When news broke in September last year that Saudi’s ban on female drivers would be lifted on June 24, 2018, much of the world united in celebration. Because beyond simple convenience and connectivity, driving nurtures freedom and a sense of ownership of one’s destiny, and with that self-empowerment is born.
Two women that bring their own sense of power play to the car culture table are Lauren Santo Domingo, the 42-year-old American co-founder of Moda Operandi, and Hanan Mazouzi, the 43-year-old Algerian founder of Dubai’s first all-female supercar club, Arabian Gazelles. Collaborating together with a recent event in Dubai where high fashion met fast cars, together they help elevate the voices of women around the world uniting over a love of celebrating female strength. Fashion may be fast and furious but it also fosters autonomy and identity, in the same way that driving harvests opportunity and independence.
With the desert of Dubai playing backdrop to a cross-cultural conversation that spans feminism, social media and altering anti-social dialogue, Lauren and Hanan do what women do best… they unify, they empower, they enrich.
ON THE COLLABORATION
HANAN MAZOUZI: Well, I was introduced to one of your colleagues about two months ago, right? She had heard about the club, loved what we do and could see a fit between Arabian Gazelles and Moda Operandi because of the support that you give to such ideas and how we like to empower women.
LAUREN SANTO DOMINGO: Yes! My team came to me with the idea, saying there’s an amazing group in the UAE, with these incredibly stylish, empowered supercar drivers. I don’t think she even finished explaining it to me and I was like, ‘This sounds amazing!’ The one thing you said that really clicked was the idea that part of what you try to do with Arabian Gazelles is encourage women to follow their passion, and that’s something that resonates with me.
HM: And then we thought, why don’t we do an event for supercars and fashion and Lauren gave the go-ahead. The idea was to gather 25 Gazelles – which was a tough task as we are more than 50 now – bring them to the Bvlgari Hotel to meet Lauren and have a preview of Moda Operandi’s collections and Ramadan kaftans, then drive in convoy to Al Maha [desert resort]. It was also the one-year anniversary for Arabian Gazelles, so it was a fantastic event.
LSD: How did Arabian Gazelles start?
HM: Well, it began because I was the only woman at car and driving events my husband and I attended, which he’s really into. My husband told me to go to them, and so I would. They would always expect to see someone else driving and me in the passenger seat.
I’d participated in a race earlier this year...
LSD: So you’re a racing driver?
HM: No, not a racing driver. It wasa media event. They had David Coulthard there, and we all had to race and compare our time to his. I came second, and when they called out my name, the person was looking at all the guys and I was like, ‘It’s me!’ They went again to check if they’d got it right... All these looks, all these assumptions. I’ve also done the women’s Rallye des Princesses in France – it’s been there for more than 20 years and it’s something else that inspired me to set up Arabian Gazelles.
HM: I first fell in love with driving when I was about 10. I don’t know what happened. Even with the Barbies I had, I’d put them in my brother’s cars. I started when I was young and it picked up again when I started living in the UAE 20 years ago. It was everything about this country and having the leadership; they make it easy on women to do whatever they like here, so pursuing the passion was not hard when living in Dubai.
LSD: For me, it was growing up with my father who collected vintage cars. He had quite the collection: a 1954 Austin-Healey, an MG...I actually learned how to drive in a Porsche 911. So I’ve always liked cars, but I haven’t gotten into the supercars in New York City, as it’s a bit daunting. I’m happy to get into the passenger seat with Hanan, but there’s something about getting my confidence up that I need to work on.
HM: What I love about driving is the freedom it gives you. I feel like I’m in my own zone, I’m disconnecting from everyone, especially on the track, not on the road.
LSD: You get your license when you’re 16 in the US, and I remember that feeling of freedom. When you have your car and you realise the open road is before you... That’s a really important milestone in the life of an American teenager, so when the news about Saudi women being able to drive came out in last year, it was interesting to see how American people were so excited about this. I think, for us, with our culture of driving and freedom, it’s quite something to think that someone didn’t have the same right we did. And it also came out during the #MeToo movement and it was all anyone could speak about for days. Driving represents freedom for so many people, so hearing the news [about the ban being lifted] really affected me.
