Siham Elmawey didn't always know she wanted to be a designer. When she was young, she was firmly of the belief that dentistry was the career for her.
But, like all good success stories, Siham found her passion in an unexpected place – and hasn't looked back.
A fashionable teenager with a penchant for vintage clothing, Siham started out altering pieces she found at op-shops in her home town of Adelaide. Cinching waistlines, cropping hems and adding her own personal touches to second-hand clothing was her thing.
But what started as a hobby, turned into a casual business venture where Siham would go to the markets every weekend to sell her things, which turned into her being the head designer at one of Australia's most prominent and successful brands, C/MEO.
Loved by celebrities, models (think: Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kourtney Kardashian, Olivia Palermo, and Jennifer Lopez), and fashion industry insiders alike, Siham has steered the label onto the racks of some of the biggest retailers worldwide.
Just days after her hit show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia in collaboration with Mastercard, we caught up with the designer to talk market stalls, career hiccups and the importance of feedback.
How did you begin your relationship with fashion?
When I was younger, I used to alter vintage clothing. I would go op-shopping, find vintage pieces and then alter them. I would add a ruffle, change the length, take in the waist… My grandmother was a dressmaker, so that was always around me as a child.
I worked in a retail store at the time, and I would wear the pieces of clothing I had altered to work. I started gaining a lot of interest; people would always ask me what I was wearing, and where they could buy it.
Then I started a local market stall in Adelaide, selling those pieces, and then it went from there.
And that was your first introduction to designing?
Believe it or not, I actually wanted to be a dentist. But then I discovered I had a real interest in art and decided to go to TAFE to study fashion design and textiles. That involved dress-making, trade sketching, all these different aspects of the design world.
While I was doing that, I was still at the markets selling my vintage pieces. That's where I met someone who worked for ASL, who arranged for me to do some work experience. Then I was lucky enough to get the assistant designer role.
Has there been a moment during your career that you’re most proud of?
There's been a few! Solange Knowles has been my muse for years. I love her — in every interview, I would mention her name. Then I got into work one morning, and we had an email saying that Solange wanted to do a collaboration with the brand. We ended up doing the 'C/MEO Collective X Saint Heron collection'. That was such a career highlight for me.
And then, of course, seeing celebrities like our designs. From Gigi Hadid, to the Kardashians… these people get gifted every single thing you could think of, from every designer brand in the world. So to see them and their stylist picking out C/MEO was definitely a highlight.
And then, of course, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week here in Australia. That was really exciting.
How did you realise you wanted to turn your interest in fashion into a career?
It was what I felt comfortable doing. If something comes naturally to you, and you have that interest, and that love, and that drive, you have to follow that. I had an interest in dentistry, but my heart was in fashion. When I was in year 12, I was looking at fashion shows, and the latest trends, and colours, and all my art projects were based around fashion.
It's so important that you enjoy what you do, and fashion was just something that I loved.
If you could go back in time and give your 13-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
I can't even remember what I was doing at 13!
I think the fashion industry is about people and your people skills, and having confidence. You have to trust your gut. You meet so many different people in this industry, so taking feedback and criticism is important – but you have to trust your product. Feedback makes you better and helps you grow (even if it's the last thing you want to hear), but you have to stay true to yourself.
Is that the same advice you would give to a young female designer trying to break into the industry?
Yes! You need confidence and experience – experience, experience, experience. I can't stress it enough. Try and get out and talk to as many people as you can. Ask questions, that's the only way of learning. Pick people's brains. Be willing to learn. Hear people's thoughts.
Going back to the markets… just a simple conversation with someone led me to my career. It's all about getting yourself out there.
Is there a moment, or a decision you’ve made, throughout your career where you’ve thought, ‘I wish I could have done that differently’?
Walking out at fashion week and waving like the Queen? There's lots of little moments like that where you just look back and laugh.
It all comes down to your gut. When you're finishing a collection and something's not right, listen to yourself and figure it out, rather than just sending it off. Give yourself the time to work it out, and work through those problems.
It's so hard to pick a moment and say that you'd change it, because I probably wouldn't! You learn so much from those experiences.
Speaking to your industry specifically, do you think there are any areas that should adapt and change going forward?
Sustainable fabric is a massive topic right now. We have such a close relationship with our factories and our suppliers, and you want to work closely with them on topics like working conditions and ethical practice. There are so many fast-fashion brands out there, it's important to support ethical and sustainable fashion.
Has there been someone who has mentored you throughout your career?
It would have to be Melanie Flintoft, C/MEO's creative director. I have quite a close relationship with her… she's sort of that mother hen figure to me. It's like working with a close friend of mine every single day.
And then there's my family. I'm a very family-orientated person. They bring me back down to ground, and are so supportive of me and what I do. It's a hard position – a lot of long hours, hard days – so they've always supported me through that.
What’s a piece of advice you’ve been given that you always come back to?
Be open to change. Things evolve so quickly and you have to keep up.
And again, listen to feedback. You'll always have someone who loves the collection, and then you'll always have someone else that doesn't. There's a fine line between taking on feedback, but not changing yourself. Take the constructive bits of it, but don't lose yourself in the process. You can get caught up in criticism, but at the end of the day, you still have to be you.