FASHION Balqees Bandar (right) is an up-and-coming Saudi fashion stylist and consultant who has converted her passion for fashion into a career in Saudi Arabia. She talks about how she started her journey as a stylist and shares her thoughts on the Saudi fashion industry in this interview with Qurratulain Wahab
Photographed by Adam and Raoufa
From the December 2019 issue of Lucire KSA
Qurratulain Wahab was the original editor of Lucire KSA.
Keen fashionistas tend to have a good idea of the role of the stylist—one is credited with each shoot—but working full time as one can be a challenge. Magazines only provide so much work, so professional stylists have to look to promotional work, campaigns, and private clients. Balqees Bandar, with her lifelong love of fashion, has faced such challenges—but is fast gaining a reputation for what she does, as more observers notice her work. And, for Balqees, it is about the work, first and foremost.
Lucire KSA: Can you please tell us a little about yourself? What is your earliest memory of fashion? When did you discover you had an interest in fashion styling?
Balqees Bandar: I did my bachelor’s degree in public relations. I also did an MBA and master’s in interior design, all from Los Angeles—and LA is all about fashion, celebrities and the showbiz lifestyle. In addition to these degrees, I have also taken many fashion courses.
Since my childhood I have been very particular about what I wear. I wouldn’t listen to my Mom and always decided my outfits for myself. Now I have a six-year-old son and he does the same with me. I see myself in him now. I remember in my teenage years, when my friends would come to my place to hang out, I would always give them a makeover and explain what suited them, their personality, their body shape. I loved styling from a very young age. Although I studied many different things, but at the end of everything, I knew all I wanted to do was fashion styling. I began working as a stylist when I was in LA and I was in LA for 11 years.
One of the things I noticed myself doing when I am at a café having coffee or something is always observing people. I observe everything very carefully, what people wear and how they wear it. It just comes very naturally to me. Sometimes people get uneasy around me because they notice me looking at them and I have to make it clear that I am just observing their style. So, I knew over time that I was into fashion. When I started styling, I loved it so much and I knew it was meant for me.
In my family, no one focuses on fashion that much. Everyone is in a different field and no one is in fashion—only me. Usually everyone in my family comes to me for fashion advice. When I came back to Saudi Arabia and started doing styling, everyone told me that this is what I was supposed to do and this is what was made for me. I did styling courses in LA but I started my styling career in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
What do you do?
I do personal styling, social media styling, bridal styling, travel styling and wardrobe styling. The ladies have been very happy about the wedding package because I was able to help the brides. The brides come to me for consultations. Then I observe their body type, skin tone, and personality. I take them to the designers to design their wedding dress. Then I take them for shopping. I also take them to a make-up artist that I trust and they get a consultation session to help them with whatever is best for their skin. Then I have travel styling packages, and this is one of my personal favourites, because in the summer I do styling. I like that part of my job because I pick and choose all the outfits and they depend on where the person is going to travel, for how many days, and how many outfits she’ll need. Then she clicks pictures of what she will be wearing. I also do styling for graduation parties and I also do social media styling. My most popular package is the wardrobe styling because I always find such amazing and beautiful pieces in women’s wardrobes. Some of them are really great vintage pieces. They have everything imaginable in their wardrobes. They have all the new collections but they don’t know how to wear them. I am so happy to be able to help them with that. Because this is what is really lacking in Saudi Arabia.
I don’t compare myself with any other stylist. I love my work and we are very supportive of each other’s works. I admire what my peers are doing and I make sure to let them know that I like their work and they do the same. This is how it should be—positive and understanding each other. When you do your work out of love, there is no competition and you focus on your work. Each stylist has her own way of working and styling. I am different from others. Nowadays all the people on social media have this competition with each other but I have never felt that with my peers and I am glad that I never did.
How has your experience been as a fashion stylist in Saudi Arabia?
I am not comparing America with Saudi Arabia. It is all about fashion education. When I came here, I saw all the women go crazy over high-end luxury brands. They think that to wear a high-end brand is fashion and that is stylish. No, it is not like that. Bloggers outside these regions have been focusing on street-style brands. They don’t care if the piece is for two dollars or for thousands. They only care about how the clothes look on them and how unique it is. That is fashion.
What are the important points about fashion that you want to educate the people in the region about?
I really want to educate people in Saudi Arabia about fashion. I don’t want them to blindly follow influencers they see on social media. I want them to have proper knowledge about the field. It is very easy for me to go and click photos of the new collections—but what is the point? You can buy all the latest collections and it is no big deal because at the end of the day, you are going to look into your wardrobe and you will not find anything suitable for any occasion. You will have all the clothes but what is the point when you can’t wear them or don’t know how to wear them? With one piece, you can create at least five outfits. And each look will be totally different from the others. This is my first rule in fashion—not to follow blindly and don’t buy what you won’t wear.
