A conversation with Singer/Songwriter and Tazyeen Ayub on her podcast, Digging Deeper.
On the season finale, I visited my friend Tazyeen and had a deep and frank discussion about life, body image, entrepreneurship, and more. This moment was very important for me because it meant sharing passion for my work as a fashion designer and love activist. Watch the full episode below.
"Expression is an exploration of our inner selves, when we dig deep and allow ourselves to be inspired. There are so many forms in which a person can express themselves, through art, poetry, music, food, and much more. In this weekly series, Digging Deeper, we discuss, in depth, topics around expression as a deeply spiritual endeavor as well as expression as a means of activism. Each week Tazeen sits down with a local artist, activist, or person with a spiritual practice to dig deeper about a topic relevant and important to the guest and the viewers. At the end of the hour, the guest shares their expression with the audience."
Episodes are live every Tuesday evening at 7pm (EST) on Tazeen's Instagram (@tazeen.ayub). Because they are live, viewers can comment with their reflections and questions. Digging Deeper is meant to be a wider conversation between Tazeen, the guest, and viewers so that together we can gain deeper insight and clarity.
It was like a light switch went off in my head. What used to seem horrible, unthinkable, and incomprehensible was suddenly easy and natural. Leaving Islam. And joining the rest of humanity. Yes. Being a Muslim did mean separating yourself from other people. They will tell you that's a lie. That Islam respects other religions, etc, and don't misunderstand me- they do – but from a distance. Don't be friends with quote “Non-Muslims”. You can smile and talk about basic things like school or work but you can never form close friendship. This type of self isolation causes fear to arise of the “Other”.
Growing up in a religiously split family, my mom's side was Catholic or non-religious, and my father's side was conservative Muslim. My mother converted after marrying my father and that meant that all of us had to be Muslim too. When I was younger, it gave me a sense of community and belonging. The people around me were almost always either Muslim or Middle Eastern or both. Some bragged about how long they spent at the Mosque. Like that did anything to better the world. In their mind they had racked up virtual “Good Deed” points that an angel on the right shoulder writes down. An angel on the left shoulder writes down all the "bad" things you did.
As a young teen growing up in the Islamic community, a lot of things I did were considered “bad”. Thinking about boys. Talking to a boy. Any type of physical contact with a boy before being married to him, for that matter. Drawing nude bodies in art school. Going out at night to dance. Showing skin besides my face and hands.
That one got me the most. When I was younger I pictured myself being an adult wearing the Hijab*. Then I grew up and realized I never wanted to wear it. I got some pressure from my dad growing up to put it on, but not as bad as some girls get. He never forced me to explicitly cover my hair, but he maintained steady control over what I wore. I had to be surveyed before leaving the house. If he disliked something- my skirt was two inches too short- he would ask me to change. Why? Because he didn't want boys to be tempted to do something to me because of my clothes. That's the bottom line of modesty in Islam. The responsibility of men's behavior falls onto women. And even then women in Burkas** get raped. They show a flash of ankle and it turns some sicko on. It takes a rapist to rape. And covering up the women will not stop them.
When will it end? Will women have to wear armor from now on? I'm a designer- yeah, I should think for the future and make fashionable armor because that's what women will need continue in this direction. Armor for our bodies, To protect ourselves from men who were raised in the mentality that “boys will be boys”.
Why are women in Islam taught not to make eye contact with a man? Is it that our eye contact will entice them sexually or because it is too defiant? So instead we look down. And the men talk down at us. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Having to look down puts out some of the fire in you. It makes you feel less human, and you connect to less people.
