Meet two women from our recent feature on Zahra Aljabri, founder of Mode-sty. Lula Saleh and Kate Khaled share their experiences on how personal style has influenced their lives and careers, and opened up about their struggles and triumphs when dressing to fit their personal values and beliefs.
An emerging writer, poet, and performance artist who explores personal healing and witness, diaspora, notions of home and citizenship, blackness, womanhood, and identity in her work. Lula is a multicultural global citizen, and has lived in and traveled to several cities and countries on four continents.
1. What messages do you hope to communicate through your fashion choices and personal style?
I hope to communicate through my fashion that even if you choose to expose less skin, you can still embrace your inner fashionista while staying true to yourself and what makes you feel comfortable.
2. What values or experiences inform your fashion taste? Can you find clothing that is both stylish and fits your set of values?
I wear a lot of colorful, eclectic, funky fashion pieces, and big statement jewelry. I can definitely find clothing that is stylish and fits my values, especially when it comes to accessorizing. I love colorful necklaces and beads, dangling earrings, hats, beanies, scarves, and belts.
I’ve always had funky taste and love to mix things up. But sometimes it’s a struggle to find staple pieces without having to layer, especially in the summer. If I find longer shirts, skirts, and dresses at affordable prices I usually buy them because they’re often hard to find. I’ve noticed that these days the fashion world seems to be unwittingly accommodating for women who choose to show less skin. Lately I’ve been able to find maxi skirts, dresses, cardigans, long shirts, and sweaters that come in all sorts of funky colors, patterns, and styles. I don’t know if it’s on purpose to accommodate for diversity, but it’s been pretty convenient for me!
3. Choice and access have always been central to women’s movements, but rarely are these concepts connected to dressing modestly. What’s your take on this topic?
I feel that a woman should be able to dress the way she wants. Whether that means showing more skin or showing less, it’s up to her. No one has the right to tell someone what to do with his or her own body. Your body, your choice.
4. Do you feel there’s enough diversity in the fashion options available to women? Where are the gaps? What would you like to see more of?
I think the obvious answer is no, there isn’t enough diversity in fashion options. Even if there was, I’ve noticed that often trendy styles tend to appropriate indigenous cultures in North America and from all over the world. But I think the fashion industry is slowly beginning to catch up to the demand. As western populations continue to diversify, the fashion options that are available have to diversify, too.
5. Name an item in your wardrobe or an outfit in your closet that makes you feel empowered. Why?
I have a pair of black skinnies that aren’t quite denim, but aren’t quite legging material either. They’re not skintight, but they’re not “just jeans.” I can do anything with them. I can go formal and wear them with a blazer and blouse. I can wear them casually (which I usually do) with a loose tank, long tee, or short dress and cardigan. It’s a piece of clothing that is empowering because it’s stylish yet comfortable. Because it’s black I can go crazy with my colors on everything else. Black is a staple for me, because you can contrast any other color with it. You can’t ever go wrong with black.
6. If you could trade closets with one other person, who would pick and why?
On one extreme I’d pick Malaysian music artist Yuna, and on another extreme I’d pick someone such as Beyoncé or Rihanna. The latter two are fashion icons known for their eccentric and revealing styles. I love that their fashion decisions are controversial and that they don’t shy away from it. Both artists are confident in their skin (literally!). They make empowered fashion decisions while showing their skin and staying true to their diva sides, but still look simply exquisite. It would be a fun and interesting challenge to swap closets with them and see how I would mix, match, and layer pieces to combine their fashion tastes with my values.
I think Yuna has brought the whole turbanista “expose-less-skin” thing into fashion. Her wraps and styles are so exquisite and beautifully done. Her colors are always on point. I could totally see myself rocking some of the outfits she wears in her music videos or from her fashion line.
An active professional in philanthropy for four years, she most recently took up post on the all-female leadership team at Charities Review Council. When she’s not building relationships between donors and nonprofits, you might find her chasing down challenges such as hiking the Grand Portage with a wood-canvas canoe on her back.
1. In the past you’ve shared many of the major changes you’ve experience in life. You wrote:
“After an intercultural marriage, job loss and two years of back-to-back pregnancy, I needed somewhere to re-create myself. In the span of 24 months, I went from being a stylish urban academic to a SAHM of two baby boys living in married student housing, watching Netflix to stay connected to the world around me.”
In the last four years you’ve entered the philanthropic world and now work at the Charities Review Council. Can you speak to how your fashion has evolved as your roles have changed throughout the years, and where you are today?
