This UAE-based designer is using fashion to raise mental health awareness

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Nawal El Masri's severe anxiety led her to create the streetwear brand

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Published: Fri 28 Jun 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 21 Nov 2023, 3:40 PM

Nawal El Masri suffered from anxiety ever since she was 15 years old - she just didn't know it. Back then, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and seeing her go through it escalated the problem. Nawal recalls her thoughts overwhelming her and leading to countless sleepless nights. Eventually the problem became so severe, she started having seizures.

"Back then, there was little awareness about mental illnesses," says the 28-year-old Lebanese-Palestinian in a candid interview. "I ended up going to a nerve specialist who could never really figure out what the problem was."

It was only when she was 23-years-old that the doctor asked her if she had ever spoken to a psychologist. Nawal had always suspected that she had anxiety of some kind - but she did not know it could manifest physically.

"The doctor told me he could prescribe pills - but I was worried about getting addicted to them. When I asked for another solution, he told me I had to 'retrain my brain'."

No mean feat for a 23-year-old. A year later, things took a turn for the worse when Nawal's grandfather - someone she considered her best friend - passed away while she was on holiday in Mykonos, Greece. Because there was a huge storm in Mykonos at the time, all air and boat travel out of the island had to be stopped, and Nawal was stranded on the unfamiliar place, unable to visit her grandfather one last time.

"At that point, I was so overwhelmed that the only thing that got me through the night was to open the door and stand out in the storm and breathe. Somehow seeing that storm the was louder, bigger and crazier than what was going on in my head calmed me. It made me realise my problems are small in the grand scheme of things. To realise that there's something bigger than me out there reminded me that our problems are often not as big as we make them out to be. The next day, I was honestly surprised that I did not collapse. The word 'exhale' - to breathe out all the negativity - changed my perception of the world. It changed my life."

When Nawal returned to the UAE later, everything in her life felt different. She started asking herself what she truly wanted to do with her life. She was sure of her answer - to motivate and inspire people. What she wasn't sure about was its profitability. "Nothing about kindness or compassion usually helps you make money," she laughs.

Words spoken too soon. After much brainstorming, Nawal decided to launch Exhale - a conceptual e-commerce clothing brand that features unisex streetwear. Launched two years ago, the brand integrates artwork and short, inspirational messages with comfortable clothing like T-shirts and hoodies. Its 'Reflect' collection, for instance, features short messages or just the word 'Exhale' written in inverse - the point being to use the mirror as a tool to check one's mental health.

"Before we leave the house, we take one last look at the mirror to check ourselves physically," explains Nawal. "We normally never think about our frame of mind - if we did, we would often find it overwhelming. My aim through this collection is to remind people to reflect and be self-aware."

The other collection, Express, features products and designs inspired by a cause - be it mental wellbeing, refugees or nature - while Inspire includes products developed through collaborative effort with international artists and local talent. The brand has also partnered with the comic strip Peanuts (created in 1950 by Charles Schulz) which very subtly tackles issues like depression through its characters - often in a humorous manner. That's why some of Exhale's designs feature illustrations of its characters as well as thoughtful quotes.

Add to the fact that they are made sustainably in the UAE with organic cotton and you have proof it's possible to create a brand that brings in money and inspires.

Most importantly, though, it's also a brand that aims to destigmatise mental illnesses, which Nawal believes is still a taboo in many parts of the world. "I think the previous generation still does not understand that things like yoga or therapy really work - because that's how they were raised. They were taught to put their fears aside instead of facing them. They were taught to remain silent about things that affected them mentally - I think that silence catches up with us."

More than anything, Nawal wants Exhale to be more than a brand. It's one of the reasons they have collections for men, women and children - to be more inclusive. "The brand isn't about a T-shirt or a hoodie. It's about building a community. When I collaborate with artists, we are creating something we hope will inspire others.

"It's beautiful to experience life as a human being but it is also stressful," she continues. "We need to constantly care for our mind, body and soul and make sure the three are aligned. We don't need other people or an environment that makes things harder. That's the message I want to send through Exhale - that we should help each other enjoy this experience we call life. We can all enjoy it together."

For Nawal, this means being understanding and empathetic of those around you. But even more importantly, it's about being mindful of your own thoughts and emotions. "Those who are mindful of their own attitude are usually so happy, loving and kind that it is contagious," says Nawal. "So, if you feel like you have an issue that needs to be addressed, don't stay silent. Deal with those thoughts that are bothering you because no one else is going to take care of your body. Speak to the people around you or to a therapist as this is a way to find answers that will heal you. So, speak up - and believe that the universe is with you." At the same time, don't forget to take a deep breath. and exhale.

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