Interview with Roula Dfouni

“ I choose to be a brand”

“ I can cry at the movies and lead a successful business team!”

“I never fit anywhere”

Mouth water yet? These are only a few snippets, shamelessly taken out of context, to tease your artistic palate. Dive into our candid and unabashedly passionate interview with jewelry designer Roula Dfouni. When you’re done, you’ll learn how a Lebanese designer can have a deliberate- almost military- career development strategy but refuse to be enslaved by the industry’s Do’s and Don’t’s; how a woman can be a “brand” but be disarmingly down–to-earth and true to herself in the same breath and how a person can travel the world but still have an unwavering passion for the country she grew up in. 

If you can’t wrap your head around the non-contradiction contradictions that make up Roula Dfouni; if this introduction seems far-fetched, then read on… only so we can tell you we told you so. 

SoBeirut: Let’s start with the future, shall we? You are about to launch your latest collection, Drift, in Paris. What was the inspiration for that collection and why the name Drift?

Roula Dfouni (RD): I was passing through a change in my life and I wanted to show this in my collection. There is also an added Mediterranean element to the Drift designs that was not present in my previous collections.

SoBeirut: You seem to be quite drawn to geometric shapes, which you have included in many of your contemporary designs. What inspires your creative process?

RD: Yes, I am attracted to contemporary architecture and interior design. I can be inspired by anything, really. Be it nature or landscapes, a building or a pattern, my inspiration is always drifting (smile).

SoBeirut: Do you design for a particular woman? Who wears Roula Dfouni jewelry?

RD: First and foremost, Roula Dfouni! (Laugh). The women who wear my jewelry are a little bit like me: strong, independent yet soft and romantic too. I think people expect women to fit neatly into “boxes” and that’s not real life! I can cry at the movies and lead a multi-national business team. There’s no contradiction in that.

I will say this though: my customers are not the traditional Lebanese Fashionistas. If I had to generalize – which I hate doing- I would say they tend to be the “artistic” type, a mix of designers, architects and foreigners and anyone who dares to wear something different and…big! My designs are not for wallflowers and they’re not trendy. I never follow trends.

SoBeirut: It is no secret your career took a sharp turn towards jewelry design. Tell us more about how you started. How did the businesswoman morph into an artist?

RD: Mine was not a conventional path but I like talking about where I started. I can’t forget it is what has brought me here.  I wasn’t expecting to end up where I did! You see, I drifted in my work too (smile- this has become our insiders joke). Having earned a management degree from the Universite Saint Joseph, I worked in the field of business for 15 years and I loved it, but I was also drawn to the world of interior design. That world was not as well developed back then as it is now and I worried about ending up in a desk job. Ultimately, I landed a job at a big event company in Lebanon, Caractere, and stayed with them for 10 years. It was an eye-opening experience that taught me a lot. As an event planner, you learn to push yourself, to constantly come up with new ideas and think on your feet. Working with them and studying at the same time was a challenge that I relished; I have to admit I’m a workaholic. Back then, there were no weekends, no vacations and only full weekdays.

SoBeirut: And now??

RD: I’m trying to do better (smile)

SoBeirut: It seems to us that all that hard work has paid off. Once you had ventured into jewelry design, how did you break through?

RD: Well, I had always loved working with my hands, making crafts and sewing, for example. I started making jewelry by doing collages. I would choose pictures of geometric figures, do a collage of them and before I knew it I would have a ring or pendant on my hands. Of course, my technique evolved over time: the collage was substituted by material and the pictures were no longer needed.

SoBeirut: Any regrets along the way?

RD: Yes: never gotten the chance to learn design from the beginning. I’m sure it would have helped a lot…for when, you know, I’m stuck. But I don’t dwell on the past and I don’t regret my course. When I was young, I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I am not ashamed to say it: I was getting to know myself, exploring a different world and I am very glad I did!

SoBeirut: We are glad you did too! Where can we find your designs?

