Stepping inside a design studio that’s bursting with a kaleidoscopic array of fabrics and decorative trimmings scattered just so, it is immediately apparent we’ve walked into every little girl’s dream. BAZAAR Junior has arrived at the Dubai-based work place of founder and creative director of Dumyé, Sahar Wahbeh.
Inspired by the Arabic word for doll - doomyah, Dumyé is a name that’s whispered between mothers not only throughout the Middle East, but across the globe thanks to a unique idea cleverly conjured up by mother-of- two, Sahar, when she couldn’t find a meaningful and personalised gift for her one-year old daughter. Born with the intention of creating a brand that would be a living lesson to her children on leading a wholesome and environmentally conscious life, the Arab-American who describes herself as “passionate”, “free-spirited” and “principled”, recalls spotting a gap in the market after searching high and low for a doll that captured her heart, and her daughter’s spirit. “I realised there was an opportunity to show my children how to marry your passions with your work, show compassion for fellow human beings, respect mother nature, and know that the greatest gift in life is giving to others.”
Born and raised in the leafy suburbs of Washington D.C. by her Lebanese father, and Palestinian mother, the entrepreneur-in-the-making who has an undeniable nurturing presence, moved to New York City to start her career in design, shortly after graduating from The Atlanta College of Art with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
With a can-do attitude and an appreciation for the like-minded who strive to provide a better life for others, Sahar’s journey has been an evolution of determination, dedication and creativity. Prior to launching Dumyé, she worked as an award-winning designer and creative strategist. “I started my career in NYC at the world-renowned design and branding agency, Desgrippes Gobé. I spent four years as a designer working on product innovations, packaging, and brand development for numerous global brands such as Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Barnes & Noble, before my husband and I decided to relocate to Dubai”, she explains. “I then spent six years honing my skills as an art and creative director at various local companies including advertising agencies and branding consultancies, TBWA/RAAD Dubai, and Ismi.
And so it comes as no surprise that the 38-year-old who is mother to Neeva, nine and Zain, two, can trace numerous threads to past experiences that prepared her for the launch of her own business. “I spent more than a decade working in branding which has been indispensable to the development of Dumyé and is the foundation to everything I do,” she says. But if you go back even further, Sahar admits that all the time spent dancing and in the theatre as a child taught her how to be a storyteller, the power of vulnerability, and how to confidently hold her own in any room. “These are important business skills that have supported me through Dumyé’s journey,” she muses. “During my time at art school I volunteered to teach art to underprivileged inner-city children. It was there that I experienced how healing the creative process could be for little hearts and minds.”
Sahar’s first foray into sewing began when she moved to New York, aged 21. She couldn’t afford the fashion she loved, so she taught herself how to use a sewing machine to make her own clothes — a skill that would later transpire into a successful business when she reached for that same vintage sewing machine and made her very first doll — the aforementioned gift for her then one-year-old daughter, Neeva.
Creating a unique product that would bring happiness to every child that received a customisable handmade doll wasn’t Sahar’s only ambition. She wanted to create an eco-friendly product that would bring joy to, inspire, and educate underprivileged children across the globe. “My core mission is to bring love and light into the lives of both our children, and the children who haven’t been spoken for.” Launching Dumyé wasn’t solely about making money, Sahar wanted to give back to the community.
For each doll sold, another is gifted to one of the millions of orphaned children across the globe. But that’s not where the generosity ends. Sahar travels to orphanages and refugee camps across the UAE, Lebanon, Egypt and the USA to spearhead workshops for underprivileged children who have come from tumultuous, and sometimes, horrific situations. Often working with hundreds of children per week (700 on one particular occasion), Sahar and her team enrich the lives of orphans by giving them the skills and materials to make their very own dolls.
Currently working towards a partnership with SOS Children’s Villages International, the largest non-governmental organisation focused on supporting, and providing humanitarian and developmental assistance to children without parental care, Sahar has grand plans to launch a new program that could reach less-fortunate children in up to 135 countries. “This partnership would enable us to give orphans the chance to attend a newly developed five-session workshop that involves designing, hand sewing and making dolls, giving them the opportunity to self-reflect in a positive, safe and nurturing environment and allowing them to express themselves in the language they understand best — play and creative exploration. My hope is that the new program will inspire children to have the courage to rise above their circumstances and to create and leave with a meaningful gift — a doll that brings them both comfort and joy.”
Continuously striving to make the greatest impact on those less fortunate, Sahar also has plans to extend a new initiative to underprivileged women within the communities she is working with, teaching them the skills they need to host workshops themselves.
Passing on skills to build a better future comes naturally to the mother of two and she hopes that one day, her own children might take over the business. With her design studio based within her large villa, Sahar’s children, in particular, daughter Neeva, are often involved with the creation of new collections. “Having my work space at home means I can still take care of my kids and that I can also include them in the creative processes. One of our dolls, named Misha, is inspired by one of Neeva’s sketches. Neeva also helps me come up with names for the dolls. Our petite dolls are almost all named after nicknames that I have for my daughter.”
Handcrafted from organic, sustainable and fair-trade materials, each limited-edition customisable doll features a Purpose Pocket with a small blank piece of cloth tucked inside, awaiting a meaningful message. Often inspired by, and in celebration of Emirati cultural dress, Sahar makes large dolls, small dolls and even doll-making kits.
Today, as Dumyé turns six years old, the brand is sold online at Dumye.com and stocked in boutiques and department stores in more than 15 countries. With a dream for the business to expand into a number of touchpoints including children’s books co-written with her daughter, with dolls, of course, at the centre of the story, we can’t wait to see what’s next.
As we leave her home with warmth in our hearts undeniably delivered by Sahar’s magnetic spirit, we are farewelled by her biggest supporters, children Neeva and Zain, husband Firas, and the family’s three adorable rescue dogs. Walking down the footpath to the front gate we cannot help but feel inspired, in awe of, and most of all, in love with the woman who founded one of the region’s most meaningful start-ups.
Interview by: Nina Catt
Photography by: Aasiya Jagadeesh
Styling by: Anna Castan