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How Handbag Designer Dareen Hakim Left Wall Street and Hasn't Looked Back

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Imagine working for one of the most successful beauty companies in the world and imagine choosing to give it all up at the height of the financial crisis. A risky move, one that handbag designer Dareen Hakim says it was all worth it. The Dareen Hakim collection is only over a year old, and at least half of her debut bags have already appeared on almost every shopping gift guide editorial since the spring.

I recently met Hakim at a charity event and was so inspired, not just by her beautiful and unique clutches (I'm a proud owner of her Le Capri clutch) but also her courage to leave the stability she's known for almost ten years in the corporate world to pursue her passion for fine Italian leather and authentic Arabian metal. She molded those two things into the one thing we women don't want to live without... our handbag.

Below, Hakim tells me about her previous life on Wall Street, the challenges of launching a new business in one of the most competitive industires, and the power of customization.

Dareen Hakim
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Nour Akkad: What prompted you to leave Wall Street and launch your handbag collection?

Dareen Hakim: I've wanted to start a business of my own and be entrepreneurial, for as long as I can remember. When I finished college, some of the key disciplines that people were learning at that earlier stage were finance on Wall Street. And for me it was a natural way to enter corporate America. So after five years in banking, private equity and business dev/strategic roles, I felt like I had learned enough to attempt my venture into starting something of my own. I wanted to take my skills and apply them to a business that I could wake up every morning excited and passion about. Transitioning out of finance is not easy though, so I thought the best way was to go to business school and use that as my launching pad into a new industry... fashion. I never really thought I could merge my love for fashion into a serious business and career. But I didn't give up on the possibility. So when I found an opportunity to work at L'Oréal, I thought wow, this is a really established global company, a marketing vehicle, and a way to learn brand management from the best as training for a fashion brand. I spent two very key and educational years at L'Oreal and felt ready. Aside from the economic situation, I felt it was the right time for me personally. I had been working on my bags so felt like my product was ready, I had my vision ready, I had everything set to go and I thought who knows how long this [economic downturn] is going to take. If I can make it during this time, knock on wood, I'll be able to make it through the better times.


NA: How did you go from deciding you wanted to be in the fashion industry to the concept of your designs?

DH: When I decided I wanted to bring fashion into my career, I toyed with various ideas. You can either start in ready to wear, shoes, or accessories such as jewelry but I went with what I loved best, handbags. And what I love about handbags is that they work for any woman, any attitude, any age, and any type. Handbags are also season-less, whether you buy the newest hip launch or pull out your mother's vintage bag from twenty years ago. They are still relevant and at the very least a cool statement piece. As for the way the concept came together, I'm a product of my past and present. From my Lebanese cultural background to where I live today. I always find an interest and attraction in things that are a mix of different worlds. Everything about my bags is a contrast. Every time my friends would visit Lebanon, I always felt their eyes were attracted to the metal work in Beirut, which is the art form of the country. Wanting to bring back souvenirs, they never could find an item that was not linked to something religious, or an oversize home urn, or platter! So I thought let me use the metal craft of the region and combine it with something that is fashion, beauty and uniquely contemporary. So that's how my first bag, Le Icon, came along. It's hand engraved metal, Arabic calligraphy combined with a western silhouette that is classic and useable across the seasons. To me, having a combination of soft delicate leather with hard raw, yet delicately engraved metal, is the epitome of what I was trying to bring. Besides, it's so nice to be able introduce the culture in a way that most people don't get to see through media. There's so much beauty that comes from that region.

Le Icon in Olive Croc inscribed with "My Love" (habibi) in Arabic calligraphy
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NA: Some of your clutches are designed with personal messages in Arabic calligraphy such as "Wisdom and Strength" and "Happiness Is a Journey." Are you finding people more drawn to the message itself or the Arabic? Or both?

DH: I was so curious to find out the answer to this question myself. New York City, where I currently live, is a melting pot of all kinds of nationalities and cultures. There's a group of people that recognizes it as Arabic calligraphy and are immediately curious and interested in it. And there's a group of people who doesn't know exactly what it is and are excited when we tell them, or they believe that the engraving is just a design. So we put a little insert inside every bag saying that your bag has been hand-engraved with a special message, "Live and Laugh," "My Love," "Happiness," or "Wisdom and Strength." When they look inside, it's like a little treasure... a little surprise that they didn't expect. And that makes them smile. It makes them connect to the bag so much more. And it's a conversation starter with their friends.

NA: Do you think people are becoming more fascinated with Arab culture?