RD: In Lebanon, you can find them at Odd Fish, a funky concept store in the Beirut Port area and at Boutique Diane Ferjane in Mar Mikhael. Diane is a fashion designer and a friend; she makes contemporary clothes with an arabesque flare; we really fit together.

I also have my eye on a couple of other shops but they’re not used to working with Lebanese designers; I’m hoping to change that! You know, it’s not as easy as you would think to find the right places for the right designs.

SoBeirut: And you have stores outside of Lebanon too…

RD: Yes, in Paris, KSA, Hong Kong and Tokyo as of next month, hopefully.

SoBeirut: Not your typical line-up for a Beirut-based designer! Can you explain?

RD: It was Tranoi, one of the best “Salon de Professionnels” in Europe that has opened these markets for me. It is mostly visited by Japanese, Italian and French professionals. It’s strange to think about it; I never thought I would exhibit there when I first started, let alone be spotted by the Asian market! About 3 years ago, I came to a professional turning point: I was stuck in a creating-selling loop and I decided it was time to either go big or go home. That’s when I set my sights on Tranoi and here we are. Let me tell you, it was a nerve-racking experience. Here I was, In Paris, alone, surrounded by strangers. I was used to showcasing my designs in local fair around Lebanon; this certainly felt like the big leagues.

SoBeirut: Not in Kansas anymore…

RD: Certainly not (smile). I was freaking out- excuse my French- I was approached by anonymous professionals-they don’t tell you who they are-who ask direct questions and put you on the spot. The interaction with Asian on-lookers was especially unfamiliar: communicating via interpreter, wondering what were the norms of their business culture and having to spell my name and explain its pronunciation (laugh).

SoBeirut: I’m having painful flashbacks of my first-ever job interview…

RD: (Laugh) yes it was awkward, but fortunately the second time around was smoother. My nerves were in check by then and I think they sensed I was more confident. I believe having been invited to return is somewhat viewed as a rite of passage in Tranoi: it tells would-be clients that you are serious, that you will showcase something new every time, that you are not a one-time wonder so-to-speak. From then on, you take orders, you go back home and you wait…and wait…and wait.

SoBeirut: We’re sure waiting is only a small part of the game. Give us the run-down on a typical day for you.

RD: A usual weekday for me starts very early, around 7.30 to 8am and ends around 4-5pm. This is the best schedule for me as a working mother; I have a 7-year old son. I split my work hours between time at the office, doing research, and time away from the desk, meeting with manufacturers, consultants and potential investors.

SoBeirut: Have you faced any challenges setting up your business in Lebanon, as a woman and as a player coming in “late” in the game?

RD: (Laugh) definitely! From a personal perspective, it was the first time in my life that I found myself left to my own devices with no one to guide me: I had to set my own priorities and schedule. I would give myself tasks to complete; I wasn’t used to being my own engine.

Also, as you said, as a woman, it was difficult to start in Lebanon. People don’t take you seriously. I remember this one meeting where a potential investor told me point-blank “ if it doesn’t work out, you can go back home and your husband will pay the loan!”  Let me tell you, I had to exercise a lot of self-restraint during that meeting (Laugh). Needless to say, that was the end of that investor!

SoBeirut: Looks like he missed out…

RD: (Smile)

SoBeirut: What advice would you give an up-and-coming jewelry designer?

RD: I have given this a lot of thought since I was invited to sit on a product design discussion    panel at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA). The personal interaction with the students, their eagerness to learn and their enthusiasm triggered the idea of conducting design workshops for next generation designers. I thought: I didn’t have anyone to help me navigate the business of design so why not share what I have learned with others? 

Design students usually focus on creating their product but they tend to forget that breaking through in this world is not just about being creative; there are many behind-the-scenes aspects that can make or break you. The legal, financial, promotional and research parts of the design business are just as crucial for success as the creative voice is. That’s what I would like for them to remember.

