Saturday, April 2, 2011

Meet New York-Based Tunisian Designer Sulaika Zarrouk

The co-founder of chic handbag label Felix Rey, talks to The Polyglot about her multi-cultural approach to design and using her brand to preserve the environment. Do you consider yourself a citizen of the world?

I was born in New York to a Tunisian father and a Circassian/Palestinian mother, both of whom instilled in me a curiosity about the world. I traveled quite a bit as a child and attended the United Nations International School in Manhattan, where I was surrounded by kids and teachers from different countries and cultural backgrounds. We learnt about everything from global warming to the importance human rights and they instilled in us a sense of pride in our diverse backgrounds while telling us that we are all citizens of the world. It was an incredible environment to learn and grow up in. I believe the world would be a better place if all children were given this kind of exposure and sense of unity.

Does your multi-cultural background inform your personal sense of style?

Absolutely! I believe your sense of style is an expression of who you are and how you see yourself as an individual- it’s a sense of self expression. When I moved into my Manhattan apartment I decorated it with a mix of French Deco and Vintage 70’s pieces which reminded me of the furniture my parents had when I was a child. I had custom rugs made from a traditional North African geometric tile pattern, which I blew up in scale to give it a modern feel. I also love African art and the apartment is sprinkled with African sculptures, masks and my favorite piece an African ladder. I have a fetish for Middle Eastern style banquettes with lots of pillows everywhere in all sorts of patterns; ikats, animal prints and dyed antique velvets. It sounds like an acid trip but I feel like it all comes together nicely and the eclectic mix makes me feel right at home. Does that approach also influence the way you design handbags?

My first trip to Turkey blew my mind. The colors, the food, the seamless mix of the old world new. My favorite handbag collection was inspired by this trip and all the beautiful Ikat textiles I discovered there. We took the idea of a traditional ikat material woven in Uzbekistan, and reinterpreted it by blowing up the patterns and having them printed onto metal mesh. The end result was something completely new that captures 21st century luxury, while recalling a centuries-old craft at the same time.

What is one of your earliest fashion memories?

When I was a kid, we used to spend our summers in Tunisia in the picturesque village Sidi Bou-Saïd. There was not much to do in Tunisia at the time, we would go to the beach and for fun we would play dress up with handmade Tunisian textiles and Berber jewelry that would be lying around the house. We would create costumes for characters and make up our faces- I was always up for playing dress up.

Left: Zarrouk photographed in her art-filled Manhattan loft for ELLE Decore, in front of a Bernard Buffet silk screen of Paris and a William Anastasi painting. Right: Sulaika Zarrouk and Lily Band attend the Felix Rey 'Holiday 2008 Collection' Launch at the Met Bar on June 25, 2008 in London, England

When did you realize you wanted to become a designer?

I knew from a young I wanted to do something creative. My father is an artist, and I grew up surrounded by his paintings, art books, museums and artist friends. My mother is also very creative and designed and cast jewelry as a hobby. I don’t think I had much of a choice in life regarding what I wanted to do; design possessed me from a very young age. I also love to cook, but even when I read a recipe I will inevitably throw it out and let my imagination take over.

How did your handbag label Felix Rey come about?

After studying fashion at NY’s Fashion Institute of Technology and then Liberal Arts at NYU, I worked for Donna Karan in the advertising department as well as Collection Design. One day I was talking to my friend Lily Rafii Band, and we both hatched the idea of coming up with a luxurious line of sophisticated yet affordable handbags and accessories reflecting our own personal style. We established the brand in 2001 and named it Felix Rey after the doctor, whose portrait Vincent Van Gogh painted shortly after cutting off his own ear.
As co-founders of Felix Rey do you both play different roles in the company?

For any label to be successful, it’s important to have a balance between creativity and business. While I take care of the design and creative aspect of the label, Lily is more engaged with the financial and business side of things. She worked at Morgan Stanley and completed a MBA from Columbia University while we were building our business. We are able to keep the business running smoothly because we compliment each other so well.

Can you tell us one thing we may not know about Felix Rey?

As a luxury brand we believe in the importance of being environmentally conscious and giving back. We participate in a program run by, where we donated money each year towards planting new trees and reversing damage caused through shipping and manufacturing. This philosophy is even reflected in our packaging, where we use biodegradable plastic material made of corn rather than petroleum.

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