When I completed my master’s degree in 2008, I imagined that my life would take me in a straight line. I thought my academic investment would translate to a leadership role in my field (public health), and that building my family life would follow a similar formula. But being a millennial and finishing school at the time of the economic crash meant that it’s been much more of an adventure than that. Kids came before a house; re-creating my professional profile and teaching myself some really transformative skills came before a leadership role. From what I’ve observed, people who are coming up these days are a part of a generation of creative entrepreneurs and systems re-engineers. Our style seems to reflect that.
As I take on more leadership at work, I consciously bring my whole self to the table. That’s definitely also true for how I represent myself through clothing. In terms of my fashion, that means I’ve built an eclectic, unique, intercultural professional wardrobe that reflects my identity, suits my shape, and is appropriate for all sorts of activities. From facilitating committee meetings and going to lunchtime prayer on Fridays at the masjid (mosque), to building relationships on behalf of Charities Review Council and carting my kids to swimming lessons — I find myself in really different environments on a daily basis. It’s a busy, fulfilling life; one that calls for an image that can be consistent and professional, yet dynamic and versatile.
2. You value leading a dynamic and diverse life. How does this manifest through your style? Do you think the industry (specific designers, stores, clothing lines, etc.) support these values as well?
I often pair classics with eclectic statement pieces. For example, this summer my staple outfit was a comfortable and well-tailored black, three-quarter sleeve maxi dress. Depending on the day I could wear it with all sorts of belts, chunky jewelry, or gorgeous silk scarves. This was a great all-purpose outfit that could take me from the farmers market to a funder meeting.
A day-to-day observer might not notice this, but as a general rule I tend to keep my arms and legs covered most of the year. It’s a personal preference based on my spiritual journey, and it’s how I feel most comfortable. I’ve carefully curated a wardrobe that makes this possible, but it’s hard work. It requires a significant investment of both time and money in order to look professional and reflect my identity. I find beautiful pieces from designers such as Michael Kors, at stores such as Anthropologie, and by taking risks with startups such as Stitch Fix. My best friend Melissa (who has a Ph.D. in art history and is a successful stylist for a major designer — see what I mean about entrepreneurial millennials!), helps give me confidence to take some creative risks with my style.
3. You’re an active member of the Twin Cities Muslim community and work with an all-female leadership team at Charities Review Council. What struggles have you or women in your community faced when shopping for clothes that fit your personal style or values?
Overall I have a lot of fun incorporating my intercultural life and values into my clothing and fashion. It hasn’t been that long since women entered the workplace en masse, so it’s worth remembering that professional fashion for women is relatively new. I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude to the generation of professional women before me who blazed the trail in power suits, leading the way in boardrooms and trying to shatter glass ceilings so we wouldn’t need to. At the age of 14, I remember my aunt carefully taught me business etiquette and showed me how to put together a jacket and skirt so I’d never be out of place in a male-dominated meeting. Now I can take the space that women of her generation opened up for me and continue to lead the way by making space for diversity, eclecticism, and creativity in professional fashion.
Still, our selection is highly limited. I wish there were more options for modesty and professionalism to come together in our wardrobe options. Shopping for a gala or black-tie event is the worst. I need to start planning months in advance to find something that makes me feel like myself. Sometimes I need to go all the way to Chicago or have something sent in from London to get something that is elegant, stylish, and modest.
4. How does fashion and personal style impact women both positively and negatively as they network and build professional relationships? Could you share a time when your career was influenced by what you chose to wear?
This is the age of the personal brand. You are what you wear, in so many ways, and that’s true for both men and women. This is why the iconic black turtleneck and jeans that Steve Jobs wore has become a sort of uniform for the tech industry.
For women, our clothing is even more coded. For women with diverse identities, what we wear gets filled with a lot of public meaning. There are really high stakes in our personal branding, in our professional lives and beyond. There’s no room for error and no space for mistakes. What does “business formal” mean for a Muslim woman? It’s up to my generation of emerging leaders to figure that out.
The most obvious example of this is hijab in my community. Wearing hijab is a very private choice, and one with which Muslim women struggle. While I don’t wear hijab all the time, I wear it often enough to know that I’m treated differently when I do, especially in high-level professional environments. I know that as a woman and as a member of the Muslim community, my attire is much more highly scrutinized than that of a white man of privilege. There are real risks associated with what I wear.
I wore a headscarf to a committee meeting for the first time recently. It felt like really high stakes. I was concerned that it wouldn’t be well received, but I realized that it’s up to me to make brave choices and blaze the trail for the next generation of female leaders.
5. Fill in the blanks:
I feel most empowered when I wear red lipstick, high-waisted black pants, and colorful shoes because I’m bringing my whole self to my leadership role.
6. What piece in your closet do you wish you had bought multiples of so you could wear it longer?
I had a stretchy black tunic I wore as a staple for nearly two years. I finally let it go when it got a hole in the sleeve. I still miss that piece, so now I buy multiples every time I find a perfect, classic staple.