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Sandra Wilkins,
Associate Professor at the
Fashion Department of
Virginia Commonwealth
University-Qatar has half
a decade of experience
working in this arena
and is the best person to
speak about fashion and
how it is perceived here.
She talks to Sindhu Nair
on the prejudices she sees
and the fashion bloopers
that people make...

JULY 2009 38
t five, she was busy playing with What Sandra didn’t know then were the rules
old clothes, at nine, she started of the place, of the Industrial Area in particular,
making clothes and selling them where girls still do not venture out alone and
for money, and now close to 60, hence no remote possibility of them ever going
her passion remains the same – to work there. Soon the companies operating
fashion designing. Meet Sandra Bell Wilkins, in those areas too closed down but, by then,
Associate Professor at the Fashion Department the fashion programme at VCU-Q had made
of Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar an impact on the students and things started to
(VCU-Q), who has been there and done that, look a bit more positive.
with years of experience and an ardour that is But fashion is still not considered the best of
almost infectious. career by locals.
She talks about the fashion scene in Doha, “For some strange reason, in this part of the
some discernible changes in perceptions and world, they (the nationals) see fashion as some-
some that are still rigid and prejudiced. thing that is meant for the less privileged, the
less educated. I have even heard some say that
“I always wanted to do this” only Indians and Pakistanis pursue fashion as a
Sandra’s grandparents recognised the inher- career option.
ent talent of cutting and sewing clothes in the “All this while in the rest of the world, fashion
five-year-old and got her a pedestal to go with is considered as the ultimate career, a refined
the pedal of an old sewing machine. Since then choice! I was recently at the London Fashion
there has been no looking back. Week – this is an event where all the Univer-
“I don’t think I ever wanted to do anything sities come and participate, students show
else. The whole family was musically inclined their portfolio’s, fashion shows are organised,
and they did try to get me involved in piano people from all over the world come to recruit
classes but I had no interest whatsoever. I – it is the most happening event in the country.
always wanted to get into fashion.” Fashion is a big business but you have to be at
The turning point was when Sandra received such places to know how big it is.”
a Lions Club scholarship to pursue higher stud- And has the recession taken a toll on this
ies in music... And predictably, she used this glamourous industry?
scholarship to study fashion! “Times are bad but the fashion business
“Well, nobody ever had to know. The music around the world is still booming. Contracts
and fashion class were in all in the School of are being signed and recruitments are made at
Arts,” she says smugly. such times too. When you come back here, you
And so continued her passion... again see the lack of enthusiasm to fashion as
a career, which is sad.
Fashion...and in Doha?! “To tell you the truth, it is not the students
When Sandra arrived in Doha in 1999, there who show this lack of interest, it is the parents
were just two students enrolled for the fashion who don’t want their kids to join this stream.
programme at VCU-Q. Both these were given And the reason is simple, the Qatari Govern-
scholarships by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah ment doesn’t have any job for fashion design-
bint Nasser Al Missned, and were excellent in ers, and so they feel this career is useless.”
studies, she clarifies. Sandra feels that culture has a lot to do with
“I couldn’t figure out why they (the authori- the way people in the region perceive fashion.
ties) wanted to start a fashion programme here, Taking students’ interest into consideration,
because nobody was interested in making this VCU-Q has started a double major programme
a career and there was no awareness of the where students can major both in fashion
possibilities of taking up this as a profession. and graphics or fashion and interiors as they
“I was wondering why they wanted to start choose.
a fashion programme in a place where there “Four years ago, because of the demand, we
was no industry. Then I found out that in the started this and there was an overwhelmingly
Industrial Area there were around 10 shops response. This is the first time this double major
that were making clothes for some the popular course is being followed in the whole world.
Western brands like Gap. At that point, it was a We have about 30 students doing this, which
very positive thing for me since I thought there is quite impressive here. It is a stressful course
were possibilities for our girls here.” that requires dedication and commitment.”

JUly 2009 39
Culturally conscious? wouldn’t buy anything other it stands for in this part of the They work on budgets and
Trying to find answers to the than a Gucci or a Prada. world.” I try and get the students to
question of why a career in “Fashion students have do everything on their own. It
fashion is still not perceived to decide what they re- “Fashion shows are is an event to showcase their
as hip, Sandra feels it is a ally want to do. They need successful” talents on all levels – from
kind of paradox. In a country to explore and find new VCU-Q holds two major interior designing to fashion
where people are enthusias- avenues to make a mark in fashion shows and they are designing to coordination.
tic about high-end fashion their profession. They have immensely popular. Since our institution is small,
and don’t think twice before to get the exposure, move “It is a great opportunity we showcase the work of all
spending whopping amounts out and see the world and for the students within Qatar the students – the seniors
(and in dollars) buying brand then come back with loads Foundation to collaborate. and the sophomores. It is a
names, fashion as a career of experience to educate the We get the students in- big event for them and very
choice isn’t encouraged. rest here. It is only then that volved in everything, from popular. We have had to turn
“There are talented young fashion, in its pure sense, will set designs to selecting the people away due to limited
people doing our course and ever be appreciated for what event flow, to the clothes. space.”

Sandra’s list of eight fashion faux pas: What I stand for

When fashion is such big
“My philosophy is to make a good personal presenta- business, does she ever
tion. Fashion likes and dislikes are very subjective, so feel left out or regret her
my list should be common knowledge.” decision of coming to Doha
and working in the teaching
Wearing clothes that are just too small. If it pulls or profession?
binds or if the buttons are screaming, it is time to give it “I love teaching and I love
up or to someone else. being here in Doha. I give
the right message to my stu-
Clothes should always be clean. No make-up, hairy un- dents; to set an example of a
derarms or food stains. They don’t have to be the latest strong woman who is serious
trend but dirty clothes are unacceptable. about her business.
"When I see the recog-
Put your best foot forward. Shoes that have seen better nition and respect in my
days, run over or frayed heels, scuffed or sandals that students’ eyes, and when
are just not your size. No chipped polish and no rusty students come up to me and
heels. I really hate socks with sandals, too. say “I want to be like you,” I
feel sure of my decision of
Dark hosiery and light shoes. It might be a fad at times staying on here.
we might find students who but it is just not fashionable. “I also find a lot of time to
will start something spec- give vent to my creativity. I
tacular on their own, only Short pants. If they are supposed to be long pants make have been working on the
because there is a strong sure that they are the right length. Oh yes! Capris are kimonos – a combination
expatriate population who will NOT for everyone. of the traditional Japanese
support anything that is local costume and the abayas – a
and has cultural relevance Underwear. No panty lines, no visible bras, and the marriage of the two. I might
"Now that brings another thong was meant to be hidden and not on display. do a fashion show soon.
fascinating, if disappointing Earlier, I was working more
facet, of the mindset here. If several people come up to you to inquire about your for the money and now I
Students have told me that health and you are wearing the latest colour trend, that am doing more stuff that
Qataris are just not interested colour is probably not for you. adds value. My focus has
in buying anything that is changed.
made by Qataris. And that Make-up like clothing should be age, occasion and time “And this is the ideal place
is a revelation. It could be a of day (unless you live so north that the sun never sets to work; you have all the
matter of quality as they think at certain times of the year) appropriate. Rhinestones resources, the money and
anything made locally would anywhere on the face while the sun is up is a no, no. Oh the space. I might even retire
not be good or that they are yes, eye makeup should not be mistaken for sunglasses here, or they might have to
so brand conscious that they from a distance. kick me out of here....

JULY 2009 40