My dad's side of the family covers their faces with black veils when they go outside. I respect their choice to do so, and I don't think they are ignorant for doing what everyone in their culture does. However, for me personally, I find the Burkah highly offensive and would be devastated if I was forced to wear it somehow. It dehumanized the woman. She's just a faceless shadow walking around the city. Why can the men show their faces and hair? Why can they have all the power, and all the sexuality? It is widely accepted that men get turned on, why is it a "taboo" that women do, too? Women get just as horny as men do. Hormones be crazy, and sometimes, ladies just wanna jump on some dick. This is biological stuff, people. So wouldn't it make sense- religiously speaking- to encourage celibacy by having men cover themselves up except for their faces and hands? Better yet, have the Saudi men start covering their faces with a black veil, like they force their women to, and have them tell me how much that helps their eyesight.
* The Hijab is an Islamic covering that requires everything but the hands and face to show. Some women also show their feet up to the ankle.
**Burkah is a covering that goes over the entire woman covering her face, hair, and body in fabric. She sees through sheer black fabric over her eyes.
***Niquab is like the Burkah but there is a cut out for the eyes so the woman can see better.
Photography by Thomas Scotch
Fashion design and modeling by Lena Harbali.
To get any of these pieces made-to-order email Lenaartinfo@gmail.com
How has religion influenced your life? In what ways has it been positive, negative?
Islam has not all been negative to me, and that is important to remember. I will be following up this post with ones in the future about the good things that religion has taught me.
It is true, there are so many wars and humanitarian crises going on around the world that it is hard to keep up with it. I get so involved with the Syrian conflict that I have little energy to remember that there is instability in Venezuela, homelessness in Detroit, famine in Sudan, and of course, the crisis in Yemen. Experts in the field call it the biggest crisis happening in the world today. As someone with Syrian family affected by the crisis there, it is only natural to have empathy for those families and want to help them.
I have always found ways to combine my art and my passion for activism. Recently I accomplished that by hand making chunky, colorful hats for Syrian children while I was in Istanbul. People from all over the world donated money to the ongoing campaign to help purchase yarn for the hats. That's how I came up with the idea for the Art for Yemen Campaign. My next project is a pop-up shop at the Raw Artists Showcase at St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit on May 17th and sales there will go towards this project to help Yemen. If you can't make it to the event, but would like to support, donate to the Relief for Yemen fund. Any small bit you can give helps a lot!
10% of shop profits will be donated. That means that every single hand-made back pack, dress, wallet, and graphic T-shirt you purchase will be directly helping feed and clothe Yemeni children. To do your part, come to the event on May 17th and buy some beautiful handmade items or graphic T's. Doors open at 6pm, tickets can be purchase here.
Please make sure to share this information with a friend. Not everyone is aware of the Yemeni crisis. I personally wasn't aware of exactly how severe it was until someone sent me a video when things took a turn for the worse. Its been going on since 2014. Just like the Flint water crisis, things like this need people like you to reignite the flame under large organizations to step in and help.
Make sure to stop on by St. Andrew's Hall on May 17th to donate small change to the Yemeni Crisis fund and to buy a mother's day gift. Use this mother's day coupon at the shop for big deals!
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If you hadn't heard, I applied to Project Runway for the second time this year! Yay! I applied last year and didn't make it through to the next round, but this year I received an email of congratulations three days after I submitted my application. Needless to say I was so excited. Lots of young designers aspire to get onto the design competition show, Project Runway, and that day I felt just a lick closer to that dream.
Its funny how things turn out despite things standing in your way. Last year, I had a stable income, was living at home with my parents, and had a months notice to submit the tediously long application, portfolio, and video. This year I hadn't even thought about applying, because I was planning to stay in Istanbul for the whole year. Because of the violence and my health getting bad, I came back early. I got an email from the casting people saying there was ten days left to apply, my brain kicked into panic mode!
I already had lots of professional photographs taken (thanks Steve, Tim, Sue, and Emajhn) over this past year, all I needed was a video. I snagged some help from a willing friend, borrowed my dad's ancient video camera, and headed to downtown Detroit to shoot the film. It was quick, raw, and real. I had fun shooting it and I think you can tell. Watch the video and tell me what you think!
