Beyond Minimalism

BY Kate Wills / Apr 26 2017 / 15:19 PM

One of the most widely-used epithets of Phoebe Philo’s Céline is that she makes clothes for the real world. Here, four self-confessed Céline-ophiles working and living in the Middle East pay homage to the thinking-woman’s label

Beyond Minimalism

From left: Farnaz Farzanrad, Mariam Al Badr, Isabel Pintado and Haif Abdalla

Sculptural. Architectural. Cerebral. Whichever way you slice it, there’s no denying the Céline aesthetic has changed the way we dress. Since Phoebe Philo was named creative director in 2008, her minimalist, effortless functionality has had a ripple effect across the fashion world. 

Sneak a peek in the wardrobes of any of the most powerful women around the world and you’re likely to uncover a plethora of Céline pieces. Phoebe’s pared-back silhouettes and clean, structural lines shore up designs bordering on works of art in their own right. It’s no wonder Céline has become the de facto uniform for fashion editors, female gallerists and women who mean business.

From louche pyjamas to oversize shirts, pool sliders to white sneakers, the looks that start on Céline catwalk have pervaded street style and beyond. And while maximalism may be having a moment, sometimes it’s necessary to take a breath and inhale the refreshing air of simple, chic style.  

1. Haif Abdalla, Project Manager at Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Emirati

Wearing: Earrings, Dhs 5,200; Jacket, Dhs 13,000;  Trousers, Dhs 14,000; Shoes, Dhs 2,900, all Céline.

It’s fair to say Haif Abdalla is one of life’s over-achievers. She was the first Emirati to graduate from top international business school INSEAD – where she did her MBA – and was working at one of the world’s biggest energy companies before she was 30. “The way I see it, if I’m going to take on a new role or project, I have to fully commit,” she says. “I have been called stubborn before, but in my opinion it’s more persistence.”

Haif credits her strong upbringing with inspiring this tenacity and drive. “My parents have always been my role models,” she explains. “I am their only daughter and I have three brothers, but we never had a rule that applied to me and not the boys. My father raised us to be totally equal with a real emphasis on education for all of us, and my mother showed me how strong a woman can be. She had to move away from her extended family and juggle four kids. We’re still very close and I can’t get through the day without a call to mama.” 

Haif takes her fashion cues from street style, whether near her home in Dubai, or in Abu Dhabi where her office is based. “I love the stylish women you see on their way to work in high-waisted peg trousers, a crisp white shirt and the latest high-end pointy heels or draped in a beautiful earth-tone abaya at an event,” she says. “I believe the Arab woman is underestimated in every sense – including fashion. That’s why I’m really passionate about developing the role of women in the region and showcasing their achievements.”

Haif first discovered Céline while studying in France. “My mother brought me the black Nano bag and I just found it so practical and stylish,” she recalls. And so a life-long love affair with Céline luggage began. “I own way too many handbags,” she laughs. “The Trapeze, the Twisted Caba...the list goes on. But my favourite has to be my burgundy Spazzolato Tie Tote. I picked it up on a business trip towards the end of 2013 and I had about 30 minutes between checking into my hotel and a dinner meeting. I ran across the street to the Céline store and fell in love with the beautiful burgundy colour and the contrast yellow stitching, but I was worried that the leather would get scratched if I wasn’t extremely careful. I remember the sales clerk told me, ‘Scratches on a bag are like the flaws on our faces, it is what gives us our personality and shows that we have lived.’ I was sold on the bag and walked out with a newfound self-confidence in my own flaws, too.”

2. Isabel Pintado, Managing Director of Interior Architectural Design Firm Wilson Associates, Spanish-English

Wearing: Top, Dhs 3,800; Trousers, Dhs 4,500; Shoes, Dhs 3,050; Earrings (opening lead), Dhs 1,800, all Céline.

Whenever Isabel Pintado is travelling she heads straight to the shops. But perhaps not for the purpose you’re imagining. “I love window-watching in different cities –Selfridges and Liberty’s in London spring to mind,” she says. “A lot of design experimentation happens in shop window displays because it’s a temporary thing so they can take risks. The Hermès shop windows across the world are like art installations, and Louis Vuitton has real creativity behind it.” Worth keeping this excuse in mind next time you need some retail therapy.

As senior vice president and managing director of the architectural interiors firm Wilson Associates, Isabel leads the Dubai design studio and recent projects have included the refurbishment of Vida, Dubai and new hotels for the Marriott group in Doha and Morocco. “I love to challenge myself constantly,” she says. “I read every book that comes across my path and last July I attended Stanford University to take a course in business development.” Isabel admits that business and creativity aren’t natural bedfellows – “but actually I think my creativity allows me to think outside the box when it comes to my management approach.” 

Isabel’s love of reinvention started at a young age. “Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to be an interior designer,” she says. “I convinced my mother to let me decorate my room every six months, so I went from black walls to cork everywhere to flowers.” Her sense of style has been similarly eclectic. “I think the way I dress changes on a monthly basis,” she says. “One day I could look like a librarian, another day I’ll wear a suit. It just depends what mood strikes me. I love playing with my clothes, with my hair, to me that’s what fashion is about. The way you dress is the best thing you can do for yourself. Expressing your creativity and being brave in how you dress sets you up in how you behave and how you’re perceived.”

