Saarahjasmin Nwajei describes herself as a modest fashion and beauty blogger, a creative, a designer, a stylist, an entrepreneur and a business owner.
The ambitious millennial is the CEO of Saarahjasmin Couture (fashion and luxury couture brand) who totes an impressive CV that includes being a Couture designer and Managing Director at Studio Blue Origin, a fashion model at Grace Model Management, a Brand Ambassador for Fifth Avenue Collection and Dolce Vita Footwear…the list goes on.
We chat to Nwajei about maintaining the perfect Instagram feed, the blogging industry & ploys at gaining traction, being a young Muslim female blogger, becoming a young entrepreneur & navigating in a man’s world, sexual assault & rape culture:
What was your blogging journey like?
I initially started my blog (Modestfashionblogger.com) when I was 18 years old. I have been blogging since then. When I started off in the industry I was the only modest fashion blogger in Cape Town. The concept of being a Modest Fashion Blogger is to visually represent modesty and fashion. I wanted to inform people of a different way of living and approaching fashion. I wanted to create a revolution.
One of the challenges Muslim communities face is the struggle to find clothing that is designed for modesty. Therefore the blog was also created as a go-to place that offers styling tips for the modern Muslim woman. I offer advice on how to style day-to-day clothing from different manufacturers modestly thereby still maintaining my own morals and perspective.
Sexual Assault and Rape Culture
Why did you stop blogging for a while?
(TW- Trigger Warning)
I stopped blogging for a while because I went through traumatic events. I was raped not once, but twice. I was raped when I was 15 years old and I was also raped when I was 18 years old by two different men with big names in the entertainment/ fashion industry.
That is exactly how I fell off my path. I had to take a step back, switch off everything and self-introspect. It was not easy, I won’t lie, at that tender age with dreams to be extraordinary. All I wanted was to help those around me and insert a modest nuance into the fashion industry.
I wanted to show communities that you can be beautiful and modest. To all the beings out there who have faced rape – I understand your pain. Of course, I am not an expert on the issue but I have experienced it twice. For me attending therapy almost felt like it was a constant reminder and meant that I had to remember what happened constantly. Some people see therapy as a way of letting it go and I respect that, but for me, it felt like a constant reminder.
Having someone ask you over and over again, on a scale of 1 to 10; How do you feel today? That didn’t change my situation.
I felt hurt, angry, disappointed and torn. I felt like Saarah’s innocence was stolen away from her. I healed by personally accepting the situation and moving away from it. I told myself that I can’t cry the entire day. I am a fighter, and although it hurt I had to rise above the situation. I wasn’t myself anymore, I couldn’t even recognise the woman I saw in the mirror.
[Did you know? The most recent data from the South African Police Service shows that between April 2016 and December 2016, there were 30,069 reported cases of rape – down from 32,161 cases over the same period in 2015.]
But then I asked myself; What do you need to do to claim yourself again?
It was a constant battle between my emotions and my mind. Writing became a healing step for me. My computer screen suddenly appeared like it was the only thing that could understand me. I applied the law of Conservation of Energy- energy can’t be created or destroyed, it can only change form. I channelled negative energy and converted it into something positive. That mindset changed my life and those around me for the better. I constantly fight to become better than I was yesterday and push myself every day.
What are the challenges you face as a female entrepreneur?
Whatever happens in the workplace, you should always remember that you either allow it to discourage you or motivate you. My work includes styling individuals such as TV show presenters and music video crew. Sometimes males in the industry would assume that because of my gender that they were immediately in power.
The most recent incident I encountered involved a meeting with a producer. We discussed my entry into television and hosting my own show. Everything in terms of paperwork and discussions went well with the producer and I, however, on the last day when we had to seal the deal, he asked me to ‘open my legs’.
I feel like sexual harassment happens to a lot of women and we started talking about it through the #MeToo social call but still, those stories just made headlines and nobody truly did anything progressive about it. Men who did this to me and other women still walk free.
[Did you know? Data shows that South Africa’s rape statistics are double the country’s murder rate over this (275 days) period at 53.8 cases per 100,000 people in the country. This equates to one person getting raped every 13 minutes.]
In my case, the two people that have hurt me have big names in the industry. One was a top buyer for Emporio Armani (EA) at the Waterfront and the other who occupied a high position at Spice TV. The worst part is that the EA man hasn’t only done it to me but he has done it to a couple of other women.
After these sexual assaults, I constantly feel that when I am around men I constantly have to fight to keep my vagina safe and fight for my privacy. After those incidents, I will never be the same, especially emotionally. I will always be scared. Both of these men have not paid for their crimes and I always worry about other women who will meet them.
Will the cycle continue?
Men, especially shooting crews always try with each and every woman and it’s just not okay. Sexual abuse has to stop. Not only does sexual abuse happen in my industry, it happens everywhere. A man who is in a position of authority will tell you, open up your legs and you will get the job.
The sad part is that it’s difficult to work with women because women don’t want to uplift each other. Working with women- it’s always each woman for herself and we end up giving men this kind of power. If we could unite and help each other then we can all grow and succeed.
[Did you know? A total of 50 883 people reported being a victim of a sexual offence, of which 31 817 were women in 2017.]
Role Models, the Muslim Community & Modest Fashion
Who are your role models?