The email told me that on Friday, April 14th I was to come to the James Hotel in Chicago for an interview at 2:45. I rented a motel the night before outside the city, and drove in early that day to scout the place out. I got to the hotel right on time, and was shown to a lobby where there were other designers with their racks of clothes. I walked in with my garment bag slung over my shoulder with a confident stride, and started hanging up my garments. I felt proud that for the first time in my life, I wasn't comparing myself to anyone, and felt secure and happy with the work I was presenting.
I was actually the last person to be interviewed, and they had been running late. It was about an hour past when I was originally supposed to be seen, but I didn't mind. I was having fun talking to all the other designers, there were three I met from Michigan. Two female twins caught my eye- one feminine girl with long brown hair, and the other a rocker girl with a shaved head. They both sported bright pink lips and septum piercings.
When it was my time, I walked in already knowing who the judges were, I had scouted it out by asking the other designers. I knew that in the middle was my idol, the designer Mondo Guerra who was a runner-up on Season 8 of Project Runway. I had seen him back in the day and was in awe of his pattern mixing abilities. He was the one who inspired me to have confidence in my pattern mixing and was instrumental in shaping a big part of my design aesthetic to this day. Needless to say my heart was pounding and I was laser focused on not screwing up anything. I walked in there with good posture and my head high.
It was a huge room. I looked around as I wheeled my metal clothing rack onto the tape spot marked on the carpet. I was supposed to stand in one spot but I walked forward and shook first a woman's hand, then Mr. Guerra himself, then another woman. I had the opportunity to shake his hand, and said "Big fan". That, by itself, made the trip for me. While I was presenting my work, he smiled and nodded, and was just as nice as he always seemed on T.V. When I was done, the three judges had nothing but positive words to say about me and my work. Mondo said I seemed fearless, and that I would intimidate contestants on the show. I took that as a huge compliment. The point all three judges could agree on was that I was young. Young and determined, but still a fresh designer. That weekend was amazing, but that evening after my interview I was called back and they wished me good luck for applying next year.
Even though I didn't make it in, I still felt this un-penetrable high, a drive, a thirst that can't ever get quenched. I thought that maybe I was meant to struggle to build this business from the ground up, like most people have to. Getting onto T.V would make it too easy. The grind, the struggle, and the failures all teach me important lessons. I'd like to personally thank the three judges for saying no to me, because you re-lit my flame and gave me a goal for next year. I'm coming for you, you haven't seen the last of me for sure.
COMMENT: How do you hustle for your passions? You got any awesome small business tips to share?
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1. It sounds corny, but just do it!
Seriously, just start making shit. Literally anything. The more you make, the more materials you experiment with, and the more often you do it, the better! When I was a little pre-teen and growing out of my doll phase, I refused to give them away just so that I would have an excuse to sew them new outfits. Doll clothes by hand turned into a handful of garments sloppily thrown together, but still people-sized, made on my mother's old metal Riccar sewing machine. The first fashion show I was ever in, 2013 EMU Fashion Week, was the first time I even came close to attempting to make a collection or more than a few mismatched items. Looking back at my work, I cringe. Nothing was cohesive, and my construction was awful. I think every artist is critical of their work in this way, but I can look back now with pride because I jumped into it headfirst and without fear. Fearlessness will produce results every time.
2. Don't be afraid to fail, because failure is a fake concept.
I am almost entirely type A. I get it from my dad. I love to produce results, and hate to fail. That fear of failure has held me back in the past, but no more. I learned to let it go, and since I did that I have been seeing such amazing, positive, results! Yes, I did fail more, but according to the law of probability, for every time you fail there is a chance you will succeed. So, with that logic, the more you fail the more likely you are to succeed! I throw myself into situations I am not prepared for, just to see how hard I can fail. I ''failed'' every time I tried to draft a sleeve pattern. It just kept pinching in the shoulders, or being too bulky. I failed and failed until one day, I didn't, and I just GOT IT in a way that no lesson or teacher could give me, and only failure could. With that new skill of drafting sleeve patterns I went on to design (and get paid for) three custom wedding looks, and counting.
