Asil Attar, Damas Jewellery's first female CEO in 100 years
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Iraq and of mixed heritage: Iraqi and Indian. I left Iraq when I was about two years old and was brought up between the UK and the US. My parents left the Middle East in the 1950s and moved to the US. They later returned briefly at the time when I was born and eventually settled in the UK.
I attended American curriculum schools in the UK and graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Interior Design. I'm proud to have built a successful career in fashion, luxury, retail, and business—working incredibly hard throughout my 30-year journey.
I'm known as the Hybrid. The first half of my career was spent working in creative roles—as a buyer, creative director, and brand director. I worked the second half of my career as a transformational leader in senior executive roles, for the later 11 years as CEO of fashion groups in the Middle East. My role as CEO has gained me a reputation for turning businesses around and restructuring them, introducing new visionary strategies and bringing positive change. I would describe my leadership style as transformational and people-centred. I focus on my teams and engage my business emotionally on the journey, leaving a lifetime impact.
What does success mean to you?
Success is reaching a position with positive influence—leaving a legacy through transferring knowledge to other people and creating social impact.
What is your secret sauce?
Hard work, passion, humility—leading and driving everything through my ethics and values: this is uncompromisable and must be with me all the time.
What are you passionate about?
I'm definitely passionate about making a difference to people's lives, knowing that with the roles that I have gained come with a huge responsibility. I ensure that I'm mindful of each and every decision that I make, which affects other people; therefore, people are always on top of my mind.
Another passion of mine is to enable others to follow their dreams—to inspire, motivate and empower them. Each one of us is unique and has something special to offer. You just have to bring their confidence to the forefront for them to realise that and in turn, this will eventually bring out their passion.
You have had a lot of firsts, but what does it mean to be the first female CEO of Damas Jewellery in over 100 years?
I'm very proud of my achievements, especially as a female, championing empowerment and representing the potential of women. Having said that, I am passionate about empowering men and women as we all serve an example for each other.
My achievements are the outcome of my hard work, passion, drive and continually being aware that we are constantly learning no matter what position we reach, which pushes me to keep going.
Despite their potential, many women don’t see themselves as future CEOs. Why do you think this is so?
The fact that a small single-digit representation of women in senior roles or on the board is a key factor; this, however, should motivate women more. It is up to us to change the mindset that we can't do it. We must see ourselves as capable of achieving anything we set our minds to.
Without women driving this mindset, change will not happen. There are thousands of women that will follow, and it's up to us to unite and empower them to do so.
What would you say are some of the best strategies to promote diversity in the workplace?
I always had a diverse workplace and I have hired people with different ethnicities and cultures. I represented a mini melting pot. It isn't something that is a strategy. It is part of who I am, how I was raised, my respect for humanity, and my stance that we are all capable no matter what. Promoting diversity in the workplace is an innate part of my leadership style and is definitely natural.
What is your advice to the next generation of female CEOs?
Remember that it took you hard work and a great deal of effort to reach the position that you are in. Stay true to yourself, be humble and understand that you are an example which everyone is looking up to. Ensure that you use your status to promote positive change and impact, as well as inspire others, especially women.
You have given a lot of years to the fashion industry and seen its growth over time. How would you describe the future of fashion?
Fashion is an evolving field. I have been fortunate enough to survive three recessions and four amazing decades. Experiencing recession has taught me so much.
One thing I do know that whilst we are currently going through an unusual and unprecedented global impact, this will bring many innovative and creative thinkers to the table, as well as game-changers that will question the past and look for a brighter, optimistic future.
I believe that with so many people's priorities and focuses on reshifting, consumers are looking for unique, relatable, ethical, well-made products, and not simply fast fashion. They want the story-telling—the experience—to know who made the products and how they are made. This means that there will be a great shift towards ethical and sustainable products.
This pandemic has propelled this trend to the forefront; whilst in the past, getting companies to champion sustainability in fashion churned slowly.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
I know its cliché, but cherish every moment. It goes by as fast as a flash. Remember, even though you think you know everything, you actually don't.
Name 2 books you recommend and why
I don't read much 'cause I literally don't have the time. The only book I read is the Quran, that is what I make time for. My religion is the most important thing to me, grounding me and directing me.
Who inspires you with awe and why?
My mother and father inspire me so much. They were teenagers when they took a decision to leave Iraq and venture into the big wide world.
My father worked incredibly hard and was a pioneer of solar energy in the 1970s. We grew up understanding the importance of the environment and respect for nature. He was so humble, charitable, uncompromisable in his ethics, and he never accepted wrong—no matter who or what. He taught me to stand up for my beliefs and support others that were less fortunate, to do good and live a life of integrity.
My mother was beautiful and creative. She taught me everything about fashion, colour, and art. She ensured that I would learn to read and write Arabic, even though we lived away from our home country. She was an empowered, strong woman, hardworking while taking care of her family.
My parents were both unwell from an early age and I never quite got to see them in their prime state. Despite that, they remained passionate, beautiful, and strong—inspiring and helping others. May they rest in peace.
What are your top two strategies for dealing with difficult situations?
For many years, working with thousands of people and being responsible for many, I have learned that you must think before you react. You must never handle situations when you are in the heat of the moment. Stay calm, be open-minded and be honest. My style is holding brutal but positive conversations, focusing on the solution instead of the problem itself.
How do you look after your mental health?
I am also known as the Turban Thinker because of the different heads that they claim I have under my turban. I have a blessed ability to multi-task and think in many different ways. However, this is mentally challenging for me: controlling my thoughts and managing the speed of my work.
My faith is the foundation of my mental wellbeing. I pray, read the Quran, and ensure that a couple of hours at the start and end of the day is for some alone time.
What’s that one quote you live by?
My greatest gift is possessing the ability to see the spark of potential in everything and everyone, and to inspire others to see it too. This is a paradigm I live by.
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