Farouque Abdela is an established, and internationally reknowned fashion designer based in Zanzibar.
Albeit born in Zanzibar, he lived in the United Kingdom for most of his life. Almost four decades later, Farouque returned to set up base in Stone Town.
In Zanzibar, everyone seems to know who Farouque is. Everyone has something to say about Farouque. And it’s all good stuff.
Once we landed in Zanzibar, I couldn’t wait to meet him; this man whose reputation preceded him.
Farouque and I finally met at the stunning Emerson Spice Hotel, on an extremely heated, Zanzibari Monday afternoon.
We said hello, shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, then I mentioned I’d heard wonderful things about him.
Farouque responded, “All those wonderful things you’ve heard? They’re all true!”
I laughed. He giggled. I liked him already.
Farouque has wit. Quick wit. He also has a sharp mind, and an occasionally sharper tongue. His opinion on things is often unfiltered.
The ease with which Farouque interacted with those around him was admirable. I liked his style: friendly, charming, engaging, and everything about him seemed regal.
From his severely tinted prescription eye-glasses, to the head-gear of the day, (something he never walks without), and even to his manner of speech, it’s all regal.
Albeit he’s previously been featured on CNN’s Inside Africa, I was still eager to find out who Farouque really is, how he works, who he designs for, what else he does…everything.
Farouque Abdela, the man who has designed outfits for some of the best of the best in the world, talked to me about celebrities, not having an office, being too tall to dance (I didn’t know such a thing existed) and his love for Zanzibar.
Farouque, I like your name. It’s “swanky.” Is there a story to it?
The name is actually Egyptian. My parents gave it to me and that was it. But, the interesting thing is that, I only know two people with the same name: myself and Freddie Mercury. I actually think it’s jinxed. (Laughs)
Jinxed? Why jinxed?
Well, (Shakes head) such few people with the name, something must be wrong…
Although, Freddie was an absolute legend, he was music royalty, perhaps it’s only the privileged who get to have such swanky names? Only those who are, “royal,” you do realise you appear very royal, right?
(Laughs) Well, I don’t know about that. But it is what it is.
I hear, from the grapevine, that you’ve designed outfits for some pretty outstanding people. The late Princess Diana being one of them, is this true?
(Laughs, then mumbles)
Sorry, I didn’t get that, what was that you said?
(Laughs some more, looking nervous) Yeah, I did. I designed some outfits for the lady. I’m actually not supposed to be saying who exactly it is or what exactly the outfit was, but yes, it’s true.
Hang on, what do you mean you’re not allowed to let it out, why?
Mmh, you know, these things have a way in which they work. We work together, I design outfits, dress people, and that’s it.
I don’t get it, “That’s it?” It’s a big deal, isn’t it? I mean, shouldn’t you be using your “Portfolio,” of such great works to propel yourself further? To have people take notice?
Well, the very fact that people know I designed for the likes of her and Maya Angelou is enough to boost my career. I don’t need to say too much about it.
Got it. How was it working for such big names?
(Nods) It was great! Quite an honour, I must admit. But you know, on the other hand, you meet these celebrities and you realise they really are just people as well. Human. Like you and me.
Yes, really. They are just as human as everyone else.
Although, it surely doesn’t get any more elite than that, right?
(Nods with a smile) True, that’s true.
Having such esteemed clients must have come with a lot of pressure, did you feel the pressure?
Yes! Incredible pressure. You know, you have these deals go through, and you get excited, but then it soon dawns on you that you have to get the job done. You’re hired to work and design the best. And that’s no easy feat.
And I presume that speaks of the fashion industry as well, it’s not all glamour and bliss, a lot of hard work instead?
Definitely. An incredible amount of hard work! You have to put in the hours, you have to sweat it out. Making a name doesn’t just happen. You have to really work at it.
Would that be your advice to the young ones, those who want to grow up and become fashion designers?
Yes. Hard work. There’s no two ways about it. None.
The late Maya Angelou, how was it designing for her?
Oh, it was an honour. An incredible honour!
How did you react when you found out about her death?
(Looks away, seeming nostalgic) Before she passed away, there was a recording she’d left me. She said she had two tickets to a concert and she really wanted me to attend. When I found out she was no more, I looked for the recording and played it back. (Silence)
Can you believe the kind of people you’ve been able to interact with based on your craft? Do you feel privileged?
Oh, it’s unbelievable. It really is. Especially for Maya, I’m really grateful that my hands got to touch the body of a legend.
Is there any other celebrity you’d really like to design for?
(Laughs) It’s not a question of me wanting them, it’s a matter of them wanting me! (Laughs some more)
Oh, alright then, got it. Do you only do fashion design?