DH: People are always fascinated with what they know least about in general, and what's most different from what they are. I think that today's new generation, the younger generation, who's lived all over the world, is more aware, more curious and more open-minded. They are all introducing their own respective cultures to each other in a new and different "cool" way, through their own reflection of beauty, art, lifestyle, etc., very interesting ways. Not the traditionally media/textbook way. It creates mystique and intrigue, a new kind of knowledge and exposure - which I think is the true nourishment to the heart ... the reason to live, breath and feel.

Le Capri in Noir
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NA: Social Media and ecommerce has provided a new way for the fashion industry to communicate to their customers and vice versa. How are you using this open line of communication to your advantage?

DH: I have a website in which I share with my customers the ability for them to participate in the creativity and design of their bag. For example, Le Icon and L'Ociel are both customizable bags. My customers can choose the colors they want and the hardware and messages that resonates most with them. For me, this is an amazing way to communicate with my customer, seeing what they order and hearing the kind of feedback they give me. I can immediately get a sense of the colors they're into, the messages they like, and use that in my next collection to keep evolving the brand in the way that my customers enjoy. At the same time, facebook and twitter are also very important platforms for me, both of which we use as much as we can. We share everything with our customers, not only press mentions, new locations, launches and company updates, but also what we're thinking, feeling, inspired by, and what's coming up next. We ask questions too. It's a way to talk to our customers and to make them feel comfortable telling us what they feel. Social media is so important because the world is becoming very small. Now fashion is so immediate and as a result very fickle. The designers have to be very reactive and nimble, quick on their feet, and responsive to the customer. If you don't do all those things, you will lose loyalty. And yes, you are the designer at the end of the day so you're responsible for introducing ideas to the world that people haven't seen before, but you have to also balance that with customers' all-too-clear expectations and fast reactions. It's a combination. Customization is another element of this social media trend. There is less privacy and so everyone now sees what the other is doing, thinking, wearing, and feeling. People can react faster, "copy" faster. Yet, most women don't want to carry something their friends have, they want something unique and different. Even more, they want something special, meaningful, with a personal element or a reflection of them. It's a different world, and customization is a wave that will grow even more.

NA: I ask the next question a lot because I feel people are so interested to hear how individuals face and overcome challenges. What's been your most difficult to date?

DH: Truly, my biggest challenge is managing everything on my own. There is so incredibly much to do. From design to procurement, development, production, sales, PR, marketing, finance, admin, fulfillment, etc. I have the support of my interns, my showroom, my PR agency, and of course the incredible encouragement of family. But it's a very big job and it's all on one key person. Somehow, [Laughs], don't ask me how, I find the hours in the day to get it done, but the toughest part is setting aside time to be creative and that is never the best way to be creative. But I find myself breathing it... thinking of designs while I'm showering, eating, and dreaming. Sometimes that's when the best ideas come to you! I'm learning so much, and I'm having a blast doing what I'm doing.

From her new collection, Le Monaco in Taupe inscribed with "Smile and the World Will Smile Back at you" in Arabic calligraphy
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NA: Looking back on what you've accomplished with your new business and collections, what's been the most rewarding moment so far?

DH:
Oh wow, there have been so many. You appreciate the rewarding moments so much more when in a sea of challenges. I keep thinking about my family, the involvement and pride of my family. I couldn't have done any of this without them. As I finish the first year of my business, I look back with satisfaction at how my first two collections were well received and to start my second year, third collection with this great momentum is incredible. To receive an email from a customer telling me that their bag has made them so happy, is pure joy to me. Knowing that I was able to bring a smile to a person's day, whether by enjoying their special bag, making them feel even more beautiful than they already are, or by reminding them to "live and laugh" and to relish in every minute of their life. That's what this is all about. I've also had the opportunity to work with charitable organizations and to be able to make a small difference whether it's contributing to the fight against Lupus or Multiple Sclerosis, or helping the Pakistan Relief Fund for the flood disaster. I've done as much as I can through this business to help with these charitable efforts and to help the world in whatever small way that I can, and there's no better satisfaction than that.

NA: What can you tell us about your new upcoming collection?

DH:[Laughs] Well, we have a lot of new surprises, new shapes, sizes, styles, interpretations. I've expanded the line of hand-engraved and hammered metals, with new and special inscriptions. My favorite is "Smile and the world will smile at you"! We're also introducing a new exciting mesh line, which is completely different and uses copper metal. People have been receiving it very well, especially the trendy urban-chic retailers and customers who are always looking for something different and unique. My collections will always be about contrast and unexpected statement pieces, so hopefully you'll never be disappointed and always find a piece to fall in love with

From her new mesh collection, Le Montage
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Dareen Hakim's new collection will be available online in February.