I present to you Running In Heels: a new feature series on the many women in Kuwait who are worthy of our appreciation. Women you may know, women you should know, and women you’ll definitely be hearing more about in the future. All beautiful, vibrant, game-changing women who have caught my attention and that I think definitely deserve yours as well.
Many months ago, I first made mention of Noaf Hussein and her unabashedly quirky yet decadent talents in a post about a show she put on in Al-Sadu House. I compared her to a “Khaleeji cross between Alice in Wonderland, Amelie Poulain, and Marie Antoinette.” (And, yes, I am plagiarizing myself. I don’t mind.) Even before I had ever been given the opportunity to attend one of her extravaganzas, the fact that Noaf Hussein was presenting something entirely new was always astonishingly clear to me.
Now, a lot of you may be quick to jump out and say: What ‘something?‘ Its event planning and art directing and branding. Literally every other person in Kuwait is doing the exact same thing all over Kuwait all day long. Big-freaking-whoop.
And to that I say: true. But few of these people have ever been bold enough to infuse their own identity into their work and, by doing so, re-package marketing and branding as an entirely personal and unique endeavor in a way that has yet to be seen before. And, that right there is where you immediately think: of course, she means Pretty Little Things.
Because in a super short amount of time (little over a year) and through PLT, Noaf Hussein was figuratively able to do just that. Re-configure all that you thought a marketing campaign, an event set-up, or a fashion shoot could do for you as more than just a mere on-looker but also as an active participant in a strange, new experience. An experience where at every turn waits a dainty detail; whimsical expression; and, of course, a dangling fairy-light.
Pretty Little Things is, in itself, a world. A world that Noaf has decided to single-handedly and entirely fashion into a temporary oasis of quirky, whimsical, unusual, and, yes, very pretty things. And that is by no means an easy feat.
It is not at all a far-fetched claim to say that Noaf Hussein has all the makings to be Kuwait’s–indeed, the Arab world’s–version of legendary Vogue fashion editor Grace Coddington (if you haven’t watched ‘The September Issue’ yet THEN WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?). Just like Grace, Noaf is the kind of woman who, through her eye for unusual beauty and supreme self-assurance, is able to transform a rather routine and insignificant space or idea into something wondrous and one-of-a-kind. She’s the woman who sees beauty in the most unlikely way and then has the confidence to re-capture it for the whole world to see and enjoy. She’s setting a precedent for art, for marketing, and for independent women who are more than comfortable exhibiting their own identity and welcoming others into that special world.
Please enjoy this interview and this insight into the wildly wonderful, organic, and sharp-witted Noaf Hussein who, for all you and I know, could very well be the Kuwaiti Coddington.
Why ‘Pretty Little Things?’
I’m literally obsessed with pretty things. Literally. Anything that has nice packaging; anything that looks visually attractive; even things that I don’t need but I find beautiful, I will buy because I just like the way they look. From the grocery store to vintage stores to random emporiums. I love beautiful, whimsical things with a passion.
Your design aesthetic has always come off as a little whimsy and eclectically chic. Any particular inspiration?
I’ve thought about this recently and I’ve traced it back to when I was a kid. I always used to go to books for my escape. Even now, as an adult, I always want to be transported to a different world and I still feel that need for escapism to another place. A place where its prettier, it smells better, things taste better, the air is different. And that’s the vibe I try to pull off. But it’s never one thing, its continually changing. I’m always looking to other inspirations and chances for that wonderful escape. But, yes, it started with books when I was quite young.
Where did the idea to start such a different and, in many ways, untapped approach to event planning and marketing aesthetic come from?
Honestly, it was a little accidental. The first show I did was in December of 2011 and it was only five brands in a house I rented and it started as a way for one of my clients to market her brand without being a part of a generic show. So I created Pretty Little Things just as a way to impress a client and I never thought that I’d do it again. Because before that time I’d never really worked in events let alone done one for myself, so Pretty Little Things came about in a hurry and in just over 3 weeks time. I honestly never thought I would continue with it at all but when I saw people’s reactions to it—people who weren’t my mom and weren’t my friends—and saw the people that would show up, I was surprised and started to see it outside of myself. So when more people started telling me that it was really great and that they were having a lot of fun, I would be like ‘Oh, really? I just had this checklist and I finished it. You think it’s cool? Ok. Thank you. Did my mom send you to say that?’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe this is something really worth pursuing.’ So I did.
