There was a buzz at the sewing unit in Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs in Dubai. The students, in their late teens and early 20s, were busy putting the finishing touches to dresses and handbags that were to go on show before a select audience in Dubai.
While all of these young people have special needs, not even the closest examination of their work would give a potential buyer the slightest inkling of this fact. From the selection of material and accessories to the cutting and stitching, everything about their creations look extremely professional.
- Former student, Chantal, manages the Smiles n’ Stuff shop at Al Noor.
One of the students, 20-year-old Sarah, pointed at an intricate piece of embroidery on a pretty maroon jalabiya (a flowing, kaftan-like women's garment) that was set to go on sale at the ‘Hands & Hearts' fashion event on November 1. Her excitement was palpable as she gently touched the lovely embellishments. After all, it was the product of many hours of her own work - although anyone looking at it would not imagine that it was created by a girl who has severe visual impairment.
"All our children love art, it's a way of expressing themselves," says Isphana Al Khatib, director of Al Noor centre. "The wonderful pictures hanging on the walls of the centre's corridors are all done by our students."
This is not the first time that Al Noor students have made clothes and accessories for sale. A shop on the school premises called Smiles n' Stuff sells dresses, T-shirts and knick-knacks made by students at the school.
It was this fountain of creativity at the centre that led Asil Attar, CEO of MAF Fashion (the apparel-retailing arm of Majid Al Futtaim Ventures, which operates retail brands such as Jane Norman and Juicy Couture across the UAE), to partner with Al Noor and create a platform to showcase the skills of its students.
The result was the ‘Hands & Hearts' initiative, which culminated in a fashion event and auction of items made by the students. Around 500 high-profile guests made the event a huge success when it took place on November 1 this year at the Al Noor centre in Al Barsha.
"We've been collaborating with Al Noor Centre for a long time, and knew they were looking for a partner to highlight the abilities of the special needs children," says Asil.
"When I first saw the children's work I was so excited. The students are so skilled in every aspect - they have workshops for screen-printing, sewing, stitching and so on - and I decided I wanted to promote them in a fashion environment."
The students' approach is very collaborative, says Isphana: "The finished products are not the work of one person. Before starting on a project we task-analyse. If we take a product, a handbag for instance, there are certain steps that are simple, certain steps that require more skill, and there are certain steps that require a high degree of skill. But all these steps are necessary to ensure that the final product is good. After we task-analyse, we then see which children are capable of doing what, and they are assigned their jobs. So, it is a collective effort."
Asil says she was impressed with their teamwork. "I wanted to do something together that would really focus the children's learning and also help to bring about awareness of their abilities, because they are so talented. I wanted to involve them in a business programme, either working in our head office or in retail, to make them independent."
Asil continues: "In the six months we have been working on this particular initiative we've designed an entire collection, including a Juicy Couture limited-edition tote bag, a range of clutch handbags, the newly launched IT'SUGAR-branded T-shirts, and a limited-edition range of luxury jalabiyas."
For Asil and MAF Fashion it has been a process of discovery too. "It has been a very interesting journey," says Asil. "The focused effort of the children has been unbelievable; we gave them quite challenging tasks, with specific requests regarding the colours we wanted and the kind of bead-work required. They delivered as any artist would in a regular working environment. The most rewarding aspect is that they are so proud of each piece. Even if they are not aware of the larger initiative we are trying to work with, they are definitely aware of the event, they are definitely excited about what they've done and really proud of their skills."
Hands n' Hearts is more than just a one-off initiative. Al Noor and MAF Fashion are looking at a long-term training and development programme, which will focus on offering soft-skills training as well as technical training for the students. "We want the children to be able to integrate into a regular working environment," says Asil. "We will identify students who want employment at our head office, on our buying team, or on smaller work projects in the office or in-store. Our goal is to give them independence and empower them.''
The students are excited as well. "I just love working here," says Chantal, 23, an Al Noor alumnus who runs the Smiles n' Stuff shop on the school premises. Would she be interested in working with the MAF Fashion programme? "Maybe!" she beams.
The initiative will make a difference not only in the lives of the Al Noor students. For MAF Fashion staff, it will mean a shift in thinking as well as working. "We will be training our teams to be able to integrate with the children,' says Asil. "So it will work both ways.
"This will be a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative and will be implemented from January next year," says Asil.
"The children's training would be anything from six to eight months, depending on how long they need.
"We want to give the children a skill-set that enables them to be successful at any job. The idea is to have them really understanding retail - the mechanics behind the process of a product being made right up to it being put on the shelf."
There are no doubts about the quality of the line of products madeby Al Noor children: "We keep in mind the fact that people should want to buy them because they are good products, as opposed to buying them to support special needs children," says Isphana.
Al Noor's vocational training units, which include the screen-printing and sewing units, have been functioning for more than 20 years.
The school operates two Smiles n' Stuff outlets, one at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi, and another on the school premises.
"We are looking at setting up shops in some of the malls," says Isphana. Eventually, Isphana wants her students to become self-sufficient and operate the Smiles n' Stuff outlets themselves. She says: "Society needs to be aware that such children are able to participate. Yes, they have limitations, but the way we harness their abilities is what makes the difference."
Making a difference
Who: MAF Fashion and Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs
What: Special needs children design and produce limited-edition handbags, T-shirts, and luxury jalabiyas. MAF Fashion will provide employment for the children in futureWhere: Dubai, UAE