SoBeirut: What’s next for Roula Dfouni?

RD: First and foremost, I would like to open a showroom in Beirut. I am also working on expanding my reach and exhibiting internationally beyond Paris, namely, in London, Berlin and Japan. Lastly, I plan to escalate the promotion part of my business, through hiring a PR agent and developing a clear-scoped marketing strategy. This is such an important part of building any business and one that is all-too-often overlooked.

SoBeirut: Speaking of marketing, you do very well at promoting yourself on social media; is that something you personally take care of?

RD: I initially had help from a well-known Lebanon-based marketing company, Eastline Marketing.  They helped with setting up my website and managing my Facebook and Instagram posts but the feel is always mine. I make sure to be actively involved in the image projected through my social media feeds. I know my customers and I think it’s very important to meet both their off-line and online expectations. It’s not just about “Likes” or “Comments”.

SoBeirut: It all comes down to identity, doesn’t it?

RD: Absolutely… and I chose to be a brand. You can restrict yourself to being a designer but I chose to be both.

SoBeirut: Do you sometimes find it hard to dissociate Roula Dfouni, the person from Roula Dfouni, the brand? How close are you, as a person, to the image you project?

RD: Not very (Smile)…I only discovered that after working closely with a fashion consultant this past year. For example, I find it difficult to sell myself aggressively. If I like you, I will hang out with you. If I don’t, I won’t. But shhhhh….don’t tell my brand that.

SoBeirut: (Laugh) It will be our secret! Since we’re on the topic of secrets, what’s your secret to loving Lebanon as you do? With your success, you could be based anywhere in the world but you chose to be here. Why Lebanon?

RD: I have traveled a lot in the past couple of years and I have met people from different places around the world: I won’t say we are unique or the best but Lebanon is my home and to me, that is everything. I grew up here, my favorite people are here, my favorite places are here and my memories are here. It may seem strange but I don’t find that warm familiar feeling anywhere else. When I travel, I do my best to immerse myself in the local culture; I hate hotels; I usually rent a place and live as much like a local as I possibly can, but I have never felt at home anywhere but Lebanon.

SoBeirut: What are your favorite places in the country?

RD: I love it here! I love Beirut; I love to go to Hamra: I remember where my dad used to take me and where my sister and I used to walk. I like going to Mar Mikhael, browsing the shops and greeting people. I love our nightlife: there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world and trust me, I’m a party freak!

SoBeirut: That’s a refreshingly positive attitude to have around these necks of the wood…

RD: I guess I’m just a very positive person; I don’t dwell on “bad stuff” and drive myself crazy anticipating worst-case scenarios. Perhaps it’s because my parents did a great job providing me and my four siblings with everything we needed, even during the war. I was lucky enough never to feel like I wanted for anything, even during those terrible times. As a result, I can honestly say I had a great childhood. Why would I leave now?! 

I get asked about leaving for Canada all the time- my son is Canadian. I confess I’m usually bewildered: he is Lebanese too! And let me tell you, his character is so very Lebanese; he is skiing in Faraya as we speak…did I mention he’s 7? (Laugh) In all seriousness, I want to give him as much as I can from Lebanon and then he can choose to live anywhere he likes.

SoBeirut: We have to ask you one more question that’s been gnawing at us, now that we’ve gotten to know each other better: what’s the deal with the deer head on your website?

RD: The mask? The mask has a story (Smile). I don’t like prejudice: judging individuals based on their external appearance, place of birth, religion... In fact, that’s the one thing I dislike most about Lebanon. There seems to be an unwritten rule that says: you have to fit in or you’re out. That has always been a struggle for me: I never fit anywhere.  Even now, I have friends from all sects, religions, social backgrounds and sexual orientation.

The mask was a message to say that whoever you are you can wear my jewelry; and it will look good on you (Smile).

SoBeirut: Is there a question you would like to answer that we didn’t ask you?

RD: Not at all! On the contrary!

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