3. Make friends with people who have similar interests and goals
This may go without saying, but I think it is relevant, because I wish someone had encouraged me to do this earlier on. I had great friends in high school, but I was the only one with such big aspirations or with a career that was seen as “gutsy” or “outside the norm”. I kind of kept my art in my own world, and didn't even invite people to my runway shows in the beginning. I am thankful for that in retrospect because I was able to develop my art voice without influence, however I think it is also good to have pride in your work and involve your family/loved ones. If they are not as excited as you'd hope, go to networking events and meet ups to find people who think like you.
4. COLLABORATE WITH EVERYONE!
Once you make a connection, and you feel like the gesture would be welcome, offer to do a collaboration. For example, Leah Vernon is a body-positive fashion blogger in Detroit who I didn't know that well until recently. We had seen each other and heard about each other, but without a connection, its hard to form a friendship. I reached out to her and offered to design a dress for her from scratch, and do a photo shoot for both our blogs. We had lots of fun together, and that is why we are friends to this day. Another example of a collaboration is a friend of a friend of mine, Jeremy, who hand-paints textiles. That is something I have always wanted to get into, and he already does it and is good at it. He is making me fabric, I am sewing him a cool outfit, and we both get cool representation from the other. Its all about using people's strengths to supplement your weaknesses and vice-versa. Help and work with people from the get-go, and they will be more likely to befriend and help you in return.
5. Research other designers, but don't over do it.
The one thing I can be thankful for about not going to fashion school is that my head is free of any outside influence. It is a well-known phenomenon among creatives that when they love someone's work, their own work started to emulate it. That's okay, because art is all appropriation from each other anyway. However, if you are constantly looking at other people, you won't have the creative space in your brain to make your own ideas. I experienced this when I first got on Pinterest, I kept pinning and obsessing over fashion, and then I wondered why I couldn't come up with new ideas. Now, I make a conscious effort to put social media/internet away when I'm in design mode, so I have nothing to interfere with my train of thought.
6. If you don't wear your clothes, no one else will either
Back in the day, when I first started designing, I approached it like the visual artist that I am. I figured I was sending these designs down the runway, each one should be unique, over the top, and like a walking piece of art. It should get a reaction, and people may not understand it. That's all good and dandy, if you are dressing Lady Gaga. For a designer who aspires to sell their work in stores and to real people, like I do, making the designs wearable is pertinent. I used to never wear my designs, because they were too over the top and crazy. Over time I refined my look, and made it more approachable to common people. Now I make sure that I sport my own designs to the grocery store, out for a meal, and especially to all networking events. You are your own billboard. I have more fans and clients than ever, because they see how much I love my own work.
7. There is no wrong way to promote your brand
There really isn't, except violent/vulgar things, of course. I used to think that the only way to get the word out about my fashion is by creating and showcasing collections at runway shows, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Everyone wears clothes, so everyone is a candidate to rep your work. The world is your runway. Wearing your own clothes, and having everyone you know wear your clothes is the best and easiest way. Beauty/fashion/lifestyle bloggers across the internet LOVE to get clothes to try on and get cool pictures in, offer to send them an outfit for a week. Musicians are great candidates too, get some to wear your shit during one of their shows. Youtube stars who make videos that align with your brand vision are also great candidates. Generally speaking, anyone with any type of publicity, or who is from/influences your target demographic, should be wearing your clothes. If you can make that happen, the publicity will come on its own.
