She is blunt; that’s what I immediately notice about Mariam Yehia as her candour permeates our interview. The Egyptian-born, Dubai-based designer, who is probably more recognisable by her moniker, Mrs Keepa – which also doubles as the name for her prêt-a-porter fashion line – is used to a media spotlight trained on her. But most people accustomed enough to the process don’t give answers; they give answers for the camera. Yehia by comparison, seems to say precisely what’s on her mind.
“You know everyone now wakes up in the morning, and they are either a cupcake maker or a fashion designer, or a stylist, or a photographer,” she says plainly, “So when I decided to go into designing six years ago, I didn't want people to say ‘oh here's another one’. I wanted to learn it, educate myself, and do it the right way; I didn’t want to be a parasite on the industry.”
I didn’t want to be a parasite on the fashion industry.
30 at the time, Yehia enrolled at Esmod, the French fashion university in Dubai, leaving behind a decade-long corporate career, and launching an entirely new sartorial trajectory for herself, and six years down the line, she has studied and mastered her craft, and built an enviable business, all while raising two children.
ORIGINS, INSECURITY, AND A HONEYMOON
Though she didn’t actually pursue a career in fashion until she hit the big three oh, style was always a staple of Yehia’s life; her mother sewed her clothes her entire childhood; her elder sister is renowned bridal couturiere Yasmine Yeya of Maison Yeya; and while climbing the corporate ladder before she broke off into fashion, she slowly began to create pieces – solely for herself. “I worked in marketing communications for over 10 years. It was a corporate job, I had to wear a suit all the time, and it just wasn’t me. I used to have to present in front of a board of 50 people, and I always felt kind of insecure – and eventually I kind of realised I felt like that was because I wasn’t dressing the way I wanted to dress,” she recounts, “So I started designing for myself – I’d buy fabrics, go to tailors, and just make a couple of pieces that I wanted to wear to my meetings.”
To Yehia, style has never been superficial; instead, fashion is a form of armour for her, even more, it is perhaps a language in itself. “I've always believed that what we wear is what we want to communicate to people,” she says. “If you decide to wear a plain black suit, that says something about your personality. If you don’t want to put effort into dressing up, that says something too. Take Sufis for instance – they’re against the materialistic world, they don’t believe in spending money on clothes. However, that says something about them, and because of that decision I see that Sufi people have a style of their own.”
And in a sense, her opinion is rather apt – much like Miranda Priestley’s now notorious ‘cerulean blue’ speech. The decision not to invest in clothes in and of itself is a statement – it relays information about a person’s key beliefs. Fashion in this way, is in effect an interpretation of the person, a sort of instant visual, tangible manifestation of who they are. The choice Sufis make with their attire reflects the choice they’ve made to reject the material world; the woman whose daily getup is jeans and a t-shirt, or the one who won’t compromise on her heels; the guy who wears fishnets; they all reveal elements of themselves through their attire. They are all conscious choices, and more often than not, they coincide with something immaterial about the person. And Yehia’s choice of attire – which comes largely from her brand – certainly says something about her. Risqué cuts, eccentric prints, and unorthodox shapes; daring and bold.
...the first day of my honeymoon - I find an email telling me, ‘Mariam you need to go close this deal first thing in the morning.’ My answer was ‘I’m not working on my honeymoon, I resign.’
But despite dipping her toe in world of tailoring and fabrics, it was not until her honeymoon that Yehia would ditch her day job and go full force into fashion. “When I was still at my old job, I started getting emails the day of my wedding,” she recounts, “I was like ‘that's not normal.’ I started responding, because I'm a workaholic, until I felt like they were abusing the fact that I was responding. I got annoyed and switched my phone off. The next day - which was the first day of my honeymoon and the first vacation I'd taken in years - I find an email telling me, ‘Mariam you need to go close this deal first thing in the morning.’ My answer was ‘I’m not working on my honeymoon, I resign.’”