HM: I had tears in my eyes. I somehow foolishly believed I contributed, you know. We’re next door, we have a supercar club for women, and then the same year Saudi women are allowed to drive... I know that it’s been at work for many years and it’s fantastic. In fact, the Motorsport Foundation in Saudi contacted me because they love the concept and they want to see it happen in Saudi. I also participated in a programme called Driving Skills for Life, teaching young Saudis basic safety because they want to arrive at a level where they can really enjoy driving. They want to know what it will take them to reach that level. I think if you have it, if it’s your passion, you don’t need to stop at that level. You could be a racer... Don’t put a barrier to your dreams. And I can see things shifting already, especially with car distributors who were not really cooperating with us in the beginning. Any event we conceptualised, they’d say, ‘Hanan, why don’t we take you to dinner, or to the spa?’ But you know what, we don’t want anyone to wine or dine us – give me an experience, give me a track day, something that’s different. But thankfully, over time, a few car sponsors have came on board and we were their quickest return on investment. For example, the last weekend we did was in Ras Al Khaimah. We were only six Gazelles and two of them bought the cars they were test-driving in the same week. That has never happened before. So yes, slowly it’s shifting and slowly companies are taking notice.
LSD: I was also told some of the car companies are approaching you for interior advice?
HM: Yes, we’ve been approached for some round-table discussions, and it’s fantastic. It’s where I want the club to be, to be taken seriously, and to have no misconceptions about the group. The last meeting I had in Abu Dhabi, the marketing director was like, ‘Talk to me about Jumeirah Janes’... And I thought, I either leave or I explain. So I told him, 80 per cent of the women in our club are business owners, do I have to say any more? And on top of that, there’s nothing wrong with being a ‘Jumeirah Jane’. Don’t start the meeting assuming we’re all doing nothing.
LSD: That’s right... There are lawyers, pilots, everything.
HM: I thought, does he think he’s changing these misconceptions from what he’s doing? Men don’t think women want to do stuff like this... I feel like we’re contributing from both sides. Some of the women who joined the group told me I saved their marriage. It’s a confidence change. Some men thought I would corrupt their wives, but one of them recently called me and said, ‘Hanan, it’s her birthday, which car do you think she would like?’ So it’s changing, we see how they approach us now with seriousness.
LSD: Yes, and I like making husbands spend their money!
ON THE MIDDLE EAST
LSD: It’s my first time here and what really struck me was the diversity, which I really appreciate. It’s also very open here. I grew up in Connecticut, which is pretty conservative and is part of the reason I wanted to live in New York City, because I wanted a bigger life.
My children go to a French school there and you hear so many languages in the halls, and they celebrate the religion of every child in every class. I love that. I felt that here, during my trip to Dubai. I couldn’t even recognise some of the dialects. There was Algerian, Egyptian, English, Arabic... I find that incredibly exciting and it’s also quite unusual. I’ve never been anywhere else with that amount of diversity. I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest. Maybe that was my only misconception. Or perhaps it made me realise how close-minded the US is. People have such a global view here. It’s just natural to them. They’re real global citizens. And it’s very glamorous, but I’ve never had a problem with that.
LSD: It’s very tense in the US, it’s tricky and a minefield. I don’t know if we’re out of it yet. It’s still very fraught and there are so many layers.I think everyone is trying to figure out what this new world is going to look like post #MeToo. Let’s get through it, let’s get past it. It’s temporary and I think we can come through it and we’ll be better off for it.
HM: I feel the same way.
LSD: I have friends that are bankers and I hear stories of them not wanting to hire women, not wanting to promote women, and these things are true. It’s the conversation we’re having, but it’s not going to last. Like at our event, seeing all these incredibly confident, capable women get in their cars and drive down the street... It’s an incredible sight. Not only because of the glamorous cars and women, but the idea of community.
HM: It’s changing the landscape. You always expect to see guys stepping out, but now, people are accepting of this idea of what we’re doing and what we’re going after. The male-dominated aspect is changing, and I think that will also come from Saudi.
LSD: You can’t underestimate the vision of it, it’s phenomenal. Whereas fashion is geared towards women, I think in motorsports,
the industry is probably more open to the reversal of women being overlooked, because you’re shattering expectations on
HM: We want to change mindsets. I was invited to join this car club, which is led by a Sheikh in Bahrain. The members had a hard time accepting this – 40 guys, all Arab – but I met the sheikh and he told them they needed to wait and see what we are all about, and eventually they saw that we have real passion. We won’t let anyone put us down. Each woman [in the club] is inspiring other women to look for their own passion. If we can break the barrier, then anyone can do what they want. I want to build a car culture. I want more local women joining.
