I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Layan Al-Dabbous; the young, community-focused designer behind the Instagram famous Claudette the Brand. She had a lot to say about social-focused fashion, mental health struggles, and creating communities for other creatives.
Layan, I saw that you created Claudette while you were in class, was Claudette a random doodle, or was she inspired by someone or something? Is there significance in the way she looks?
So it literally was a completely random doodle. I had just gotten accepted into the New School here in New York and I was taking a Media Design class. They were saying they wanted us to play around with the Adobe Software. I was on Illustrator and just playing around with the tools and I just drew the character out and I when I saw it, for some reason, it resonated with me straight away. I thought it was really cool. A friend of mine was sitting next to me and I asked, “Doesn’t she look cool? This little character?” It resonated with her as well.
In my apartment, I have this pink surfboard. I grabbed one of my graffiti cans and just drew her on the surfboard and sat back and looked at it. That’s just how that happened. I ended up doodling her with a beret on so that’s how the name Claudette came about. I’m not French, I’m Kuwaiti and ¼ British. I don’t even speak French, I just drew her with a beret and said: “She has to be called Claudette.” It just kind of happened that way. But yeah, a random doodle.
Why is Claudette crying in some versions but not in others? Is there significance in her tears?
So Claudette has always looked sad, even in the first doodle without the tears. People were like “Why does she look angry?” She’s not supposed to look angry, she’s just sassy. It’s not supposed to be anger.
I think she’s crying in the later ones because a lot of the messages and the artwork that I was doing were things like, “I miss you.” And then I made some of the clothing say things like “You never call,” “You never check on your friends.” The underlying message behind those was kind of related to mental health and things that I had struggled with. When I talk to people who come to my pop-ups, they’re always like, “When I was in high school, I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks.” Slowly, throughout the years, I’ve realized that through communication you can heal wounds from the past and things like anxiety.
That’s where the tears came from. It was probably pain I had that was portrayed through the character and to also show people that it’s okay if you’re sad or going through whatever you’re going through.
Is Claudette the last stop for you? Do you see yourself creating other brands and labels unrelated to Claudette?
Right now, Claudette is all I’m focusing on. People have been like “It’d be really funny if you created a guy character named Pierre and they fall in love.” So the thing is, there’s so much that I could do with this character and this platform that I’m creating.
I think for right now, with the brand, I mainly want to concentrate on the sweaters, hoodies, and kind of baggy look because there’s a message with it. If I were to do anything, I would stick to Claudette and maybe add characters, but I don’t see myself venturing out or leaving her behind. I want to fully focus on this platform I’m trying to create.
Do you think these characters would venture into other areas of fashion outside of streetwear?
I’ve always been a tomboy ever since I was young. I was always in hoodies and sweats so Claudette is very close to my style. People always say “Well, why don’t you dress more girly?” I just don’t understand why we’re always supposed to be in this box of “Dress this way, look this way” Or “Okay, why don’t you wear something more revealing?” I’ve never understood that.
But, yeah! That’s so possible. Pierre could maybe have a more refined look. There’s so much possibility there. There’s hype around Claudette now, so I really want to get her message out before anyone else comes into the picture. I think we could definitely create a story with the characters that way, with different styles in the future.
It seems like a lot of work goes into making hand-crafted hoodies. What all goes into that?
It does! It is time-consuming for sure. I make each one with the same amount of love and work because I don’t want any of them to be half-assed or anything. It does take time, but the end result is worth it and everyone ends up loving them.
What are the kids tired of?
I’m from the Middle East. I love where I’m from and I love Kuwait but back home to be an artist or fashion designer– people don’t take those things so seriously. It’s not considered a show of success, if you go into the arts. It’s either like, be an engineer or go into business. It’s not anyone’s fault and it’s just how the culture has been generation after generation.
I decided no, and was like, “You know what? It’s time to break out of this box.” I don’t understand why there are all these rules. Maybe it’s because I am a Gemini, but I have always been rebellious. I think everyone should do what they want to do. Why does society care so much?
I think this [holds true] specifically back home but also on a global level. This is why the kids are tired. We’re tired of all these boundaries and it’s time to break out and do what we want to do. If you’re not feeling well, talk about it. If you want, talk about your sexuality or whatever it is you want to talk about– I just want everyone to have their own freedom. We are the ones who can make this change now. That’s the idea behind why the kids are tired. I really want to inspire. I really, really want to inspire kids from back home, but also on a global level.