She returned from her honeymoon, enrolled in Esmond, began to build her brand, and eventually launched Mrs Keepa (named for her former goalkeeper husband's nickname). Launching in Dubai, she quickly gathered steam due in part to her already 50+K (at the time) strong cult following on her personal Instagram page, which served as a fashion blog of sorts – and as a great launch pad to help propel her new line.
Her success was swift, but at the outset was marred by criticism, in no small part due to her Lilliputian size chart. “When I started, there were some designs that would stop at sizes 34 and 36, because the fit wouldn’t suit someone with a fuller figure,” she says simply, “So at the beginning I got bullied a lot; a lot of people were saying ‘she’s only designing for skinny women.’”
Of course, this opens up a whole bag of worms and fits into a larger narrative about the global fashion industry. Major brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, and Brandy Melville have come under fire in the past for their refusal to design for fuller figured women. Brandy’s ‘one size fits all’ strategy begs the question of one size fits who exactly, since their size is essentially somewhere between a 34 and a 38 tops, and A&F’s CEO explicitly said in 2013 that they “didn’t want larger people shopping in [their] store.”
When I started, there were some designs that would stop at sizes 34 and 36, because the fit wouldn’t suit someone with a fuller figure.
The implication with brands like Mrs Keepa or Brandy Melville, is that they are unfairly catering to a skinny-only clientele. Sending the wrong message about body image aside, it excludes many people, stripping ‘larger’ shoppers of the right to buy the same items as ‘thin’ people. Of course some will argue that if plus sized stores and brands exist, why shouldn’t skinny-only counterparts exist as well? The issue with this however, is that plus sized stores emerged out of a need for women or men of bigger sizes to actually be able find well-tailored and fashion forward pieces, which weren’t always available – and not have to make do with what little was available in stores for their size – whereas thinner people can often find their sizes easily.
But at the end of the day, every brand, or artist reserves the right to create and sell to whoever they please. And the argument can work in reverse as well. You don’t walk into a steakhouse and complain they’re not catering to a vegan clientele; the world doesn’t go into an uproar about Chanel charging an extortionate amount for a cotton t-shirt; a nude photographer won’t be told to cover up his subjects so as not to offend people’s conservative sensibilities. Any product or service will always leave out some segment of society.
“There are a thousand designers out there for people to choose from. My clientele is specific. It doesn’t mean I have a problem with anyone who is more voluptuous but this is where my target for my brand is,” Yehia says simply. Like I said, she’s blunt. She doesn’t pander or wax lyrical about things you can tell she doesn’t have a modicum of sincerity about. She cuts through the bullshit with searing honesty, and whether or not you share her views, that honesty is a refreshing departure from most people who play it up and pretend for the cameras.
“People always have something to say and if it wasn't for, for example people attacking me because I was only making small sizes, people would say there is no personality in my collection,” she argues, “So no, I won’t apologise.” You could call her work discriminatory or you could call her an uncompromising artist. And as an artist, it is her inherent right to decide what her brand’s DNA will be, even if it will offend some, a price she’s willing to pay.
But even artists make concessions and as Yehia’s career has progressed, her brand aesthetic too, has evolved. Instead of sticking to a diminutive size chart, she now has a one size fits all strategy, not unlike Brandy Melville’s, where many of the pieces are oversized and therefore flexible. While a tiny, haltered romper in Mrs. Keepa’s idea of ‘one size’ may not fit a size 16 woman, an oversized white shirt or the minimal kimono she’s wearing as she chats, will work for people across the size spectrum. She’s also made an effort to make her pieces more wearable for the Arab woman, making items that are also more conservative, which she initially never considered. “I tried to include more pieces in my second collection that were more accessible to more people.”
THE MOTHERHOOD TAX
Yehia, rather impressive, actually launched her brand while pregnant with her first child, and continues to run her business while raising two kids, a feat she makes no pretense of saying is an easy one. More and more, women want to believe that they can have it all and the eternal question is, can they?