Your success has really been astoundingly fast and you’ve grown so quickly over such a short period of time. You’ve got a massive following and an impressive roster of clients, and rightly so. Care to share the magical formula?
You know, every single thing that I’ve done in my career so far has grown organically. Even with Pretty Little Things—it just happened on its own really. And I’ve realized that once you try to turn it into a formula the magic is gone. It is so magical because it’s so spontaneous. It’s like: you walk onto a random street, you hear music, and you just start dancing. It’s like that.
Where do you get the confidence to singularly present a brand and an idea that is, for its setting, quite different and on such a huge scale?
My home is a household of scientists. Both my parents have PhDs in the sciences, my brother is a chemical engineer, and so, even when I went into something completely different—PR—I was always raised with a sense of surrounding achievement. Everyone in my family, including me, was raised as an achiever. And, because I didn’t end up being a science major, perhaps it turned me personally into an over-achiever because I wanted to prove myself even with a PR degree. What I think a lot of households in Kuwait lack is support for what you want to do and my family was very good in that regard. I was never made to feel like I was less important because I wasn’t a scientist. My decision to leave my corporate job was never deeply doubted by my parents. They trusted me and raised me to be fearless.
You know, people are always surprised when they know how much work goes into the shows and they always make the mistake of saying ‘Thank you, PLT team’ when, really, there is no team. It’s just me. But when you think about it, it seems like too much work for one person. And it probably is but I never thought about it. I was always raised with the idea that if you really want to do something you just do it. No fear; just jump.
So I guess that’s my motto. I don’t think, I just do. No fear.
What do you think are the key issues facing branding innovation in Kuwait?
You know, I’ve experienced a lot of it even with agency work. Because then you end up having corporate clients. And one of the main issues with many corporate clients is that they’re very careful and its harder to push boundaries with them because they already have guidelines set. They want things a certain way. I don’t want to talk down to anyone but, really, a lot of people in charge don’t really understand good or innovative design. They just want to do what’s safe and do their job. It’s a mostly traditional approach that we have but Kuwait has been making marketing strides in the last couple of years, but it’s still not easy. We’re still a young country and we’re still trying to get comfortable with all the other aspects of our identity.
Also, marketing is just one of those things that includes a lot of opinions—which is one of the reasons corporate didn’t work for me. It has a deep structure. And structure, by its very form, kills creativity. There has to be at least 5 people’s opinions consulted, the idea gets changed and stripped down because they always want to be safe and want to be a part of the safe structure, and in the end you wind up with a fraction of the original idea. They don’t want to do something until someone else has tried. That’s partly because it’s more difficult for a corporation to take the blame for something going wrong as opposed to an individual. It hits them harder.
But that’s the main issue: a lack of faith in the unusual and the never-been-done.
What are some of the greater challenges of having to navigate around such a huge career title all on your own?
The nature of my work makes it so that every single project poses its own set of challenges, since I do more than one thing. I host events, I art direct for magazines, I do a million things and I’m passionate about them all but ‘Pretty Little Things’ is my own baby. It gives me a different kind of stomach ache. Every project is a challenge because you deal with different people and then you add the dimension of venues so its never really a consistent outcome. It’s a moving show and every show that happens is perfect enough given the circumstances I’ve had but it’s never completely ideal. Every single time I finish a project I sit down and I say ‘had I known what I know now through this experience I would’ve done so-and-so in a different way.’
But I’m lucky that, at this point in my career, I’ve done enough stuff for my clients to really trust me. And I never want to tell someone that I know better than them—because I don’t, I just know what I like. So whenever someone comes to me with an idea I accept it and then I also say, ‘but what do you think of this?’ That’s because when most people go to someone else to market their business, they’re usually open to ideas. So it becomes a conversation and it’s taught me people skills. In the end you might end up with a better idea because you incorporated both your elements and someone else’s. It’s a dance.
If you had to come up with a new Kuwaiti brand what would it be?
We’re innovators. Even on the smallest levels, we’re a nation of enterprisers. We have the freedom and the ability to do a lot. If Kuwait is known for anything, that would be it. Our innovation has created a footprint in the region. We have our issues, but we’re the cool kids. People are really open to innovation here. So if I was going to brand Kuwait somehow I think I would try to make it revolve around that subculture. I would show how alive it is. Kuwait has soul—real, innovative soul—and that’s our brand.
Do you think there are areas where women in Kuwait need to be better represented?
Kuwait is one of those places where any area is yours for the taking. I don’t know if this is very naïve of me to say, but I’ve never experienced it. I’ve never felt held back because I was a woman. My aunt was the under-secretary of the Minister of Education and my mother has always been a very strong figure in my life and she has a PhD and two masters. She had three kids when she got her PhD. She wrote 7 books. She represented Kuwait in all these conferences. No other woman in the region has a PhD in her specialty, actually. So I’ve never felt like I couldn’t do something because I am a woman. I know people go through it all the time and it’s horrible. I’m sure it happens every day and it’s something we all need to discuss. But I just haven’t seen it happen to me and maybe that’s because I work alone for the most part.
What you do in one word.
I can do it in two: capture beauty.
Are you prepared for a day when Pretty Little Things might be over?
Yes, of course! I’m excited about it actually. Because maybe by then I’ll have already done all that I could with Pretty Little Things and it’ll be outdated. Maybe at that point something new will come along and I will have to join a new, exciting world of marketing innovation. Maybe I’ll be the one to create this new innovation! Who knows? What I’ve learned from all my experiences is that nothing is meant to last forever and that’s what’s so beautiful about it. You take what you can from each experience, you give it the time it needs, and then you move on. Change is organic and change is the only constant. You know there’s this quote I can’t exactly recall and it goes something like, “the tree that doesn’t bend with the wind breaks with the storm.” That’s kind of how I see my relationship with every new venture and that’s how I like it.
What are you most passionate about?
My work. Continually striving. Perfect isn’t perfect enough for me. I’m obsessed with finding my next perfect.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
I really like when people compliment my work or my work ethic. Even when I’m working all these long hours and I’m exhausted and I hate that I’ve put myself in a position to be so overworked all the time, when somebody praises my work its honestly the highest compliment. I don’t remember any one specific compliment though. Maybe I haven’t heard ‘The One Compliment’ yet, so I don’t know.
Your greatest quality?
Real life heroes?
My mother! She’s retired now, but all she’s accomplished for the context of Kuwait back then is astonishing and inspiring. She thrived in a male-dominated field in a language that she never learned in school. Every single bit of my work ethic I’ve learned from my mother. She’s really made me the person I am today. She created such a culture of learning and instilled it in us as children. It’s because of her that I apply real work and education in everything I do. She set the path for my success and without her I would’ve never even known this path existed. She produced a winner. Pretty Little Things didn’t just happen; she’s the reason behind its success. She’s a warrior but a very gentle one. She gave me everything.
Your most complete idea of happiness?
In a park, sitting on a mat with a picnic basket filled with good food, with my feet up.
A talent you wish you had?
Sketching or illustrating. I want to be able to move people with illustration but I can’t draw to save my life.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a comfort. As someone who makes people feel welcome and at ease and at home.
I’d like to thank Noaf Hussein for giving me the time to merely peek into her ever-pretty, whimsical world. There are so many other facets of this girl that I didn’t get the chance to include in this interview (not the least of which is her avid love of food, and a particularly life-changing passage in Carol Birch’s ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’), but there’s only so much fabulousness that a humble blog post can take, after all. And Noaf Hussein’s fabulousness is damn-near limitless.
All my love!