When I did my pop-up in London, so many kids came up to me and told me, “We applied to this school for art and did this thing.”, “We love the message”. I thought, “Okay, if I’m affecting these three guys that came up to me then there is definitely something here.” I hope as it expands that I’m able to highlight this message even more.
How do you determine which messages will resonate with your audience?
Right now, it’s definitely been things that I have gone through and I like to push that. When I did the clothing that said, “You Never Call” and “Check on Your Friends”, it’s because I’ve felt like that. In high school and college, I was always bubbly and seemed like there was nothing wrong with me. I think people figure that the kids that are super happy and have their shit together, are okay and there’s nothing wrong with them. That’s why “You Never Call” is a message for looking at the person that seems strongest in your group, because you never know what they might be going through. You should check on everyone.
I think recently, and actually, since I’ve started, it’s been very personal. As I advance and hear more stories and issues that people are dealing with– I’m happy to shine a light on any of those things. I definitely want to use this platform for good but I always want to do it in a cool way.
I noticed on your Insta that Claudette has a ‘No Smoking’ message, but later in the feed, there’s a photo of her smoking while painting her nails. Where do you stand on the smoking/non-smoking issue?
So the ‘No Smoking’ was supposed to be ironic in the beginning. In the sense that, we have the ‘No Smoking’ thing, and we put it on cigarette boxes. I feel like people are always so serious with the message and it doesn’t seem to get through, so we thought if we added an aspect of irony and humor and were kind of making fun of it [it would resonate more].
When I was a kid my dad was a heavy smoker and he almost got lung cancer. So that was also a very scary thing. When I first started with the brand, I knew that I wanted to have an underlying positive message throughout it all. In the beginning, I was trying to find my footing because that scare with my dad was very close to my heart.
That’s kind of where that came from, but it was confusing people a little and I wasn’t sure if they were getting the irony behind it. I appreciate the people who got it though.
What is the brand doing in conjunction with spreading awareness?
Right now, the main thing I’ve been doing is getting people to come and speak at my pop-ups. I’ll be there and be that friend that people can come and talk to and its been really successful. People come and talk through things and I’m kind of like a hypebeast therapist.
Ultimately, I do want to give back and I’m working with people now to find organizations to partner with. I’m thinking of doing talks, but these are all things that are in the works. A friend of mine will be doing a course around Saudi Arabia in the summer and I will join her and have merch. We will also talk about mental health and the reasons why it’s such a serious matter, especially in the Middle East, where there aren’t a lot of places you can turn to for that.
I think with all this technology and how we’re all so consumed in media [mental health] issues have been on the rise. It’s crucial that people talk about it and so many people are talking about it now which is great! I think it’s really good.
What messages do you see yourself tackling in the next five years?
I think something that’s really important is the #MeToo movement and how powerful it is. It is so important to air things like that out and allow people to speak up. It’s so powerful. There’s actually a Kuwaiti blog that I follow where they allow people to send anonymous messages regarding things to do with sexual assault and putting those stories out there for other girls and guys to see and know that they aren’t alone.
Do you think it’s fashion’s job to discuss and change social issues?
Yeah, for sure. That’s the whole reason why I, and I’m sure other people, want to have a platform. As a person who left the Middle East, came to study in America, and is trying to reach her goals and all of that; I think its almost a duty to use this platform for good. To say I’m going to change this or change that, is intimidating and slightly overwhelming, but I definitely think trying is the important part. I feel like kids listen to kids. I’m here and I’m relatable; these are things I’ve been through, these are the issues that still need to be changed, so hear me out. I think the more we start talking about things, the more we can save the world.
What do you want other young designers and creatives to gleam from your journey?
I want people to be inspired at the end of the day. I want them to know that when it comes to big dreams and aspirations you can feel so small and kind of like “How am I going to be able to do that?” Honestly, I wasn’t helped in any way. I came to New York, and took the first steps. I don’t know if you believe in manifesting and law of attraction, but I think that it’s so helpful. I said I’m going to do this, it’s going to be successful, and I took the first steps. The universe helps you and makes things happen.
I want to inspire other young creatives and let them know to literally take that first step. As cliche as it sounds, it works. If you’re passionate enough about it, you will get somewhere. Just try.