According to Yehia, the nasty reality is that you can’t. You can be a mother and have a career – but something’s gotta give. “Honestly, it's never balanced, there is no right formula. If you want to have it all you will have to pay the taxes and the taxes for a working mom are that you feel guilty all the time,” she says simply. And she is transparent about the struggles of a working mom – even one with help.
If you want to have it all you will have to pay the taxes and the taxes for a working mom are that you feel guilty all the time.
I’m not going to post a photo of my kids crying; I always say it, we cannot portray the ugly truth of our reality in pictures, so don’t believe what you see on social media.
“I get anger from my daughter because I travel a lot for example, so I try to take time off to make up for it, but there will always be problems.” Her 100K Instagram feed would suggest a different reality, one where a fashionable mother frolics around with her incredibly well dressed children, and there’s joy all around. “I’m not going to post a photo of my kids crying; I always say it, we cannot portray the ugly truth of our reality in pictures, so don’t believe what you see on social media.”
A savvy businesswoman, Yehia has not only leveraged her social media presence to present the fantasy that people will associate with her brand, but also made the decision not to launch her brand in her home country of Egypt – a carefully calculated one. “The plan was never to launch the first collection in Egypt – even though I produced it here and I held a workshop before the launch. Honestly, it's a sad reality, but we don't believe in ourselves. As Egyptians, we have this ‘3o2det el khawaga’,” she explains. Harsh words perhaps, but not entirely untrue.
When I launched it wasn't something very common that people would feel proud to wear an Egyptian designer, including us Egyptians
Egyptians – and Arabs in general – have often harboured a sense of fascination and admiration with the Other, but a disdain for their own. For a long time, Egyptians of means would not buy Egyptian products, considering them inferior. “When I launched it wasn't something very common that people would feel proud to wear an Egyptian designer, including us Egyptians,” Yehia says simply. That dynamic is changing; a flurry of Egyptian brands are popping up but more importantly, Egyptians are proud to wear them and promote their local industry.
Brands like Cottonball have shared similar views about this shift. “We had so much trouble at first with the idea of being a local brand. It was a real issue,” Zeina Sallam, co-founder of the brand, which produces quality basics made of Egyptian cotton, told Scene Arabia in an interview. “Foreigners who would walk into our store in Cairo would be amazed with the Egyptian cotton. All the Egyptians would walk out. They'd be like ‘oh this is local? They would just walk out. Egyptians at that point had this idea that when something is local, then it immediately signifies something of lower quality therefore it needs to be cheap. Now though, people want to support Egyptian brands.”
But this extended even beyond Egypt, where Yehia explains that even in Dubai, people didn’t have faith in Egyptian designers. But now, more and more local influencers actively promote new brands; initiatives such as #HanaGoesLocal are entirely dedicated to plugging local talents. “It is changing now after having a lot of talents that are now very recognised internationally,” Yehia agrees.
The market is so saturated; there is a designer for every person I would say, so do you have something to offer?
“Brands like Okhtein elevated the positioning of Egyptian designers, to be very honest and people have started to open their arms to Egyptian talents,” she continues, “When I launched my first collection I didn't get much support from my Egyptian crowd, but over the past few years I’ve been been lucky to be a part of this sort of revolution in the perception towards Egyptian style.”
In an ever saturated market, dominated by fresh crops of fresh grads, and new Egyptian and Arab designers popping up like mushrooms, Yehia staunchly believes that resilience is key.
“First question you need to ask yourself before deciding to be a fashion designer is do you have something to offer? The market is so saturated, there is a designer for every person I would say, so if the answer is yes then it's worth the hassle,“ she says.
“And don't let anyone tell you what I just told you, which is the market is saturated, because if you believe in yourself then be persistent. I mean, I didn’t start my brand until I was 30 so don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old to go in a different direction with your career.”
You can follow Mrs Keepa on Instagram here.