Asma’s Coming Down the Runway
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Smoky Not Smudgy Fashion Show – a great event hosted by Imperial College’s Islamic Society. One of the designers showcasing her work on the runway was 21-year-old Asma Banafunzi. The creator of Afa Bee – Asma not only acts as a fashion designer but she makes all her pieces herself and manages her business single-handed! It’s always tremendously impressive when people can express their creativity while effectively moulding a successful business around it. I spoke with Asma about the two different sides of Afa Bee.
When did you first know you wanted to design clothes?
It was a complete accident in all honesty. I’d never even considered it until 2 years ago! I graduated from BA Product Design at Midddlesex University this year, and when I started the course I had the intent of going into the field of product design at the end. It was after my first year at University that I decided to learn how to use a sewing machine- just to pick up a new hobby really because I had a long summer ahead. I started creating things for friends and family at their request- first I was just copying simple designs but then I started playing with forms and structures in the fabric and changing things to create what I had in mind. It was only until people remarked that they liked my experiments with designs that I realised, ‘hey there’s a market for these!’
I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did either! I went back to University the next year and carried on designing and taking orders for my designs in my free time, it was during that year that I realised I really wanted to do it full time when I graduated.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?
My inspiration tends to be other young women; what they’re wearing, how they wear it and why. I like looking at fashion bloggers, lookbooks, Instagram. I’m inspired by personalities. Whenever I design a certain piece or collection, I have a specific type of woman in mind that I’m designing for. It could be one of my sisters, one of my friends, a complete stranger whose blog I follow, someone I’ve seen in the street, a character in a book or a singer. I like to tell the story of a woman’s personality with each dress/product. People often ask me why I name each piece – and I don’t pick the names at random, they’re named after the fictional or real life characters I had in mind when I picked up my pencil.
I also take inspiration from fashion around the world, especially different cultures. I love traditional attire. I’m obsessed with Malaysian kebayas, Korean Hanboks and Arab Bedouin dresses.
What equipment do you need and do you ever get help from others?
I work from home in a room I’ve converted into a workshop. The main equipment are my sewing machines, clothes racks, dress forms, and other basic sewing supplies. My family call it my little factory! I do everything solo but my sisters are my support system. Although they cannot help me with the labour side they’re there when I need someone to take on a small task or to provide an outlet for my emotional stress.
What is the process from getting an idea to the final product?
Having never studied fashion I still take a product design approach to everything – for me it’s all about problem solving and finding a beautiful solution, and I think that’s what I try to do. Initially I wanted to get rid of the idea that an Abaya had to simply be black or plain, and that’s what I set out to do- I still work with black a lot but I add splashes of bold colours or prints into everything I do. Working with that as a basis I like to go fabric shopping before I start a design. Sometimes it’s the other way round but most often I’ll see a certain fabric and the design will already be dancing in my head. I then go straight to doodling it down on paper and figuring out how to make it. That’s the best part for me! It’s like a maths puzzle when you’re creating a pattern! Sometimes it comes out wrong and it’s back to making a new sample, but I love that process. The trial and error makes the final result worth it. Having said that I’m rarely ever perfectly satisfied with a design, it’s the customers’ feedback that reassures me if I’ve got it right.
What is it about the fashion industry that you find appealing?
I love that with fashion you’re creating art that people will wear. It’s an awesome feeling to see girls wearing my stuff.
Your pieces were recently on display at the Smoky Not Smudgy Fashion Show. What was that like for you and have your designs been down any other runways?
It’s always nerve wracking to present my stuff to anybody let alone an audience! There’s the constant fear that people will react badly to it. I’m like that even when I’m posting a new design on my social networks, just praying nobody will say anything awful. Design is the kind of industry where you need to learn to take criticism but my personality makes it almost impossible for one harsh word not to crush me, so when people give me good feedback there’s just this huge sigh of relief inside me. I love that girls took the time to write to me about how much they loved my pieces at the show – that blows me away every time, that people actually like what I do. I showed some other pieces at the Smoky Not Smudgy show last year too, and a few have been part of smaller fashion shows.
Do you have a specific person who you would love to design an outfit for?
Hmm… I guess I would love to design something for someone who has a negative opinion on how Muslim women dress. I’d love to have the opportunity to create them something that will make them feel beautiful. I’d love to change their mind with my work.
Tell us about the entrepreneurial side of Afa Bee. Is it difficult to manage?
It’s crazy hard, haha. The downside of being your own boss and your only employee is that there are no breaks – even when I’m out with friends I’m checking emails and replying to questions. What order I’ve got to sew next is constantly on my mind. The day begins with emails and ends with emails, and there’s just a whole lot of sewing and work in between. But when you love what you do it’s all worth it!
I also end up being my own photographer, photo editor, graphic designer and secretary all in one, on top of the design and making work. It’s stressful at times and requires a lot of time management on my part. I’m learning a lot about how to handle a business as I go along. I definitely don’t have much of a business mind, so there’s a lot to take on and most of the time I’m learning from mistakes- but I think that’s the best way to learn in life.
What advice would you give to young aspiring fashion designers?
Don’t be afraid to put your work out there and never ever give up even when it seems like you’re getting nowhere! I know that’s pretty cliché but you’re constantly tested in the creative industry. You get to points where you’ll question your work and your talent, whether you’re good enough or whether you’re going anywhere, but don’t ever doubt yourself. Oh and Social Media is your best friend so build up your profile and show the world what you have got. The more people know of your work, the better.
Where do you hope to be in the future and how will you get there?
I’m still figuring this out! I know I want to continue designing and making bespoke clothing. I’m going with the flow at the moment. We’ll see where life takes me!
To see more of Asma’s work, be sure to check out the Afa Bee Facebook and Instagram: @afabee