An optometrist who ensures her clients’ eyes feel and look wonderful, founder of free-flowing, fabulous fashion brand Salaail, Lamees Alshawkani lives at the intersection of style and wellness through both endeavors. Born in New York City of Yemeni descent, her fashion and aesthetic were woven together by living all over from Ethiopia and Belgium to Yemen as the daughter of a diplomat; 14 years ago she made it back to the Big Apple.
Always active growing up, Alshawkani reached a turning point five years ago and started to research, prioritize and optimize her wellness even more, from sleep and mental health to biohacking and investigating ingredients in everything around her. She’s now taken that approach to her brand. Below, she shares how she took her diverse experience and aesthetic to Sailaal, as well as how it has become a reflection of her, inside and out.
SBS: What has your professional path been?
Lamees Alshawkani: I’ve been practicing optometry for the past 10 years. Maybe I’m biased, but I think the eye is the most beautiful organ, and vision is the most important sense. As a primary eye care doctor in a retail-based setting, I focus more on comprehensive, routine exams. Working in SoHo and sometimes the West Village, I luckily have patients that inspire me in so many ways, through engaging conversations and their sense of style.
I originally thought I would design an eyewear brand. However, after graduating and attending costume-inspired events where I created some of my own outfits, I felt called to do clothing. I attempted to start back in 2017 by enrolling in an online course. However, I never completed it, and I didn’t have a clear strategy then. During the pandemic, I decided to pick it back up because although optometry is fulfilling in so many ways, I needed a creative and more colorful outlet. That’s when Sailaal’s vision came to life.
SBS: How did style play into your childhood?
LA: I’ve always been into style, whether it was dressing up dolls or observing my mom getting ready for diplomatic functions. While my childhood fashion choices were average, my sense of style evolved with different phases of life and interests that came up, reflecting my multi-faceted personality. I learned that style goes beyond clothing; it includes how we present ourselves, our manners, and the way we communicate with others.
SBS: How do you manage both areas of your work together?
LA: I’m still working as a full-time optometrist because I do enjoy my patients and work environment, plus I’m self-funding all of Sailaal. It’s challenging because I don’t believe in the ‘New York hustle’ work culture. Rest, recovery, and social connections are more important. So I’m still trying to figure out how to optimally balance everything going on. Long-term, my goal is to eventually split my time evenly between Sailaal and optometry.
SBS: How did the idea for Sailaal first come about?
LA: I wanted to bring forth a project that deeply resonated with my values and passions. My love for exploring our planet, whether through travels, hikes, or outdoor adventures, led me to make sustainability a cornerstone of Sailaal. I'm also a big advocate for holistic wellbeing, which is why the use of clean and non-toxic materials was non-negotiable. It's disheartening to see how much harm is caused through consumption and exposure to unhealthy ingredients, often without adequate monitoring from regulatory agencies. Being Middle Eastern with a predominantly Western outlook, I also wanted to cater to both demographics. My hope is to empower individuals, especially Middle Eastern women, to authentically express themselves, whether it’s through style or some way else.
SBS: What does the name mean, and what is the company's mission?
LA: Sailaal is derived from the two Arabic words, ‘sail,’ a stream of water/flow, and ‘aal,’ high/elevated: a reflection of the fabric's behavior and the sensations evoked when wearing our pieces. The mission is to raise awareness about the perils of fast fashion and the often harmful chemicals lurking in our clothing and everyday products. It’s also a call to live life in the present, to dance to our own unique rhythms, and to maintain a lifelong sense of curiosity.
In the realm of aesthetics, I'm drawn to what I call ‘luxurious conscience.’ This isn't for the average mass market consumer. It’s for those who understand the paramount importance of sustainability, the value of wellness, the magic of travel, the elegance of minimalism, and the power of versatility.
SBS: What makes your brand special?
LA: Integrity: If Sailaal claims to be a sustainable and clean brand, every single detail in the construction must align with these values. This means that everything from the fabric to the thread, labels, hang tags, packaging, etc., adheres to strict certifications. It would have been easy to give up and use a standard trim after researching for numerous hours, but I didn’t. Even though some consumers may not notice or care about these details now, I believe that will change in the future as the collective awareness expands. So, resisting the urge to default to ‘standard’ practices and embracing transparency is a step we all need to take now.
I also wanted to be thoughtful about pricing. The value comes from employing premium fabrics, incorporating luxury-standard seams and finishes, and producing everything in New York City’s Garment District. Ethical labor is fundamental, and living nearby enabled me to check in and maintain a close relationship with the team. It also allowed me to personally oversee quality control, which is crucial to me. I pay a lot of attention to detail given my background as an eye doctor.
SBS: What steps did you take to make your idea become reality?
LA: The whole process from design to launch took roughly two and a half years, and so I had to consciously limit my social life and spending during that time. Enrolling in the Fashion Startup Intensive online course was very helpful in giving me direction. Through that, I had access to an online group of emerging or existing designers that have taken the program. I also consulted with an industry professional and received ideas from my sister and friends in the early stages.