LSD: I think it’s about finding what your passion is and then chasing it. I realise that having a passion is truly a gift and not everyone has it. I can’t imagine going through life like that, so I want to encourage women, and the next generation, to find something they’re passionate about.
HM: If you find your passion, you should pursue it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. It’s easy to give up when we’re excited about something that’s close to us and people try and slow you down. No.Go for it. If you have it in you, it will push you to reach what you have.
ON BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
LSD: Moda Operandi is a female-led company and I think it’s easy to be underestimated. We’re seven years old, we ship to every country in the world, bar two, we’ve grown 50 per cent every year for seven years and I still feel like we have to qualify and sell ourselves. On the flip-side, I do find when you’re going into a board meeting, the bar is so low, so if you’re able to pull together a proper business plan and a coherent sentence, people think you’re a genius. So it works both ways. It’s about misconception and not taking people at face value. Don’t make assumptions on who people are. I see a lot of emerging designers being women, and my experience in fashion was working for Anna Wintour and Carolina Herrera. I’ve always reported to and been surrounded by incredibly strong women. I’m quite lucky like that.
HM: I just realised that all the supporters and sponsors we had for the last year, they were all women. When we approached people, when it was a woman in charge, it has always been an instant ‘yes’.
LSD: I’ve had the same experience. I’ve found that women, in particular those in positions of power, are incredibly helpful and agile. I’ve never felt any sort of... I just feel camaraderie, you know.
ON FASHION PHILOSOPHIES
LSD: My favourite part about the industry is the transformative power of fashion. We have four seasons a year, and that’s four opportunities to re-invent yourself and ask yourself, ‘who do I want to be this season?’ – not just with fashion, but as a person. So that’s my philosophy, always try new things, don’t get stuck in a rut, challenge yourself a bit...
HM: Well, I don’t know if it’s a philosophy, but I believe in understated elegance. Simplicity. And like you said, Lauren, trying new things. And that’s why fashion and fast cars are important to the women in Arabian Gazelles... As much as they could they were matching their cars with their accessories, and at the beginning it surprised me. They see a car as an accessory, they are fashionable that way.
LSD: I think in the same way that cars can empower you, clothes can too. It’s the ability to go places...
HM: Yes, I see it as a tool. Be it fashion or cars, tools to make the wearer more confident, giving her options. Empowerment is about options. The challenges I had with husbands who didn’t want their wives to drive, or perhaps drive their car... It’s a tool to experience different things. I could see that in some of them, their confidence was boosted since they started driving.
LSD: A lot of the Gazelles said [the club] gave them friendship, community, a life... A lot of the women had come for their own jobs or husbands’ jobs but they found community and that is moving. You’re giving these women a role, a life. I think that’s really empowering. When we look at the Moda customer, we find this woman who’s passionate about fashion and suddenly we’re taking her to fashion shows – we give her a lifestyle. You’ve changed these women’s lives.
HM: Yes, it’s a platform where these Gazelles can share their passion.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
LSD: The first thing we did was go on Instagram and have a look at Arabian Gazelles. You immediately get a sense of the group. It’s a year old and if you can figure out your branding and message, and you get it right, it allows you to go so far.
HM: Absolutely. You get a more global voice. You get to reach parts of the world you wouldn’t have had before. This is how girls in Saudi reach out to me, from social media, as well as new members. It’s been useful.
LSD: To connect with people like that it’s great. It’s really like word of mouth – the new word of mouth!
HM: The Arabian Gazelles’ motto is ‘Life is too short to drive boring cars.’
LSD: My old Instagram tag was ‘Why be boring’ – we’re so aligned! Who do I follow? Well, apart from Moda, I follow Hanan, of course.
HM: I also follow the Crown Prince, @Faz3. He doesn’t follow me back, but he will.
LSD: Oh, he’s so cute. Okay... I’m following him now too.
HM: Can this be written in the magazine so he’ll read it and follow us back? Harper’s can you make that happen?!
Via Harper's Bazaar Arabia June 2018 Issue