Follow The Leader: Dima Ayad, Founder, Dima Ayad, And DAC Communications
"I am someone who needs to learn by herself. If I fail, I will try again. I'm resilient."
This article is a part of the 2022 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East's annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.
Organized chaos: that's how Dima Ayad referred to herself at one point during an hour-long conversation she had with me in July in Dubai, and that, I have since realized, may well be a fair approximation of the fervor and feeling that I see her use to lead her entrepreneurial pursuits. Ayad runs two businesses at the moment- one is her eponymous fashion brand, Dima Ayad, which she had launched in 2011, and the other is DAC Communications (formerly known as Dima Ayad Consulting), a public relations (PR) and marketing consultancy that came into being in 2020. It's in the latter role that I came to meet Ayad for the first time more than a year ago, and even then, I recall being struck by this aura of ambition and relentlessness that she had around her, an impression that has only grown stronger as I've gotten to know her better.
Given the roles she essays on the professional front, Ayad always seems to have her fingers in a lot of different pies, and while I feel like this gets the better of her every now and then, I've never ever seen her call it quits- she may take a break, she may rethink how she does things, but I doubt that she'd ever even consider hanging up her boots. And so, when I asked Ayad about what pushes her to do what she does on a day-to-day basis, what fuels her "organized chaos," I half-expected her to tell me that she -like most of the other entrepreneurs I've asked this question to- was working toward realizing a grandiose vision of herself or her business. But I was taken aback when Ayad chose to keep it real instead- indeed, what drives her should be relatable to anyone out there who put in the hard yards to get themselves ahead. "It's my career," Ayad says, quite simply. "It's my bread and butter. I mean, there is nothing else that is sustaining me. I'm 42 today, I have to think of my future, and I think having my future in my own hands is incentive enough for me to push forward. I am super grateful that I'm able to do that, and sustain my lifestyle, through my businesses."
Born in Lebanon, Ayad grew up in the UAE after her parents moved to the country when she was two years old, and she kicked off her career in 2001 as an account director for a regional food and hospitality magazine called Grumpy Gourmet. This was followed up with a nearly-six-year stint at Dubai-based Jumeirah Hotels, where she started off in a PR Executive role and ended as a F&B Marketing Manager, overseeing over 22 restaurants and bars. Her experience and expertise in this domain allowed her to then take on similar managerial roles at entities like Dubai Holding, Raffles Dubai, and Atlantis The Palm, all of which she remembers as having played an instrumental role in her understanding of marketing and communications, especially in the realm of hospitality.
Dima Ayad. Image courtesy Dima Ayad.
In 2010, while Ayad was still working at Atlantis, she made inroads into the world of fashion by launching -and designing clothes for- her namesake brand. The Dima Ayad label came about after the designer, frustrated by the lack of clothes being made in extended sizes to suit bodies like hers, decided to take matters into her own hands. Note here that Ayad didn't have a formal education or background in fashion- she learned while she was on the job. For instance, she would spend hours in malls looking at women and how their clothes fit them. She'd then draw up her designs with the aid of a Fashionary sketchbook, billed as "a practical tool for professionals who are working at all levels of the fashion industry." She learnt about fabrics by going in and out of shops in Dubai's Satwa neighborhood (known as the heart of the Emirate's textile industry), and she followed a similar process when seeking out tailors to bring her designs to life.
It is thus with a combination of pluck and perseverance that Ayad, who was 30 years old at the time, was able to put together her first collection of clothes- and it sold out soon after it was released. "People were very shocked with what I came up with," Ayad recalls. "A lot of the time, they'd ask me, 'How did you come up with that?' And my answer was, 'Well, I'm a woman, and a woman knows a woman's body. If you want an education, I have 30 years of that on my body right now.'"
As a size-inclusive brand, the Dima Ayad label was ahead of its time when it launched in the UAE- the need for inclusivity in fashion was certainly not as much a topic of discussion then as it is today. For her part, Ayad has a very simple philosophy governing her thoughts on this topic- according to her, you, no matter what size you may be, are worthy of having stores carry clothes that are in your size. It's simply not fair that people are being excluded solely because of the sizes of their bodies, and it is mindboggling that this problem continues to exist in this day and age, Ayad says.
A Dima Ayad design. Image courtesy Dima Ayad.
For her part, Ayad remains one of the few designers in the region that has inclusive sizing at the core of their brands, and it's a philosophy that she has remained true to in all of the collections she has released in the years since she launched her brand. Ayad says her creations are for any woman who wants to feel comfortable and effortless, and it is to her credit that her brand has been able to make a name for itself with its statement silhouettes that are almost guaranteed to flatter anyone who wears them. Think metallic abayas, glittering kaftans, tie-dye tops- the Dima Ayad label is aimed at celebrating you, as you are. But Ayad's growth as a fashion designer hasn't been linear- while her first collection was a success, her second was "diabolically bad," Ayad laughs.
