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Alaa Balkhy: The vulnerability of carving out new creative spaces

Alaa Balkhy is a 90s kid who was among the first two classes to graduate from a graphic design course in Saudi Arabia. She quickly had to find her own style and aesthetic in an industry that was still finding its footing. 

Born in Jeddah and raised in Montreal, the one question that she always asked herself was why she felt different. Her enthusiasm for combining her two homes inspired an eclectic, vintage-inspired style, which she carries into her different roles as an entrepreneur, art director, and illustrator.

After graduating in 2011, she launched an illustration brand, Fyunka, that is heavily influenced by culture while also being an outlet for her whimsical and innovative approach to design. With a range of products including bags, t-shirts, phone cases, and more, Fyunka flourished over the years to take on partnerships with global brands such as Rimmel. 

“Fyunka started on Twitter, before the time of Instagram. Twitter was the first public space for Saudi’s to share their thoughts and work because we didn’t have public spaces,” says Alaa. 

Her vision is to evolve into a global illustration brand that is “a combination of Hello Kitty and Kate Spade,” she says humorously. 

After moving to New York in 2012 to study fashion and design management, she was inspired to create a multi-disciplinary brand that could house her creativity and help her explore new avenues.  

From her home interiors to the books on her shelves or her sense of style and cooking, Alaa’s strong connection to Saudi is evident through her everyday content on social media. She visits Saudi frequently and has “made the trip about 60 times in the past eight years.” 

In 2019, she launched her eponymous brand Alaa Bint Hashim, a slow fashion brand with capsule collections of abayas, coats and gloves that are culturally inspired by her connection to Saudi. 

“It’s a personal brand. I focused a lot on gloves because it’s something we never got to wear in the region, and something about it really fascinates me,” she says of her line of dainty, 60s inspired gloves.

“Gloves are related to more conservative fashion in the region, so I wanted to play on that and have gloves that are see-through. Then I wanted to take it to more evening gloves and weddings,” she says. 

Entering an industry that isn’t equipped for newcomers comes with many challenges, and Alaa recalls the hardships she faced when launching an e-commerce platform out of Saudi Arabia. 

“I suffered, I cried, I carried heavy boxes and gave my all but I still didn’t make it, which is fine,” she says. “People who started then created the industry, which makes me grateful because people know the brand and can relate to it because it was there when the market wasn’t saturated. My joy is when it shapes someone’s perspectives, or they start their own because they were inspired.”

As a way of navigating these challenging times of a global pandemic, she is working with a branding agency to strategize in a way that “doesn’t use this pandemic to push a product.”

“I always want to be more empathic and have a human touch to it,” she says, addressing the performative allyship that many brands have shown to gain profit. 

She recently launched her own podcast called “Minnana Minnakum” (Us From You), where she delves into fashion, the Arabic language, startups, studying in public schools, and most importantly, the self. Season 1 of the podcast saw Saudi women come together to speak on their shared experiences, struggles, and hope in a time of fast-paced change. 

“I want to be vulnerable and talk about issues I’ve faced and in a careful way that doesn’t hurt the other people involved. But that feeling only comes when you’re 30,” reflects Alaa.

Growing up, she says that she was constantly angry due to the lack of control she faced in many avenues of her life and is still looking for the nuanced answers to questions around why she could not have the freedom she searched for. 

“I cried the first time I saw women working at passport control when I went back to Saudi one time,” she shares. “It’s the idea and concept, that everything we’ve been through…no Saudi girl is going to go through again because of a system that says she’s not as equal as a man.”

Follow Alaa on Instagram @Alaa