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Rolla Al Arabi: a Beacon for Change in Egypt’s Fashion Scene

July 22, 2022

One photo is all it took for Rolla Al Arabi to start making waves in Egypt’s fashion frontier.

Half-Saudi Arabian and half-Moroccan, her roots are grounded deeply within the Middle East and North Africa region where she seeks – or rather, demands – social change. The 22-year-old is an eccentric by nature: her love for high fashion and popular culture is not surpassed by her drive to create something drastically different. The modeling industry just so happened to be where she would start.

After stumbling upon a picture of an Egyptian modeling agency’s “first plus-sized model”, Al Arabi was outraged that someone who was clearly not plus-sized was branded as such. In that moment, she decided that she had enough and was going to make it a personal mission to change the industry’s ideology.

From her drive, Invicta was born.

“After witnessing this, I was in a state of shock, sadness and anger. It all kicked off because not only was the model not plus-sized by definition, but clearly this misrepresentation is showcased to be the standard of the plus-size community,” Al Arabi said of the photo that started it all.

“I was shocked to believe that this model, who’s clearly a size 4 or even size 6, is described as plus-sized.”

Fashion has always overlooked plus-size clothing. Brands such as Zara, Mango and most “high street” labels make it a conscious decision not to offer sizes above 14 to “preserve the brand’s image”. Others, like H&M and Marks & Spencers, will offer a dedicated section with a handful of plus-size items that are often outdated in style or geared to older shoppers.

For Al Arabi, it is not just about the sheer absence of plus-size representation in the Middle East, but the media’s exclusion of anyone who does not adapt to the Arab world’s outdated obsession with the “ideal” image: thin, light-skinned, perfect complexion with soft, straight hair.

“At that moment I felt like there was an urgent need to form a modeling agency showcasing all the beautiful women in the community, from plus-size to small sizes. Quite frankly I don’t even like labeling women by their body type; I feel like every woman and man are beautiful in their own ways and that needs to be showcased more in our society,” she explained.

No plan, no problem.

The plan for an all-inclusive modeling agency was conceptualized in the summer of 2021, but Invicta officially launched later in November. With no background in fashion, no business plan and just USD 100 in funding to actualize the agency, Al Arabi put all her time and effort into scouting models and negotiating with brands.

“To be honest, I felt the hunger for change and the passion behind my vision is what led me to the position I am in today,” she said of her experience founding the agency.

In just over six short months, Al Arabi struck deals with local Egyptian brands such as Hydro Swimwear, Doxx House, Najlah, Iisla, Revolt, Mitcha, Makhzan Cairo, among others.

Photo courtesy of Invicta.

Eventually, she hopes to expand to Saudi Arabia, Dubai and other areas of the Middle East.

When I sat down with Al Arabi, BBC Arabia had just released their video about Invicta, which resulted in a mixed reception. Naturally, any poke at a society’s long-standing conventions brings out internet trolls, pessimists and traditionalists, but to this Al Arabi says, “Haters can only hate, but it drives me to be a better boss.”

In this interview, we delve into inclusivity, navigating mental health issues, Invicta’s prospective plans, and Al Arabi’s journey thus far.

It’s not difficult to understand why you would want to open a modeling agency that focuses on inclusivity, but what would you say is your biggest goal – what do you hope to ultimately achieve in Egypt?

I would love to achieve a sense of understanding that everyone is beautiful in their own way, and for everyone to feel that there’s a sense of representation and feel heard and seen by our society. I’m trying to influence Arab countries to become more open to diversity and start adapting to the new beauty standards. If the West has adapted to the new beauty standards, what’s stopping us? We have so much beauty to showcase and so much diversity, and I want to put us on the map to do that.

My goal in the future is definitely to expand to more Arab countries, and apply the same passion and vision there.

As many of your models are new to the world of fashion, you must come across a few challenges, whether it relates to insecurities or simply nerves. How do you manage the models in regards to their mental health?

To be honest, I’ve dealt with a lot of insecure girls, but I get it because previously, there has been very little representation of their body type growing up, and they’ve been told over and over that they either need to lose or gain weight. I’ve dealt with this personally, so at Invicta I try my best to make girls feel comfortable. My models know that they’re always welcome to come and talk to me. I loved building this sense of family in the work environment and I hope they feel that.

Mental health is definitely important to me especially because of how cruel the internet is, but the one thing I tell my models regarding any hateful comments is to remember what you’re doing this for and for who, and remember all the people you’re influencing. Most importantly remember how powerful you are. People need to understand that words can affect anyone, even the strongest person.

Invicta’s models l Photo courtesy of Invicta Model Agency’s Facebook page.

Even though there has been overwhelmingly positive feedback since your launch, how have you dealt with negative feedback and trolls?

Like I said, the internet is a cruel place and I can only develop an increasingly stronger skin against haters and trolls. I’ve received some backlash for things I can’t immediately control, like the diversity of the models. No one realizes that I’m constantly scouting models and it’s not as easy as people think, trust me.

I thought it would have been easy when I first started, but the reality is a lot of girls want to be models but not a lot do what is required to actually become one! I’ve had people messaging me to become models and then not follow through with their application via email, for example. I could have 50 leads, 20 apply, five get an interview and maybe, if I’m lucky, one or two actually get through to the end.

So it’s not easy but God only knows that we strive to be as diverse as we can be to portray all the beautiful women (and hopefully, eventually men) in Egypt. The key is to let the haters be and hopefully the debate will result in change.

What did you learn from the experience that surprised you the most (good or bad)?

That’s a good question. The amount of support I’ve gotten from people I both know and don’t know is amazing! I feel like I’m still in a state of shock that I’m doing this and that everyone is supporting me.

As for bad experiences, it’s definitely a mix of frustrations, whether it’s in the scouting process or brand expectations. However with every negative experience there’s a hidden lesson behind it, and since I’m learning everyday, these experiences definitely help me to understand more about the industry and expect the unexpected.

How are brands responding to the initiative, and what was your favorite brand to work with so far?

My favorite brand experience had to be Najlah, my first ever shoot. My business partner at the time was also the owner of the brand and it was the first shoot for our models. The amount of fun and happiness in that shoot was unparalleled. Since then I had amazing experiences with other clients, like our recent lifestyle shoot with Mitcha.

To be fair all the shoots were amazing, but when you do your own photoshoots with your own models, the ambiance is out of this world. I truly see my models in their element , and I’m fully happy to be surrounded by amazing and empowering vibes.

Photos courtesy of Invicta Model Agency’s FB page.

What does Invicta mean and why did you choose it for the name of your agency?

This is definitely my most asked question! Invicta is Latin for the word invincible, which means “too powerful to be defeated” and that’s how I want my models to feel and how society should perceive us. The name actually came by coincidence, but I felt the meaning behind was the perfect fit for our vision.

Does your family and friends support your idea and how did they react to the idea?

So I’m actually very attached to my family and very family-oriented, and their support has been amazing as expected. My brothers have helped me achieve all of this through their support and their advice. My friends have shown me enormous support, they’ve helped in all areas and they added so much value, especially my creative friends within this field. They have given me so many guidelines to follow so I’m forever grateful for them.

Do you plan on expanding outside of Egypt?

Of course! Saudi Arabia is a country I would love to expand to because I feel right now Saudi is on the verge of being ready to become a very influential country, so bringing this back would be amazing. Then I would hope to move on to Dubai, but for now I’m focusing on other things in order to fully be able to take that step, so stay tuned.

Photo courtesy of Invicta.

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