No, I also do interior design. I work on hotels and their rooms and ensuring they look as they should. Like the historic Emerson On Hurumzi hotel, I worked on that.
Besides those two, I also choreograph dances; training and moulding passionate dancers.
Oh? Do you dance?
Well, I used to be quite interested in dancing. I was passionate about it, but then I found out I was a bit too tall to dance. (Laughs heartily)
“Too tall to dance?” I didn’t know there was such a thing. Is that really a thing?
Yeah, I think so. (Laughs) But it worked out well, now I really enjoy training and moulding dancers. I train models as well.
Yes. And I love it. However, I teach them the basics. I have them realise that being a model is not about being pretty. For me, a model is a salesperson, someone to showcase and sell the garments.
So, it’s not about the looks: nice, tall and slim, great bone structure, the works?
No, I mean, it helps to be pretty, but that’s not the point. The focus is on the garments.
You indulge in a great mix of activities, do you have an office?
No, I don’t. And it’s deliberate, I like not having an office. It means I work from wherever the job is. Which is fun and exciting and different.
I work all kinds of hours, so variety is good, it keeps the job interesting.
Farouque, are you married?
No, I’m not married.
Any reason for that?
I think I’m married to my job. I work so hard and I work all the time. But I’m not complaining, I enjoy it, I really do enjoy it.
Seeing as you were bred in the UK, are you used to the Zanzibar heat yet?
No! You can never get used to this kind of heat. It’s like winter in Europe.
How has your transition back to Zanzibar been? Have you fully adapted yet?
Oh, I love it here. It’s wonderful. When you’re out there, you’re always working, you’re always on the grind, stressing, trying to make a dollar, it’s incredibly stressful.
But here, the dynamics are different. You can work just as hard, but you still get to have a social life, meet up with buddies, enjoy an evening catch up. I love it here.
Do you speak any Swahili at all?
(Laughs) “Kidogo, kidogo” (A little.)
Well, that’s great. But, how are you going to cope with the language aspect of things; they did make it a rule for schools to conduct entire lessons in Swahili in Tanzania, right?
(Laughs while shaking his head) Yeah, I heard about that! I don’t get it! Honestly, Yvonne, I don’t get it.
I mean, it’s definitely great to retain your culture and traditions, but at the same time, don’t do it in a way that leaves you remaining so far behind from the rest of the world, that you’ll never catch up. Goodness.
What’s been your most embarrassing moment trying to speak the language?
Oh, I was at a restaurant once and I was really in need of the waiter. I wasn’t quite sure what to call them or how to. So there I was, sitting at the restaurant and calling out: “Huduma! Huduma!” (Bursts out laughing). Everyone turned.
Well, the waiter did come. But after he left and people stopped laughing and staring, some mentioned that I sounded very colonial. Not only did I use the wrong word, seeing as “Huduma” means “Service”, but I also said it with an accent. It was embarrasing! But also funny. (Laughs some more.)
I told you, you do appear and sound very royal, see what I mean?
Well, (pauses), thank God there’s still some of us left! (Laughs)
Everyone seems to know who Farouque is in Zanzibar, do you like it? The attention?
Popularity comes with the job. With putting your designs out there.
But yeah, people always seem to know where to find me. They know where I live. Where I hang out. If I’m not in this cafe, they know I’ll be at that restaurant, and if I’m not at that restaurant, they know I’ll be passing by the other cafe at a certain time. They can always find me.
Okay, that’s very specific. Is that a good thing, for people to always be able to find you? Is it safe?
Mmmh, I don’t mind it at all. I like the interaction. The only aspect of it that I’m really wary about is this Facebook, Twitter, business. This social media. I feel very vulnerable.
I get all manner of questions and requests and interests, and people asking to be models for my outfits and I keep thinking, “Ah, ah, can’t handle that.”
Fair enough. So what next, for Farouque?
I’m on the final stages of working on a book called: Swahili Zanzibar Costumes. The launch of the book should be happening sooner rather than later.
Wonderful. All the best with that.
Thanks. Thank you Yvonne.
For those interested in your designs, how could they get a hold of them?
A collection of my work can be found at the Zanzibar Gold Hotel, and at the Memories of Zanzibar shop.
Alright, and for those who aren’t based in Zanzibar, how could they contact you?
I think I’m easily available on email. But, they could also just Google me, they’ll find me.
So, just to clarify, that Google factor, you’re simply making a statement, you aren’t bragging, right?
Well, I don’t brag. If I was to start dropping names, we’d bring the house down! (Breaks out in laughter).