Black orchids once reminded Shahad Mahdi of Jordan, the country where she was born. Now, the rare black flower has taken on new meaning as the name of her clothing line, which she created to help share the beauty and strength of Middle Eastern women with the world.
“There’s a stigma around the Middle East and Islam, in particular. Like any other stereotype, I think it needs to be broken,” says the 21-year-old Ryerson University student. “This business is just a step to break that stigma.”
Watching Canadian media and the news, Mahdi didn’t see the fashionable, strong Middle Eastern women that she personally saw in her own community. “All you see is yelling and violence when it comes to the Middle East. You never get to see the fashionable woman, the strong woman,” she says. “I know a lot of Muslim women who are business owners that are really successful and they’re not domesticated and they’re not oppressed. They’re strong, they have their own opinions and they exist, but people don’t seem to see that.”
In an effort to combat the growing Islamophobia she saw, Mahdi created Black Orchid—a clothing like that gives the portrayal of Muslim women a modern upgrade. The apparel company, which launched online last year, includes everything from pouches and phone cases to sweatshirts and patches—each with the same fun yet fierce graphics of women rocking their hijabs.
To find out more, we caught up the designer to get the scoop on how she creates messages of empowerment through her designs and her take on how the current political climate has informed her mission.
All of the graphics in your clothing line have the same, uniform design. What were you going for with that concept?
Originally my friend and I wanted to take Middle Eastern designs and add a modern touch to it. Right before we launched, we came up with the idea of the graphics, and we printed them on shirts and they got way more positive response than any other item. From there, we took the idea and developed it and added more elements.
In terms of the graphics, we wanted to go with a simplified form because if we added more details to the body or the face, more people wouldn’t be able to identify with the design. We wanted to be able to make the design as simple as can be.
How did you make sure that the designs were reflective of the women in your community?
When you walk around downtown Toronto, you see women of all different skin tones and ethnicities wearing the hijab. Literally just sitting on the subway, watching people go by and I found myself thinking that as much as I want to keep the graphics simple, it wasn’t fair for it to be just one skin tone. I wanted to include as many as possible.
How many different characters or images of women have you created so far?
I have dolls wearing sunglasses, in different skin tones, one with flowers on their heads—I think in total there’s at least seven, but I’m going to keep adding more designs as I go.
What has the response been like?
As I’ve been growing my business, all the feedback I’ve been getting has thankfully being positive, both from the media and from customers. It’s pretty amazing because I’m representing a niche market and some people may not agree with my views, but still, I haven’t gotten any negative feedback whatsoever.
What are some of the positive ways that people have been responding to your brand?
People see the brand and the articles about us and they feel like their image and voice and story is being told.
Do you have new designs on the horizon?
Yes, and I’m doing collaborations with other designers as well, but nothing is set in stone yet.
Since you first started about a year ago, there have been a lot of events, like the Donald Trump’s travel ban, contributing to the rise of Islamophobia. Has that changed your designs or what you want to do with the brand?
It’s funny because after the events in the U.S., I got a lot more orders from America, which was pretty nice. But no, nothing has changed—if anything, I’m going to keep at it even stronger.