There were so many mistakes and frustrations throughout, especially since my expertise lies in healthcare, not fashion. My husband would remind me that whether through formal fashion schooling or learning on the job, the investment in time and money would be similar. This perspective shift encouraged me to continue committing to hands-on learning and viewing each failure as a steppingstone toward success. He played a pivotal role in this journey, from being my editor and consultant to offering emotional support.
SBS: What happy surprises and challenges occurred along the way?
LA: Happy surprises have been the warm acceptance of Sailaal into stores/pop-ups that I admire. The latest one is a store called Zak Ik by Azulik in Tulum, which is one of my favorites. This store not only aligns with my brand’s mission of sustainability and wellness, but it also has a gorgeous space that offers a multi-sensory, jungle experience. It’s also the first opportunity to expand internationally.
There were several challenges. I only wanted to use fabrics and materials that met strict certifications, such as GOTS and Oeko-Tex Standard 100. Researching, sourcing, and testing the different materials was time consuming, plus having a smaller pool of fabrics to work with limited my design choices. The unpredictable behavior of natural fabrics and the tendency of untreated natural dyes to wash out added an extra layer of complexity. Customizing dyeing or printing was often constrained, as my minimum order quantities (MOQs) were on the lower side.
After launching, the biggest challenge has been sizing issues. I thought that one to two sizes per style would suffice, given their loose-fitting nature. However, now I know that future collections should incorporate more size ranges to cater to the wide variety of customer needs and preferences. Lastly, people enjoy clothing with easy-care properties, such as anti-wrinkle, anti-static, etc. However, to achieve that, the fabrics have to be treated with chemicals. Since I opted out of that, the garments might require a little more management than your average, treated fast-fashion clothing item, so constant education is key.
SBS: What does the Sailaal collection include?
LA: The first collection consists of loose-fitting garments catered to both women and men. It has a strong resort-wear influence, but most items are versatile and can be worn on different occasions. The intention was to create clothing that can transition from a day on the beach to an evening out in the city or a festival. For example, a best-seller is Liberty, the four-way slit dress, which can be worn as a beach cover-up, a luxurious robe with lingerie, or a chic day-to-night dress depending on what you layer underneath.
SBS: How did you form the team for the brand? What was exciting and/or challenging about that?
LA: It took some trial and error to locate the right team involved in sample and pattern-making, grading, marking, and production. It was a combination of diligent research, recommendations, and guidance from my Fashion Startup Intensive course's preferred vendor list.
I had to be Sailaal’s best advocate regardless of external information. However, being an emerging designer without a traditional fashion background was challenging because I didn’t always know what to look out for. I’m especially grateful to those who understood my vision, didn’t take advantage of me, and were willing to mentor and advise me. Not everyone in the industry has the time or inclination to do so, and I recognize that, especially given my particularity.
SBS: What’s your own wellness routine?
LA: Sleep is number one. Without adequate amounts of restful, deep sleep, I can’t function as well. When I’m good about my workout routine, I go to the gym or do yoga in the morning, three to five days per week. I mainly commute via biking, so that’s also a source of regular movement. Regarding food, I avoid sugar and anything processed, and I consume a diet that’s super low on carbohydrates, gluten, and dairy. I also try to do intermittent fasting, and I often experiment with supplements and nootropics.
Cold showers in the morning are my favorite. It’s intimidating going in, but I distract myself by dancing while showering, and the aftermath is heavenly. It feels equivalent to taking three shots of espresso while simultaneously being centered.
For mental health and emotional regulation, I’m trying to increase my meditation practice, and I sometimes cheat with a program that uses binaural beats to activate my parasympathetic system. I also see a therapist regularly, use acupuncture for emotional balance, and explore other nonconventional methods.
The best, zaniest part of being Lamees: The best part of being me is my curiosity, constantly driving me to expand my horizons. I revel in exploring, trying new things, and challenging the norms, especially within the context of my culture. Curiosity has also helped me embrace the diversity of human experience, making me less judgmental and more empathetic towards others. It’s shown me that we all have unique paths and stories.
Lamees’s SBS Mantra: I think ‘Be Mindful’ is the compass that guides one through the intricate landscape of thoughts, emotions, and life's experiences. In a world filled with constant stimulation, it’s easy to lose sight of what truly matters, often found in life’s simplest moments. The chase for more can also distract us from feeling fulfilled by what’s already in front of us. When I mindfully show up for myself and others, it helps me increase my self-awareness, stay present, and better understand someone else’s perspective.
Lamees’s NYC Faves:
Healthy Restaurant: Divya’s Kitchen
Splurge Restaurant: The Tyger or L’Appart
Nightlife Spot: My friends’ apartments or the Williamsburg Hotel
Yoga Studio: My living room
Fitness Studio: The Ness
Fun Activity: Hula-hooping
Calming Activity: Taking a candle-lit hot bath with Ancient Minerals magnesium salt flakes, with Palo Santo and singing bowl music in the background
Online Resources: Atlas Obscura, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Ecocult, Vice
Books: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, To Dye For by Alden Wicker