Arts and Entertainment | Style

Alum Miriam Rahali sews beads of charity into resort-wear

This is the first interview Miriam Rahali, CC ’ 05, has given for the Columbia Daily Spectator without a tennis racket in hand. Since her college days, she has been a teacher, nonprofit ambassador, and now, fashion designer. Her first official collection of Marena y Sol—a resort-wear line—debuted at Miami Swim Week in July 2011 and is hitting stores now as the holiday season approaches. In December, Gilt Groupe is planning to offer the line at 60 to 70 percent off in one of its online sales.

Currently living between Newport Beach, California and Dubai, India and always on the go to many places in between, Rahali designed a line to fit her own traveling lifestyle. Revealing her Spanish roots, she chose to combine the Spanish words for “sea,” “sand,” and “sun” to form Marena y Sol. The line features colorful and embellished swimsuits, sarongs, tunics, and, most especially, caftans. “My family members always wore them when I was a child, so I have this very fond memory of women just gliding about effortlessly in caftans,” Rahali said.

How Rahali ended up giving an interview about fashion from a phone line in Dubai is a bit of a whirlwind story. She grew up in Kentucky and intended to be a professional tennis player. But by the end of high school, she was burnt out and, choosing education over sports, came to Columbia, where she still played tennis. This was at the age of 15. Her next stop was Harlem, where she taught for Teach For America for three years—while getting a master’s in teaching and a degree in fashion design at Parsons. “My favorite was beadwork and embroidery,” Rahali said. “I knew right then when I was taking that appliqué class that I would somehow, in some shape or form, be tied to beading when I started.”

Rahali then left New York to work in Paris for the Victor Pineda Foundation, which promotes disability awareness. Through the organization, she traveled to Dubai and returned to Newport with a suitcase full of bright and beaded caftans. The positive response from her friends propelled her fully into the fashion realm.

Rahali has a conscience, though, about being in what some would call a superficial business. She said, “I’ve always struggled with, having gone to Columbia and done Teach for America and all these things. How can I just put all that aside to focus on fashion, which at the end of the day, you know, I’m not shaping or changing lives? But it’s a total passion.” Rahali donates a portion of Marena y Sol’s proceeds to the organizations she’s worked for.

And while Rahali said her favorite part of her new job is choosing colors for the collection, the process has been far from pure whimsy. “I had to file all my LLC paperwork and everything … I’ve spent probably 97% of my time focusing on the business side,” she said.

Rahali sources fabrics for the line from all over the world and then works with craftsmen in Dubai to design the often elaborately beaded necklines for her pieces. “When you look at it, it’s like jewelry. It’s stunning,” she said. The clothes are manufactured in India.

Though jet-setting may be a few years off most Columbians’ radar, Rahali said she designed the clothes “for all the independent and free-spirited women…the woman who wants to look good, but doesn’t want to devote all her time spending and preparing and matching my necklace to my dress to what belt.”

The price point for the line ranges from $78 to $298, which is expensive on a student budget but moderate compared to some other high-end, resort-wear designers. At Miami Swim Week, she showed near designer Matthew Williamson. “We both loved the cobalt blue this season,” she said. “Mine retails at $298. His retailed for 899 pounds [$1418].”

So far, Rahali has found the response to be fairly positive. She said, “I’ve been very fortunate to have both Paris [Hilton] and Kim [Kardashian] wear the brand, so the exposure from people like US [Weekly] magazine…has been big.”

Though she is taking baby steps for now, Rahali ultimately wants to “create a brand that’s your one-stop shopping for your destination and holiday travel.” This includes adding sandals, bags, and hats.

Wearing different hats seems to be Rahali’s specialty, and it’s something she encourages more Columbia students to do. “I think the biggest mistake—and especially…when I see my students now when they’re in college—it’s going in and just focusing on one thing and just doing it, doing it, doing it,” she said. “You just never know where life will take you, but you just have to be open for it.”

Wherever she is taken next, Rahali will at least have a well-prepared wardrobe.

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