Women in Business Q&A: Sarah Ahmed, Creative Director, DL1961 Premium Denim

04/15/2015 11:51 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

Sarah Ahmed is the Creative Director of DL1961, a global premium denim brand that stocks in 1500 stores worldwide including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, Nordstroms, Neiman Marcus, Shopbop, Tsum and Harvey Nichols. She is a graduate of Parsons the New School for Design where she studied interface design and management. She is 25. Since she joined DL1961 in 2011, the company has developed a strong brand identity and has experienced tremendous sales growth.

When Sarah first came onboard DL1961 had a unique denim product and a substantial cult following without any branding whatsoever. The brand was known for its technology but explaining this unique technology in a very simple and succinct manner to the end consumer was the challenge. She made this challenge her obsession. Over the next two years she explored ways to get into the minds of the consumer and identified what really makes people buy denim. She realized it was a unique blend of "the cool factor", trend and providing customers with a utility. So, with this in mind she created a collection, designed a campaign and runway show that revolves around a 24/7 concept. She wanted DL1961 to be the ultimate denim destination for the individual on the go. Every piece in the collection is designed to live, breath and move with you without every sagging, bagging or losing shape. The jeans are the perfect combination of utility, simplicity and trend and are crafted to essentially take you from the plane to the boardroom and then to dinner.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The past three years have been a crash course in everything from business management, family management (since this is a family business!), taking risks and also subsequently dealing with the consequences. The highs and lows have a way of grounding you but at the same time make you a little fearless. The most important thing I have learned is that you have to keep your vision strong, especially when you are doing something innovative. I am extremely passionate about denim and particularly driven by the fact that our jeans provide a 'benefit' to our customers. This belief that we are in some way making people's lives easier is apparent in everything from our corporate culture to our retail strategy.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at DL1961 Premium Denim?
I joined DL1961 right out of Parsons. I was trained as a UX designer and was looking to start a career in technology; however, the opportunity to transform a growing brand was too tempting. Looking back, my technology background and passion for utility and clean design has helped shape what the brand is today. We are now the first ever denim brand that combines fashion and technology to provide a customer experience as revolutionary as our denim.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at DL1961 Premium Denim?
The best part of being at DL1961 is the culture and the drive of the team. Everyone really believes in the product and is excited to be here. That keeps you motivated even when things don't go as planned. Because of this strong structure, I have been able to see a lot of amazing things come to life including a fashion show at Lincoln center during NYFW to an interactive digital showroom on first Friday in Venice, California. This position has allowed me to interact and learn from the best in the business and that's something that I will always be grateful for.

The biggest challenge has been finding a balance between work and personal life. For me it's all blended into one and for a while it was ok but after a certain point it gets to you and you need to define boundaries. Otherwise you will never give yourself time to decompress and that ultimately has an effect on your body, mind and ultimately your creativity and ability to produce optimal results.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in fashion?
It's really a wonderful industry because you get to work in teams of people from such different backgrounds. I think the best advice is to be open minded, driven and focused on what type of person you want to be. There is a lot of talent in the industry but what really sets you apart is how passionate you are.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Patience, however, that's still a work in progress. Just because you may understand things faster doesn't mean you need to race to get it done. You can't tackle big ideas alone and must work patiently with a team. At the end of the day, everyone has strengths and weaknesses and you must play to everyone's strengths to achieve success on a big scale.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Work in progress! It's sort of a cluster to be honest but I am constantly trying. But no matter where I am I try to take 30 minutes everyday to clear my head and do something active.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think that balancing masculine and feminine energy for women is key. There have been tons of instances where older businessman have judged me and tried to take advantage of a business situation because I presented myself in a feminine way. But, after the initial meeting they realized that I knew what I was doing and that always triumphs. Get the job done without ever compromising on your personality and ethics because at the end of the day it's about getting the job done and done well!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I can't stress how important having mentors has been for me. It provides a 'safe zone' to express ideas and get opinions from those who are experienced. I may have great ideas but it's experience that actually gets them executed.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Angela Ahrendts is one woman who I admire greatly not only because she's an amazing female leader but also because she knows the importance of creating an environment where creativity, craftsmanship and innovation thrive. I would love to emulate that at DL because we have an innovative product that is crafted beautifully and now we need to constantly think creatively to share it with the customers.

What do you want DL1961 Premium Denim to accomplish in the next year?
We want create a customer experience as revolutionary as our denim. We recently launched several online initiatives designed to emulate the same principles of ease, accessibility and utility as our denim. Over the next 12 months customers will be able to use multiple features that allows them to do everything from testing the product before buying through our Three Essentials Test to customizing a pair of jeans to their personal specifications via the Denim Fit ID. They can use the Denim Doctor services to ask for fit advice, style recommendations or to instantly purchase a pair of jeans over text. We are also creating our first ever, interactive digital showroom fully equipped with RFIDs, smart mirrors and denim doctors. This showroom will travel to our customers who can book appointments to get personally fitted and have jeans sent directly to their homes.