My second rule is that you should know that your style is your personality. So you must focus on buying unique pieces. For example, I can wear funky T-shirts with a pair of jeans and it will fit my body very nicely, but it is just not my personality so my body will not own the piece. My personal style is very classic. I love silk and crêpe. I can’t wear casual all the time. You cannot see someone wearing something and say, ‘I want to wear the same,’ because it will not look the same on you. If you are a quiet, shy and a reserved person, you should go with floral prints, silk fabric, lace because that is your personality. This is what defines your personality. If you are a very outgoing person who likes to party and is always attending activities, you should go for more casual clothes because that will define your personality. You have to take care of your skin tone and your body type and personality.
The third thing is that fashion is not at all about the prices. Of course you can add high-end brands to your wardrobe, but my point is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money in order to look good. Don’t just focus on the money. Don’t think you can afford fashion only if you have the money. At New York Fashion Week (NYFW), when I styled Lama Alaqeel (the Jeddah-based beauty, fashion and lifestyle blogger), we had a big budget and we could easily get high-end brands but I said, ‘Lama, you are an influencer and most of your followers are from middle-class backgrounds.’ I styled her, keeping that budget in mind and many people talked about her style at NYFW. I styled so well that people weren’t able to believe that it was from H&M. It is all about mixing and matching colours and fabrics. I was so happy that the people who were complimenting her on social media could actually follow and afford what she was wearing and be stylish without a very big budget. You don’t need to have a big budget to be stylish.
Lastly, the most important thing is that I always say that you need to feel yourself when you are wearing something. You also never need to overdress because that does not help you with your style at all. Decide what you really like and wear that. Focus on mixing and matching a few clothes rather than mixing and matching many clothes all at once. It is fine if you wear denim with a silk shirt and pair it with a nice bag and you will be good to go.
I don’t like to show my face all the time on social media because I want my work to do the talking rather than advertising myself with the big names that I have styled. The main priority for me in my job is to make sure that I work from behind the camera. This is exactly my job. I don’t have to be in front of the camera because I am not a blogger. It is not that I don’t show my face, I don’t mind showing my face on social media, or at events—but I want people to follow me because of my work not because of my face. Usually people come to me and ask me why I don’t stand beside the blogger or the model and show myself, but why should I when I am showing my work? I really want to educate people and that is my ultimate goal. When they follow me, they should know why are they following me and should be aware of my work.
What I see here in Saudi Arabia is that most of the stylists are just there for social media. So I decided that I am going to help the community. It is a tough job and I can’t find enough time for myself but I enjoy it a lot.
How would you compare fashion in Dubai and in Saudi Arabia?
There isn’t a great deal of difference. Even in Dubai people like to go with high-end brands, luxury tops, and unique and limited-edition pieces. In Dubai and Riyadh, they usually have a background in styling. Most of the royal family members used to get stylists from abroad; they knew what that meant and they also didn’t want to go and do their own shopping. In Jeddah, they don’t really know about stylists. People from Jeddah usually ask me what I do, but in Riyadh and Dubai, they really know what a stylist’s job is. Even when I do their shopping for them, they know what I am going to do. I go to their houses and find out everything that they own, clothing, accessories, footwear and they know the steps.
In Jeddah when I go to people’s houses I find everything in their houses in boxes and they don’t even know what they own and what I am there for, so I always try to educate them about what I do. This is the main difference between the places.
Who did you enjoy working with the most?
I love Nora Al-Shaikh’s designs [see Lucire KSA June 2019]. We work together all the time and just a couple weeks ago we collaborated again and I love styling models with her designs.
When I feel like styling someone, I don’t just want to style them, but I want to completely change them. I really want to style Ahlam the singer. I want to change her. She is already so attractive but I want to show everybody how she can be even more attractive. I want to style Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson. I wish one day I would be able to style Kate Middleton because my style is also classic, just like she dresses.
I don’t usually mention the names of people I style, because I don’t want them to feel that I am using their name for my own ends. I am doing my work. I want people to know me by my name and not the names of the people that I have styled.
Who are your current favourite fashion designers?
My favourite designers are Alexander Wang; I love the Max Mara brand, Dolce & Gabbana—the cuts of their dresses are so good and they really shape your body and make you so feminine. Burberry’s fall collection is also fabulous.
What were your challenges when you started out as a stylist in Saudi Arabia?
One of the biggest challenges I faced was building my name. I was away from my country for 11 years so no one in the market knew me. I was completely unknown and I only knew a couple of friends from my college and school. The community knew each other but I had to start at the bottom. I started with letting people know my name and my work as a stylist, and to let them know and make it easier for them to accept and understand the role of a stylist was a challenge. Another issue we face here is people’s egos. They don’t want anyone telling them what they should wear or how they should wear it. They are too proud for that, so, I focus on educating them about the role of a stylist. In western countries, everyone knows what a stylist does and how important the job of a stylist is.
Now when I started styling influencers and when I styled Lama Alaqeel for NYFW, other influencers saw it and then they got interested in having stylists, too. With time, people are gaining a better understanding of stylists and they are moving toward accepting them more and more. When people see your work, then they will start trusting you. I always say that you must let your work do the talking.
I love taking up challenges. My star sign is Leo, so I guess it is in my personality to take up challenges. I really enjoy the last phase of the job when I see the photographer clicking amazing photos. •
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