Lingerie designer: ‘I use headless mannequins so my male customers don’t get too excited’
When Sala receives an order for the lingerie she designs, she has to quickly discern her serious customers from the ones just getting a kick out of asking her questions about women’s underwear. The cheeky lads wasting her time nearly always give themselves away with the same request: after asking about materials, quality and prices, they want to see the lingerie modeled.
When Sala puts it on a mannequin that she reserves just for those requests (headless with no limbs, hoping it tempers any excitement), they then clarify they want to see it on a live model at which point she unceremoniously hangs up and blocks their number.
Such are the obstacles for a women’s lingerie designer in Yemen.
Some of her largest obstacles have been sourcing materials such as straps, hooks, clips and such for bras, underwear, corsets and garter belts. Even in women’s clothing stores, the employees are largely men. When Sala presents a zoomed-in photo of a hook for a garter belt to show the man behind the counter what she wants, they react the same, according to Sala. One hundred percent of the time.
“They always zoom out, without fail. It’s like, I’m showing you a zoomed-in picture. Is it really necessary to zoom out to see the partially clothed woman?”
Sala said discussing such things, even in the context of a business transaction in a clothing store, is always embarrassing. Inevitably, the man behind the counter demands to know what the heck kind of clothing she’s designing.
When your business is lingerie, discussing designs can be tricky, even with women.
“I notice that a lot of women first want to know if I’m married, before they feel comfortable describing a specific design.”
In 2018, a foundation wanted to highlight Sala as an example of a successful female business that was founded after the start of Yemen’s civil war. But the foundation faced a dilemma: how to advertise Sala’s lingerie company without advertising the lingerie, which they found inappropriate for their brochures. In the end, they were unable to do so.
While the lingerie market in Yemen continues to grow, Sala faces a dilemma: Her creations are all custom-designed and handmade, but some customers misunderstand and call to request specific brands.
“I think the market in Yemen is a little backwards in some regard, in that people really value mass-produced lingerie, especially by known brands. This is considered high quality. I think we have a while to go before people are really ready to value a custom-designed, handmade piece.”
As for the designs themselves, Sala, an extremely creative and imaginative woman, has an entire Halloween collection in a country that doesn’t celebrate Halloween.
“I know some of these ideas are a bit too much for this society, but I’m trying to introduce some new ideas. Married women come to me about their dull routines in the bedroom, complaining about their husband’s wandering eye. I help them spice things up.”
A bright red cowgirl design, complete with a cowboy hat, “didn’t really translate,” which is kind of surprising, given that Yemenis are definitely the cowboys and girls of the Middle East.
What did translate, was an outfit with accessories based on a popular novel-turned movie.
Corsets also sell really well, particularly ones with lots of glitter, beads and crystals.
She’s always glad when men buy their wives lingerie. “To me, it says that he really cares about her, he wants to make her feel special and beautiful. He’s playing a role in keeping things fresh, not putting the work all on her.”
So far, Sala is a one-woman team, designing, sourcing materials, sewing, advertising, selling. The business started as a hobby, and she is completely self-taught. What drew her to design is the opportunity to express herself creatively.
“Designing lingerie is art. The joy and satisfaction I get from making a set is indescribable.” She dreams to one day design lingerie for famous music and movie stars, in particular, J.Lo.
She has two Facebook groups, one exclusively for women (whom she trusts with fully-limbed mannequins, complete with a head)! The other group anyone can join. That group doesn’t even get headless mannequins, she simply lays the outfit on a table/floor and takes a picture. The instagram account is la.maitresse.lingerie.
While admittedly there is not yet a huge market for sexy nurses and cowgirls in Sana’a, her Valentine’s Day boxes were a hit. Inside, she includes everything one needs for a romantic evening: candles, flower petals, massage oils and some lacey lingerie.
Sala left Yemen twice after the war, the first time taking a boat to Djibouti before flying to Malaysia. She found the idea of making a living there, where she knew no one, overwhelming, and eventually returned. While on vacation in Malaysia a few years later, she once again considered staying, but was again drawn back to Yemen.
“It’s just different when it’s your home. No matter what, if I’m home, I feel I’ll be okay. I’m not a stranger.”
Sala recently put the business on hold for a much needed break and as she prepares to take an online course in fashion design. She dreamed of attending a fashion program, and was in touch with one in India, before circumstances convinced her it wasn’t the right time. With a worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, however, the Indian design school has informed her that it is moving its courses online.
Sala sees herself designing for an international market one day. But until then, she will keep pushing to open the Yemeni lingerie market one beaded bustier at a time.