8. Have a vision, but recognize that it can and will evolve over time
Those who remember my old work remember I used to call my brand “Lady Liberty”. I started with that concept with the tag line “Lady Liberty seeks to liberate women from standards of beauty set by society”. Not super complicated, but I stuck with it for a while. After coming out as bi-sexual to my close friends last year, I started to embrace my androgynous style that always made me different than other girls. I realized that I wanted to dress men, women, and everyone in between. I recognized that my brand was in fact me, so I named it Lena Harbali: Design and Blog. Now, my vision is to create a brand that is inclusive to ALL people, regardless of shape, color, size, gender, or sexuality. My new slogan is “Socially conscious designs that rebel against the System”. I had no effing clue what I was doing when I started. Now, I feel so proud of how far I have come, and how I was able to fully pinpoint my purpose. Having a clear purpose will help your vision, so work on defining WHY you do things, and then the HOW will come later.
9. Remember that it's not about the money, but it really is.
2016 was the first year I made real money off my design work. It wasn't much, but getting any kind of profit as a new independent business is a huge accomplishment. Ironically, 2016 was also the year that I decided to stop pursuing fashion shows. One would think that would have negatively effected my business. I started focusing instead on creating a great brand and product to boost sales. Whatever I did must have worked, because I am making money doing what I love. At the end of the day, if no one is paying me to do design work, I will have to get paid doing something else, because everyone needs money to live. Getting a second job cuts into my art time, which then makes it harder to get art out to the masses. With this logic, asking for money for your work is not being greedy, it is knowing your value and demanding it from the world. Just like lawyers and doctors get paid for their services, artists should too. Your followers will appreciate the fact that you are consistent in creating new art for their enjoyment. Not asking for money is letting everyone down.
10. Don't EVER let anyone be a hater and bring you down
This one is huge for me. I was a victim of bullying from 8th to 9th grade (read my story and how I overcame it here). That experience really hurt my confidence, especially regarding my art. I remember bringing in some of my designs and the girls saying that it looked like Grandma clothes. Back then, I felt the sting. Now, I shrug it off. I had haters back when I barely knew how to sew, and I have even more haters now that I actually know what I'm doing and can create amazing, incredible work! Funny, right? The more talented you are, the more jealous people will be, and the more they will try to tear you down. As an artist, its even harder to be understood, because we are often speaking in visual rather than vocal words. People often don't appreciate art, and will insult it or dismiss it because of their confusion. Don't let their ignorance, opinions, words of discouragement, or any other negative energies infiltrate your heart and mind. Kick those haters straight out of your life! Here's how. They are them, you are you, and you are awesome! All it takes is for you to believe in your work, and the bullies can never get under your skin.
Are you or someone you know a self-taught artist? How did you or your friend build success without training? What are some ways we get get skills training without traditional school? What is one of the coolest collaboration and promotion ideas you have?
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I've decided to combine my love for fashion with my knack for finding gems in the oddest of markets, and open a Resale Boutique! One of my absolute favorite hobbies is going to thrift stores, flea markets, and boutiques of all kind and picking out garments and accessories that are super unique. It is how I love to dress myself. I like to combine my own designs with thrifted items to make my look more grungy and whimsical. I have fun altering my thrift store finds or adding to them with new fabric, embroidery, or paint straight on the item. Visit my Resale Boutique page weekly to see what new item I have photographed for sale.
I am beyond excited to see the photographs from the runway this past May 22nd at Eastern Market. I am also really excited to share them. I'd love to hear your feedback. My photographer, Steven Wieckowski did an AMAZING job at capturing shots under difficult circumstances. The end of runways are so chaotic, so many photographers want their shot. When I first saw these what struck me most was that each shot had so much character. I really felt the person behind the image and the fashion clothes. And for me, who got to know my models a little bit during the course of the show, it means a lot. Each model had a different and interesting personality. One thing I love to advocate is showcasing your own individuality unapologetically. Maybe this is why I picked these models- they seemed super chill! Ha. Musta seen it in their faces.
I'll be posting more behind-the-scenes stories about sewing this collection, the interactions I had with the models, and the show itself. Also, stay tuned for an article I've been working on for a little bit- a cumulative one- all about how to ace your first runway show. Each experience teaches me invaluable information that no one told me before I got into this industry. I believe it's my duty to share it with people on their way in. Enjoy!