet friends whenever. And I do yoga or pilates in the morning at
Core Fitness Evolution and Real Pilates.” Above all, she loves the energy.
Janan is currently working on two painting projects, one in Egypt and one in Greece, plus two large ceiling paintings. But in the confines of Dubai, without a studio, she concentrates on bag customising, an endeavour started by accident eight years ago when her friend spilt a coffee over her bag and Janan transformed the stain into a geisha woman with psychedelic flowers. Now she works with Louis Vuitton, Burberry and individual clients, with butterflies her motif of choice.
The thrill of customising reflects a woman who loves a one-off, a lack of awed reverence to big brands that harks back to her childhood style icon, her aunt Janan Harb. “She had flair, a way with clothes, eccentric glamour. The guts to get an Ungaro dress and just cut it with scissors and make it a mini, in front of him. He’d be crying, but it would look fantastic. She was a trendsetter in her time in London. I used to see half the women in London copying her style really badly.”
A style magpie, Janan’s favourite pieces include a Dolce & Gabbana turquoise coat with tiger print trim she found in a vintage store and a pair of Dior Lucite heel boots, in which she admits she can barely walk. Practical wardrobe staples must bore her to tears. Her weaknesses are make-up (Charlotte Tilbury is her current favourite), hats and jewellery, unsurprisingly “big rocks and really funky jewellery, nothing in between.” And, obviously, bags, though since customising vintage bags she has become more discerning in her choices. “If I’m going to spend that amount of money I want to spend it on something I won’t lose money on. So I’m focusing on Chanel. Of course, with Hermès you make money.”
She looks pained when asked to choose one designer to wear for the rest of her life. Topshop she blurts out first, then Zara before settling on Valentino, “but I’ve only liked him the past three years, I couldn’t stand him before. I love his sense of embellishment.”
Her beloved Valentino jacket embroidered with butterflies, is one piece she insists on wearing for the Bazaar shoot, with ripped jeans, rock chick style. This is how she is comfortable. “I hate looking like a madame. I want to look dishevelled” is her parting request to Bazaar. The words of a woman for whom stylish eclecticism is woven into her very fabric.
This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.
Photography: Ethan Mann. Styling by Samah Elmeri.