I was raised by my mentor and supporter- my mother. Witnessing her strength has also motivated me to want to become more and do more. I am currently branching into entrepreneurial pursuits. I have noticed that women with their different colours, body shapes and a different style want to look like their own fairytales but nobody makes dresses for them. I want to make every girl’s fairytale come true. We are all different and have to acknowledge our differences.
I want to create all kinds of exquisite dresses. From straight cut, cocktail to a wedding dress. Any kind of dress you can possibly think of. My business is already up and running and my website will be live soon.
Why target the Muslim community?
I have realised that within the Muslim community, women always have to wear vests underneath dresses to cover themselves. There are few garments that are tailor-made for them specifically; I want them to wear ready-made dresses that don’t need layering. I want to cater to every woman. My garments will range from R4000+. As my business grows I am also thinking of branching into menswear.
I will also be running workshops and inviting prominent influencers in the industry to attend. I don’t just want to make women look good on the outside but I also want to prepare them for the real world and to empower them. Also, the Sarah Jasmin shop will be offering one-on-one style consultation where women can book appointments at a rate and we organise a consultation. Easy as that!
The Blogging Industry
Where do you draw the line as a blogger?
All bloggers are different as creatives however I have realised that some bloggers have transformed into a new kind of mannequin. The only difference is that they have social media accounts and can speak. Bloggers these days don’t support or showcase local clothing, instead, they just showcase a copy of what is already available in stores.
For example, you would walk into Zara and you would see the same item worn by a blogger. It’s just a marketing ploy and I advise bloggers and users to stay away from that and not be consumed by that.
How do you select brands to work with?
Most bloggers perceive working with big brands as growth. However, the reality is that the brand benefits far more than you actually do. Imagine this scenario: You have 2 million followers and you post a picture of new sunglasses made by a big brand.
Who is benefiting the most in terms of marketing? They use you to influence your audience to buy the same garments that the brand’s mannequins are wearing at a store. It’s nice to get freebies, we all like it.
However, when you have been in the industry for a while, you take a step back and reflect. Then you realise that you’re actually building someone else’s empire and marketing their brand instead of your own.
So how do you maintain a relationship with brands?
I stand firmly by my principles, culture and beliefs when I work with brands. I always make sure that I work with brands that have the same brand identity as myself. In cases where I have worn brand clothing, I make sure that I am comfortable in a garment and it is actually something that I would purchase in a store. I don’t want to wear something just because I got paid to wear it. That’s how you lose yourself when you constantly have to fit the client’s brief.
My approach to life is that it’s either you become a sheep or a wolf. My approach to business revolves around principles such as “you either run away from the problem or towards the problem”. That is what sets me apart from anyone else in this industry, as I label myself as a trendsetter. I stay true to who I am through my brand, no matter what.
What makes you stand out from other bloggers?
The elements that set you apart from anyone else in this industry is the way you carry yourself and the way you dress. In this industry, the aesthetics are what make you stand out.
At the end of the day, you don’t want to look like every other blogger. By representation, I also mean your online presence.
Be someone else, be someone of light, be someone of colour and do whatever that makes you different.
With my style, I make sure that I am not like any Tom, Dick and Harry that you see out there. The latest trend was Freely tops. Everyone else decided to be a sheep and follow the Freely top trend. Why not creatively think of something else that makes you stay relevant, because relevance is important in this industry. Why not opt for Freely pants?
Do something else, break barriers and that’s the person that I am growing to become- someone different.
More on Saarahjasmin Nwajei
What are your future goals?
My dream is to become the Oprah Winfrey of Africa and I am working towards that dream. No matter what happens in our lives at the end of the day we have a choice with how we react.
What do you consider as must-have items?
A must-have item for a modest fashionista is court shoes, a polar neck and tights.
You will be amazed at how they transform the entire outfit. I would advise that we support local designers because they also design multi-flexible garments that can also be transformed into Hijab orientated outfits.
What do you do in your free time?
I like to help people where I can especially to empower them so that even though I’m not there tomorrow they can learn how to ‘fish alone’. I love motivating people to realise their full potential because we are all able to do this. We just have to dig deep within and find it.
Your day is not complete unless…
…I check my emails and plan for the next day.
The best lesson I ever learnt…
Try not to be selfish. There is always someone in need. Always try your utmost best to help those around you. It’s not always about you. It is important to not turn a blind eye to those who need you.
Where would you like to travel to?
I don’t have any specific place. Anywhere in the world with my partner would be my paradise.
[Follow @shopsaarahjasmin/ @saarahjasminnwajei for more updates.]
Please Note: Immediately after being raped, you may feel physical pain, shock, disgust, and fear. Some survivors feel numb or dazed and may be unable to talk about the rape, while others are openly upset and angry. In the days and weeks ahead, you may have nightmares and feel guilty, afraid ashamed, powerless, angry, depressed or unable to bear being touched.
Being able to talk to someone who understands is a huge step towards recovery. You can call the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust 24 hour crisis line – 021 447 9762 – at any time of the day or night and talk to an experienced counsellor in English, Afrikaans or Xhosa. You can also talk to counsellors face-to-face at their offices in Observatory, Athlone or Khayelitsha. There is no charge for these services and all cases are treated as confidential.