But such missteps didn't stop Ayad- she just picked herself up, learned from her mistakes, and then aimed to do better the next time. It's a strategy that has stayed with her to this day, and Ayad admits that she continues to relish opportunities where she gets to prove people wrong. "I'm somebody who really loves a challenge," Ayad says. "Sometimes people wonder, 'Why don't you just take the easy route? And I'm like, 'No, that's boring.' Maybe that's crazy, but I'm like that." In 2016, Ayad moved out of the hospitality realm by leaving her job at Atlantis, and then proceeded to get a firmer footing in the fashion field by becoming the Marketing and PR Director of The Modist, a Dubai-headquartered e-commerce startup focused on modest clothing. "I learned a lot about fashion during my time at The Modist," Ayad says. "That's where I gained knowledge on everything from search engine optimization to supply chain management, what sells, what doesn't, what people gravitate toward… All of that intel got into my brain, and it bettered me as a designer, and also a marketer for my own brand."
Two years later, Ayad took up a new role as a PR and marketing consultant for size-inclusive luxury online retailer, 11 Honoré; however, she ended up leaving that position once the COVID-19 crisis hit the world at large in 2020. Her fashion label also found itself paused with the onset of the pandemic, and Ayad suddenly found herself with nothing to do. Ayad admits it to having been a particularly difficult time for her from both a professional and personal perspective, and while she did consider exploring job prospects in the F&B and hospitality domain, she was unsure if she had the chops for it given that she had been out of the industry for a good few years then.
Dima Ayad. Image courtesy Dima Ayad.
But Ayad then learnt of a friend, restaurateur Joey Ghazal, who was, at the time, getting ready to open up a new branch of his F&B concept, The Maine, in Dubai's Business Bay neighborhood. Another friend, Addmind Hospitality's Tony Habre, was working on launching the Dubai outpost of his Beirut restaurant, Clap, around the same time as well. Ayad got in touch with both of them, telling them that if they needed any help with the marketing and PR for their new establishments, she was available.
Both Ghazal and Habre got her onboard as a consultant- and while Ayad did not know it then, these two jobs were setting her up to eventually launch her second entrepreneurial endeavor. Ayad helped the two restaurants launch to much fanfare and acclaim, and "they gave me the boost to remind myself that I am good at this," Ayad recalls. With these two success stories behind her, Ayad found herself securing more clients who wanted her specific skillset and expertise in this domain, and then, before she knew it, she found herself at the helm of another business, which she ended up calling DAC Communications.
While DAC Communications has managed to onboard several business clients (a list that includes Michelin Bib Gourmand 2022 Award holder Fi'lia, as well as the Dubai outpost of the Parisian institution, Caviar Kaspia), Ayad is also proud to note that her company is now also representing Arab celebrity figures like Anas Bukhash and Enjy Kiwan. Meanwhile, Ayad also managed to get her fashion label over the pause imposed on it by the COVID-19 pandemic- that resurrection started with her creating face masks that stayed true to the Dima Ayad aesthetic. Her latest collection, Faith, was built as an ode to Ayad's mother Iman (whose name means "faith" in Arabic, and who passed away late last year), and it has since become the brand's bestselling line ever.
Dima Ayad, wearing Dima Ayad and Malone Souliers. Image courtesy Dima Ayad.
A collaboration with London-based luxury footwear designer Malone Souliers earlier this year also proved to be a hit, with an exclusive capsule collection that was a joyful amalgamation of the ethos of both brands. "Malone Souliers is a brand that I've been wearing for years, and so, to receive a call to collaborate with it was just… I can't tell you what it did for me- I was just feeling shock, disbelief, and gratitude for that," Ayad recalls. "That was one amazing moment. Another amazing moment was when I received an email from a customer, who told me that she met her husband wearing one of my dresses. She said that the dress gave her so much confidence, and that she felt she was herself wearing it, and her husband loved her for being herself. I wept a lot when I read that, because that's exactly what I am trying to do… If you're yourself in your clothes, if you're yourself in everything, then you as is, just being yourself, is amazing."
That, in effect, is the principle with Ayad is using to move ahead in her life and career right now, and it does seem to help her dream big when it comes to the future prospects of both her businesses. For one, Ayad hopes that DAC Communications will get to a point one day where it is big enough to be sold, or it gets to join forces with a larger agency. As for Dima Ayad, she's currently at work building a collection for it that will debut on online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter in time for Ramadan next year- something she's clearly extremely excited about.
In terms of the long term, Ayad hopes that she will get to see her brand in fashion stores all around the world one day, but for the time being, she is just happy to keep doing the work, and keep moving ahead, regardless of the stumbles that may happen along the way. It may well be "organized chaos"- but Ayad also probably wouldn't have it any other way. "I am someone who needs to learn by herself," Ayad explains. "If I fail, I will try again. I'm resilient. And I know that as much as people would perhaps advise me to do things differently, I still would do it my way anyway... Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I am so happy I didn't listen to anyone who told me not to go into fashion, for instance. Because even if it weren't revenue-generating, it's still my release, it's my joy. And I now can't imagine my life without it."