Finding suitable clothes can mean spending a long day at the mall for anyone, but what if there is nothing suitable in any shop at all?
This is what Nesma Yehia, 20, has been going through all her life as a young woman of shorter stature. A mass communications student at the Faculty of Education in Cairo, Yehia has always had trouble buying clothes as most manufacturers do not make lines in her size. As a result, she decided to start her own fashion line, called Breeze, so that she and people like her would be able to find clothes more easily. She is determined to save people like herself the trouble she used to go through every time she needed to buy new clothes.
“I first thought of designing my own clothes when I was a preparatory school student. I would constantly go and look for clothes to buy at children’s clothes shops because of my shorter stature, but would then find that their styles and colours were not suitable for people my age,” Yehia said.
“I was also sometimes bullied by people when I was buying clothes, as they would ask me why I was buying clothes for children. Even when I would go to adults’ clothes shops, I would end up throwing away half the material in any piece of clothing I might buy as I would have to make major alterations in order to wear it.”
Her agony when buying clothes for herself sparked the idea of her own clothing business. “I came up with the idea two years ago because I found that this was a big problem I had tried to solve when I was a student. Even when I would design my own clothes and go to buy material and ask someone to sew the clothes for me, they would sometimes refuse on the grounds that my body was ‘inconsistent’ and it would be difficult for them to sew my clothes. I used to have a hard time convincing tailors to make clothes for me as a result,” she said.
“The seed of my idea started to grow when I was still in the first year of preparatory school, and I would design clothes and choose the material and ask someone to sew it. It started out as a hobby. I didn’t really follow the latest fashion trends then, but I would seek designs that might be suitable for me and that would make me feel good about myself,” Yehia said. She also took online courses in fashion-design, though not necessarily with the aim of starting her own business.
It was when Yehia discovered that she had been successful in solving her own problems that she thought of helping others like herself and creating her own business. “I wanted to address some of the problems that people of shorter stature often face, including on public transport, at work or at school,” she added.
She thought she could help to solve such problems in a personal way if she made a statement through her clothing line. “So, I brought some material and started designing clothes for my brand, which now makes clothes that can fit all age groups and both sexes,” she said.
Yehia now makes every type of clothing, including wedding dresses and suits, for people of shorter stature. She also plans to expand her line to suit everyone in the future. She tries to meet the needs of customers in terms of style and efficiency. “I design a blend of modern, classical and soirée styles. I design trousers, shirts and skirts. I wanted to prove that anything could be made to suit people of shorter stature,” she added.
After finishing the designing, she often organises photo sessions at her own expense to demonstrate to people like herself that there is a solution to the problem of the lack of suitable clothing in mainstream stores.
Yehia also provides for both the physical and psychological needs of her customers when designing a piece of clothing. “I use styles that suit the shape of the body better because the sizes of shorter stature people are different from those of others. For instance, there are people who have shorter arms or people who have shorter legs than others. So, I depend on the shape of the body when designing what a person likes to wear, such that he or she likes the piece and is not irritated by it,” she said.
A practical example is that Yehia often plays with the design of a given outfit to make a shorter person appear taller. “When I design a striped shirt, for instance, I try to use more vertical lines to make a person look taller. On the other hand, horizontal lines make people look shorter, so I don’t use them much. When using vertical lines in a dress, I often make the waist line right under the breast line to make the person look taller,” she noted, adding that the idea is to help make people look and feel better from the outside and the inside as well.
Yehia buys the material she uses from shops in her native Mansoura and in Cairo. She believes that the careful choice of materials is important to serve her aims and to best convey her message.
“I always seek lighter materials in my designs, not heavier ones, since lighter materials make it easier to move around while heavier materials can make people feel uncomfortable. I always seek the type of material that makes people look good,” she said, adding that she has often funded her ideas from her own pocket.
Yehia takes orders online after customers send her their sizes. She then sends them her designs and delivers the made-up clothes to them. She is assisted by a female fashion-blogger in designing and sewing her clothing line.
It was after the positive feedback she received that Yehia felt that she was on the right path. “People of shorter stature reacted to my fashion line by telling me that what I was doing had increased their self-confidence and had made things easier for them. ‘The fact that we can now find our needs proves that we exist and that we are not a marginalised section of society’ was one of the most moving comments I received,” she said.
“We have not organised any fashion shows yet because there are no such shows for shorter-stature people in Egypt. But I would now like to organise the first shorter-stature fashion show in the country,” she added.
Yehia is also an activist calling for the rights of shorter-stature people to be respected, and she has published a book called Kon Anta (Be Yourself) as part of her campaign. The book is about how to change negative aspects of life, especially things that hurt the most, into more positive ones by following one’s passion.
Yehia wants to be a university professor when she has finished her studies, and she would like to see people use her book to transform the curse of bullying they may suffer on their path in life into a blessing by fulfilling their dreams. She has also written plays and acted in them as a university student.
“I would like to see my brand become an international brand one day because it helps to solve an international problem facing many people,” Yehia said. She believes that whether you are a shorter-stature person or not, you should never just sit there and say that society is not helping you.
“No one will help you. You should help yourself. Set yourself many goals, so that even if you fail to achieve one, you will certainly achieve another,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly