Aicha Chtourou is the founder, CEO and creative director of her Montreal-based company Mode-ste. She started the small clothing company designing and making clothes in 2012 with her mother Hong Taing. It has now successfully expanded and along with her husband Bilal, who deals with PR and marketing, the brand has now grown from strength to strength.
They recently featured on Canada’s Dragons Den and have collaborated with fashion blogger Saufeeya Goodson alongside her TeenVogue feature. Mode-ste has also been featured in Malaysia’s largest newspaper and with The Globe and Mail. Here they give a glimpse into the running and inspiration behind their brand.
Who or what are your main inspirations, and where do you find the most inspiration?
BILAL: I guess, Aicha can probably get into the design aesthetic more, myself, it’s kind of our environment, we were born and raised in Montreal, Canada, so we’re proud Canadians, proud Montrealers. So we draw inspiration from our surroundings and our context, that translates a lot into our garments because the idea is we want to make stuff that is modest and inclusive of all kind of women.
At the same time we wanted to have this western perspective and this western flair, because we’re fashion consumers here, we love Montreal, and we love the aesthetic of North America and Europe. That runs in our blood. We were born and raised here so what we’re trying to do is make clothes that are modest and at the same time have this western aesthetic. So yes, we draw inspiration from our context and our surroundings.
Are there any other designers, artists or people who influence your designs?
AICHA: We look at high fashion, so I’m really into at the moment The Row, I don’t know if your familiar with the Olsen Twins? Their line is something that I really like, over sized clothing.
BILAL: I mean yeah that’s where we draw our inspiration from and some of our influence, because again we’re very into fashion, we’re fashion nerds, we’re always on reddit.com or these kind of places. Off of the top of my head for me, for example, I love Marni and there’s a brand actually here in Montreal, they’ve made it to the world stage and high fashion - they’re called Want, they make luxury handbags, travel accessories, shoes, things like that so you know we kinda draw from multiple places, but we do have our definitive aesthetic that’s who we are, we’re having this mix and match and combining different influences around us to create something that is uniquely ours.
Do you feel that your clothing fits into a certain genre or does it delve into various genres?
BILAL: I think at a basis we are generally more on a minimalist kind of vibe, we don’t like too many embellishments or destroyed sweaters, you know with the holes, rips and stuff like that. Generally we tend to go towards minimalism but at the same time the design aesthetic is that we want to make clothes that are timeless, have a really nice cut and they always encompass different types of proportions or volumes so that you widen that fashion bubble, like fashion is accessible to most women but then there are women who need something more, and so we’re just expanding that fashion bubble, so that anybody can buy our clothes.
What three words would you use to describe your clothing line?
AICHA: Definitely fashion forward, high quality, so made in Canada, we like to focus on that because all of our garments are produced here in Montreal, and you know, for all women, any woman basically.
So how do you balance the quality over quantity?
BILAL: I think our unfair advantage is our consumer, our client is looking for something quality that they can wear more than once. The issue we had was a lot of the time you go to more fast fashion places and you throw it in the wash one time and it’s shrunk in half or there's lots of pilling on the fabric and things like that, so the way we balance is we’re making what our clients are asking for - and the interesting thing about Montreal is that in Canada it's like the fashion hub, so there is lots of room for growth, lots of room for expansion, as we start producing more volume, there’s lots of room in Canada, it is a good place to manufacture and its something that we’re interested in trying to move forward with.
Which piece in the collection was probably the most challenging to create and produce?
BILAL: For myself, it’s probably the Saufeeya collection. The Saufeeya collection we made with Saufeeya Goodson. We made like five different styles, we made them in limited quantities, and all at the same time. Usually, we’re, I would say slow on purpose, like we take time with our collections because we really wanna produce something high end and of good quality and with Saufeeya we wanted to obviously implement that to the next level, really control the production, make it in small batches.
But with that also comes more complications because you’re dealing with lower quantities, you’re dealing with multiple styles at one time and because we had Dragons Den going on at the same time as Saufeeya’s collection - and at the same time getting flown out to Malaysia for our new fashion show, we had been invited there to the opening of a store and launching of our collection in their store, we had many projects being juggled. I’d say just the Saufeeyah collection because a lot of thought, a lot of consideration, a lot of coordination had to go in.
AICHA: I would say the same, absolutely, it was a small period of time where we had to do a lot and Alhamdulillah we were able to have so much barakah in our time, but it was definitely challenging.
How did your opportunity to film Dragon’s Den come about?
BILAL: I’ll give you the short story, we actually had to move cities, I’m an environmental engineer and had gotten a job a few provinces away in Alberta and so I was working there, and me and Aicha we would binge watch Dragons Den on Netflix and eat pizza and we really got into the show, we saw the show, we saw the kind of companies that went on and we saw the American version called Shark Tank, we’ve seen the British version, I know it’s also called Dragons Den in the UK. And so we said, look, there are all these businesses that go on, we have what it takes, we have the product, we have the marketing and we have the numbers so let’s go for it.
Me and Aicha basically both took the plunge and quit our jobs and moved back to Montreal which is our hometown, to focus on Mode-ste full time. I just applied and the application got accepted a couple weeks later, they invited us to do an audition in front of the producers, and then we did the audition - instead of being five/ten minutes like they said it would take, they actually stayed with us for 45 minutes because they were so into our brand. And then from there we got invited a couple weeks later to actually go to the CBC headquarters - that’s like our BBC - they invited us to the CBC headquarters in Toronto and so we drove there with the whole team and pitched there to the Dragons.
Did you at anytime time feel intimidated while you were filming? Were there any challenges that you faced?
AICHA: We watched the show very often, we know the show, so when you watch it on TV it’s very different from actually being there in real life, there’s usually music and a narrator talking but when you get there, walking down the stairs you’re like this is it, you really have to get ready and start talking.
When you see them on TV they sound very nervous and we’re just like 'why are they so nervous?’ but you know we had that same feeling. It was a great experience and at the beginning, you’re a little bit shy but after you’re just really into it - and it’s just a really nice experience.
What did they love most about Mode-ste?
BILAL: To add on to what Aicha said, you’re speaking in front of the five most affluent and most celebrity investors that Canada has to offer so you’re nervous at the beginning and once you break the ice, they’re really cool and really nice so I guess it was different market for them, they had never seen it, and it was very new to them, they were impressed by our numbers and our company in general. They liked us.
Do you feel that your appearance on Dragon’s Den will encourage other Muslims to launch their own businesses, and realise that there is a market?
BILAL: I think the thing that we were shocked with, again, is because we’ve seen pretty much every episode or at least glanced at every episode, in 11 seasons of Dragons Den there’s never been an outwardly Muslim company. Again we don’t say that we’re selling muslim clothing, we’re a modest fashion brand that sells in an inclusive way.
It really the first time ever that there was a modest fashion brand so we’re hoping that a lot of people will take the initiative because it’s an amazing platform. It’s amazing media, it’s amazing exposure and you get a chance to speak to some really influential people.
Can you share one golden piece of advice that your mother has given you?
AICHA: To work hard and to believe in what you’re doing, because my mom has been sewing her entire career. It’s her true passion its what she loves and seeing her work so hard, it really inspires me to continue and drive. Just seeing her, you don’t have to say it, they say actions speak louder than words, and my whole life she has been that kind of woman that has been very strong and very hard working and that just motivates me to work harder everyday.
It’s been a dream to work with my mom, since I was a young child she was actually making my fur coats, I was kind of a doll for her because I was the only daughter, and so she would always make me some clothing and people would always ask her ‘oh where did you guys get this from it’s so cute’ and she would have fun doing that for me. So for me growing up with her making my clothing it was kind of, as they say, meant to be. It has always been a dream for me to work with my mom. We have a very strong relationship, we’re very close and it’s a blessing as well in my religion. Alhamdulillah I’ve been very fortunate.
How has each of you contributed to Mode-ste?
AICHA: I am the creative director behind the designs of the clothing. She is the master seamstress so both of us fit perfectly.
BILAL: Aicha takes care of design, aesthetic, the way the website looks, and really puts the vision in place. We all wear different caps and we wear multiple hats but that’s her general target. For me I'm the director of marketing strategy, I’m working on PR, I’m working on press, I’m working on our Instagram I took it from a few years ago from 5000 to 35000 organic followers and then I work on the branding itself, I help with the aesthetic and aiding design.
Then Danial who is my cousin has a couple stories of how we were able to hire him. He ended up being the best candidate. He takes care of accounting, financials, he’s the guy who can make the numbers look good.
My mother in law is head of quality assurance and she works on samples. Once we perfect those samples we can take them out for production in Montreal. Everybody plays a key part.
What would you say is most enjoyable about what you do?
AICHA: Passion. As I was saying, my mom, she's taught me this passion. When I see her working so hard I see the passion through her. Bilal has always been into fashion, but he had to let go of that and work in his field. Alhamdulillah we had an opportunity where we had the right people in place, so my mom, myself, and Bilal as well.
BILAL: Like Aicha was saying, the best thing about this business is that not only is it a great viable business, it makes money and its expanding, it is also our passion. We’re not savvy entrepreneurs like 'hey! Let's make a business because it makes money' we also really love and enjoy what we’re doing. The fact that we can work long hours and our direct effort is directly correlated to the success of the company, it’s amazing. We don’t have to work for someone and further their goal, you’re working for yourself and that’s probably the best part.
What were some of the major challenges you faced on bringing Mode-ste up on its feet?
BILAL: One of the challenges I would say generally is the amount effort you have to put in, you’re not just doing a 9 to 5 and then waiting for a pay check. The success of what you’re doing depends directly on you. There's more added pressure, but then again that’s actually a positive, if you look at it the other way there’s this pressure to make your baby, or your company grow. I guess that would be a challenge which is a positive in and of itself. Another challenge is just being consistent and persistent, that’s a huge deal in our religion, is to do things with consistency so once you’ve mastered that I feel like you can get anywhere no matter what you’re working on.
Have you any collaborations coming up?
BILAL: We have some that are inshaAllah ready for 2017, which is, inshaAllah going to be a really big year for us with the momentum of Dragons Den and the national press and media, so those we, unfortunately, can't share right now, but what we can say is that we’re a company that is focused on innovation and we want to bring something new to the table, we don’t want to just make nice clothes and take nice photos, we want to make beautiful creative content whether that’s videography or photography or documentaries. We want to work with inspiring people so inshaAllah you can expect a lot from 2017.
Mode-ste ship worldwide and have multiple stockists so be sure to grab yourself a piece!
Author: Aaliyah Green