This fashion label is all about gratitude
Dubai-based Lama Riachi's brand was created after a tragic encounter with cancer
We keep hearing stories of gratitude all the time. Talks are being held on it, books are written about it... Thirty-eight-year-old Lama Riachi's story is all about the power of gratitude. Lama was in her early 20s when she moved to Dubai from Beirut to work at Saatchi & Saatchi. A decade into the job, she was already living the 'Dubai dream'. Having risen to become the advertising agency's creative director, she had just exchanged vows with Kurt Blanckenberg, a South African who'd made Dubai his home. However, it did not take long for this dream to sour. Lama had occasional cysts in her ovaries and had been pursuing a treatment. During one of her routine check-ups, the doctors found not one but two cysts. Back in Beirut, her sister's doctor persuaded Lama to get a laparoscopy done, following which it was discovered that Lama had ovarian cancer. A week later, when she had not yet recovered from her first surgery, Lama underwent a full hysterectomy and two weeks later, she started chemotherapy. "Life had decided to plant a slap on my face," she says, remembering those moments of her life.
Kurt moved to Beirut for Lama's treatment. As she recovered, she came to terms with the fact that she and Kurt would not be able to have children. The task, then, was to bring a semblance of normalcy back into their lives, and so Lama decided to return to work in Dubai.
One night, she came home late from work and picked up a copy of a local paper. On the front page was a picture of Josefina Abaya, a woman suffering from breast cancer whose medical insurance had run out. The article was accompanied by an email in case the readers wished to contribute. Lama wrote to Josefina's sister Maya Dulay and received a response instantly. "I was the first one to connect with her. She was actually praying for someone to reach out," Lama recalls.
Eventually, she managed to raise the money to help Jo receive the treatment. This was also a time when Lama was studying nutrition. "After the treatment, I wanted to learn more about nourishment as I felt what you eat can help you heal," she says. Soon, Lama began to guide Jo on the foods to eat. The exchange between the two women led to the formation of a support group - 60 people joined as everyone in Jo's cancer ward wanted to know more about dealing with their condition. The group had no real name.
The communications company her husband was a partner at asked her to join in. Eventually, the staff at Mojo Group, an Alserkal-based media agency that also owns an art gallery (that sometimes doubles up as a retail space for Lama's brand), joined the support group.
The support group began to include patients, cancer survivors, nurses and some members of the media; Maya joined in too. "As more people began to participate, Maya suggested we come out with a line of T-shirts. I could not face designing another T-shirt with a ribbon on it. I did not want people to buy things out of sheer obligation, and then put the pieces in their cupboards," says Lama. "That's when I realised we are blessed to have each other in our lives." Thus came the logo of a fashion brand Lama started: interspersing the letter B of Blessed with a symbol of a heart. She began with designing T-shirts and, today, Blessed is a full-fledged fashion line. It uses ethically sourced fabrics from small businesses and employs local tailors. The outfits have a minimalistic feel and one can even spot Japanese design philosophies. For a designer whose current collection boasts of monochrome, it is surprising to know that she wanted to avoid black altogether when she started out. "I'd said I'll never do black. But then I realised black is actually a colour most women feel good in."
One of Blessed's most popular designs is the freedom dress - the shape is easy, the pockets are big, everything conforming to the brand's comfort-first philosophy.
When Lama started Blessed, she decided the tagline would be 'attitude with gratitude'. But now the brand's ethos revolves around Prêt A Gratitude, which is also the name given to this season's collection. Featured in 'The Garden' section at Fashion Forward Dubai last October, Lama hopes to bring the collection to the ramp in the next edition of Fashion Forward. She has done several pop-ups and right now the collection is available at the Mojo Gallery. The broader idea, she says, is for the label to go mainstream. "We are a non-profit label, so growth is limited. But the idea is that women should buy Blessed because of the design; it is trend-relevant."
Come April, Lama will bring together members of the support group and have them shot in the collection, with their hair and makeup being done professionally using organic products. "We want our women to feel good," she says.
In the time since Lama, Maya and Jo started Blessed, they have helped over 160 cancer patients. At any given point, Blessed has a staff of 15 who offer instant help to the patients - from driving them to the doctor's for an appointment to just being there to hear them out, they do it all. It is these people who are the backbone of the enterprise.
Today, Blessed stands as an example and a reminder of a very simple fact of life - adversity only makes you come out stronger.