A devoted Cèline fan ever since Phoebe Philo took the helm, Isabel’s favourite pieces include a white culotte suit, “I’ve worn it to death” and an oversized yellow handbag from this season’s show. “I’m already salivating over it, it’s out of this world. I’ve blackmailed the buyer that I’ll get the first one that comes to Dubai,” she laughs.

“The tailoring at Céline just gets what I’m about. It doesn’t objectify women but instead allows them to make a statement in a very individual way. For me it just works beautifully in all respects,” she adds. “Well, apart from my bank account.”

3. Mariam AlBadr, Director of Corporate Communications at Dolphin Energy, Emirati

Wearing: Earrings, Dhs 1,700; Shirt, Dhs 2,850; Trousers, Dhs 7,000; Boots, Dhs 4,000; Cuff (Opening lead), Dhs 1,900, all Céline.

It’s fitting that Mariam Al Badr is working on one of the UAE’s biggest energy projects, as she seems to have a limitless supply of the stuff herself. When we speak she’s just jetted back from Berlin – “I think I may have found my new favourite city!” – and has already been to the gym, dropped her two sons at school and is now at her office in Abu Dhabi’s Al Maqam Tower. Oh and it’s not even 9am. “I’m very much a morning person,” she chirps. You don’t say.

This dynamic multi-tasker seems to perfectly embody the spirit of the place she says inspires her the most – the UAE. Although Mariam spent the first 13 years of her life in the US, she returned to the UAE with her family before heading back to America to study Communications and Sociology and the University of Massachusetts. 

“As much as I loved the US, I’m so proud to call the UAE home,” she says. “I love being around strong Emirati women.”

She joined Dolphin in 2006, after a stint working at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, and says the best career advice she’s been given was by the former chief executive of Dolphin Energy, Ibrahim Al Ansari. “He told me ‘Whatever is meant for you, will come to you, and no one can take that away.’ It’s helped me to be more reflective and appreciate that some things weren’t meant to be.”

Although she seems like she was a born leader, Mariam insists her confidence in a corporate setting took some time to develop. “Throughout my career I have often been the youngest employee and only female in the boardroom with over 20, far more seasoned men. At first, it was definitely a challenge learning how to channel my thoughts and speak my mind effectively around men of a different generation.”

Her sense of style has also evolved with age. “I think I’ve been able to embrace my femininity over time and take on more bold looks,” she explains. Céline has had a place in her heart (and her wardrobe) ever since Mariam first discovered the brand while flicking through fashion magazines in her early-twenties. “I love how it doesn’t look like any other brand. Everything Céline comes out with is unique and avant garde,” she says.

“There have been many memorable moments in my life when I’ve been wearing Céline, but one of my favourites was when I was speaking on a panel at ADIPEC about the role of women in industry,” she recalls. “I was wearing my favourite white silk Céline shirt and black pants and felt super confident, comfortable and empowered to take anything on. No one does a white button-down like Céline.”

4. Farnaz Farzanrad, Business Development Manager, American-Iranian

Wearing: Coat, Dhs 11,500; Earrings, Dhs 5,200; Shoes (Opening lead), Dhs 4,000, all Céline.

Farnaz Farzanrad traces her success back to an unlikely source – the death of her father 14 years ago. “My brothers, my mother and I had to take over my dad’s company, even though none of us had any experience in running a business,” she explains. “As you might imagine we were overwhelmed and hit some bumps along the way, but I couldn’t be more thankful for the experience. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it hadn’t happened.”

Farnaz says that being a young girl in the Middle East in the 1980s “wasn’t easy”, but her parents instilled a sense of empowerment from a young age. “I was raised knowing that women have rights, they have a voice and they can achieve whatever they want in life, there are no limitations.” 

Growing up in an environment of gender equality no doubt stood Farnaz in good stead for a career in business and international trading, an industry which is still very much male-dominated. “In my field there are many more men, but that’s also why Céline falls in the right place for me, as it has the feminine touch and yet is so elegant and practical. That’s why Céline luggage is my favourite as I can fit all my work stuff in there – laptop, iPad, two phones, battery pack, wallet, book, keys, perfume... It’s the only way to go.” 

Long days working with her team are fuelled by the “adrenaline rush of a new project” and a “cafe latte extra shot”. “I’m a total perfectionist, but I know that I need to dedicate more time to me,” she says. Yoga, swimming and playing the piano are top of her to-do list these days.

Although Farnaz covets the wardrobe of Queen Rania Al Abdullah – “so elegant and unique” – she describes her own style as “casual and bohemian, but I do have a dark side that sometimes kicks in when I go a bit more rocker or biker chick.”

When asked to pinpoint the most challenging moment of her career, Farnaz is uncharacteristically stumped. “If you ask me, life itself is a challenge,” she laughs. “But seriously, I’ve had so many difficult moments and yet they were all learning experiences. You have to put aside the ‘should have, could have, would haves’ and find a way forward. And trust me, sometimes out of the worst challenges comes something really precious.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia

Photography: Mannbutte at Things by People. Fashion editor: Gemma Deeks. Make-up: Shindesu. Hair: Jehnna Mahoney at Things by People. Manicure: The Nail Pavilion.