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DHAHRAN: On an ordinary night in November 2020, Lina Malaika and Farah Hammad had a life-changing conversation.
Amid the global pandemic, the couple decided to embark on a business partnership that they hoped would uplift their communities and chart a new path for them in business.
Both women are established in their own right: Malaika has been in the creative industry for over a decade as a director, designer and entrepreneur; and Hammad is a fashion designer with a keen eye for color and texture and a repertoire that spans multiple continents.
“Basically, me and Lina are talent agents – Clay is the name under us. We’re not an agency yet — that’s the plan. Hopefully we get investors and become a real agency. But for now, we are two talent agents,” Hammad told Arab News.
It all started when they met in September 2020 and shortly after decided to start their business, Clay Models.
It was Malaika’s brainchild. She got her start at Destination Jeddah magazine a decade ago and later served as creative director at TheLoftMe, a creative studio based in her hometown in the Kingdom’s coastal city.
For each of these roles, she needed models for photo shoots and found it cumbersome and intimidating to constantly maintain a database for local models.
It was non-existent back then, she said, because many women still needed family approval to be photographed, and having their images in the media was still taboo in many ways.
Malaika then decides to study cinema in New York and fashion in London before returning home. She found that she was constantly faced with the same task of finding role models for each of her roles and decided to take matters into her own hands. She had a Rolodex of models but wanted it to be simpler.
“I always thought, I have what it takes… all I need is a partner because I can’t do it myself. Yes, I’m a creative person but I’m not necessarily a businesswoman,” Malaika said.
Hammad faced a similar hurdle every time she had a shoot for her fashion design company.
Raised in several countries, dividing her time between Jeddah, Europe and the United States, the globetrotter has a calm stability. Her caring and empathy for those around her feels like she is gathering thoughts and weaving them into the world with an invisible string. She is an actress.
Joining forces seemed to be the destiny of the two women.
“We are on the same page, we share more or less the same kind of mentality. So we really understood each other. I don’t remember exactly the conversation, but I told him that I had this idea of turning this database into a modeling agency.
“And I said to him ‘if you don’t do it with me, it’ll never happen because I’ve built so many ideas in my head and they never, ever come to life. I have like a shelf of unfinished ideas. We complement each other in this sense. She started instantly (and) she came to life. She created the website the next morning. No joke,” Malaika said.
“Honestly, I was scared and then a little skeptical because, for me, when I started my business, my relationships — it took years. So when she approached me about it, I was like, I’ll get back to you but I think it’s a yes. Then I was like you know what, I think this is going to be a great opportunity,” Hammad told Arab News.
Saudi Arabia was opening up so they decided to take the opportunity.
“It was during COVID, remember? Back then, there was this uncertainty in life and there was also a lot of “we are going to die”. And besides being a business, it was great for me, and I would say for Farah as well, as a coping tool because we were dealing with parallel personal transitions, and that helped us. It was kind of an escape,” Malaika said.
The name “Clay” was the first that came to Malaika. She wanted a “short, playful and versatile” name that was flexible like a block of clay that one is able to shape. It’s a word that could describe makeup, hair, clothes, or modeling.
“We had (a) lawyer who helped us with the contracts. We wanted the contract to be very flexible, just so that it was fair to everyone and didn’t get in the way of the model’s project and life. It was very important for us so that the model feels that they can trust us because we are not there to dominate, we want this relationship with our models and to maintain it, as well as with our customers, ”said Malaika at Arab News.
Modeling is generally more female, but Clay also has five male models.
One of them, Abdullah Ali, grew up in Riyadh and joined Clay after being on the scene independently. Its versatile look and aura of confidence allow it to pull off both urban and traditional looks perfectly.
“As a self-established role model, one of the hurdles I faced early in my career was the connection point between talent and client. Fortunately, Clay stepped up and became one of the leading modeling agencies in Saudi Arabia. Even though I had my clientele, working with Clay was a benefit in collectively raising local industry standards,” Ali told Arab News.
It was important to Clay to give customers options and not place any model in any category. Their website has a section for Saudi Arabia, international and male models, with all their specifications. They do not represent anyone under the age of 21.
“Keep in mind that before the new Saudi vision, most brands – all luxury brands – would shoot products dedicated to us in the GCC using foreign models. don’t represent, we don’t like it. And slowly brands started to notice, like, we need to talk to our customers.
“A lot of them started going to Dubai; it was not acceptable to have models shooting in Saudi Arabia. Brands eventually started wanting to use local models in Saudi Arabia, so again I want to emphasize that it was very important for us to start here – it was non-existent,” said Malaika.
While the models are known to be divas, they only met one model who misbehaved and disrespected the client by being late and having an attitude on set.
They have zero tolerance for unprofessional behavior and they refunded the client with an apology and the model was promptly fired after giving her a second chance, which she also abused. The brand has returned as a customer and this demonstrates its commitment to nurturing the relationship.
“They come back to us because of the kind of professionalism we offer and deliver,” Malaika said.
Although Clay’s founders still consider their company a startup, their excellent reputation in Jeddah and in the MENA digital space is evident.
Right now, Clay mostly exists in the cloud, literally. Both women have studios, so it’s possible to meet in a physical space, but most interactions are over the phone.
“We want to grow and we want to find more talent. (If we) can find more, we can find investors to grow…as if the sky is the limit,” Malaika said.
For anyone hoping to land a coveted spot at Clay, professionalism is a must, but an online presence is also key. In the world saturated with digital and social media, every budding model has the opportunity to open an Instagram account and share photos.
“It’s very important to have a portfolio. With stylists, designers, photographers, see what they look like behind the camera. They might not be photogenic. They should do research, watch YouTube videos of models, how they pose. For some it’s just a hobby and they don’t really take it seriously,” Hammad said.
Although they do most of the quality control assurance work, they have a few freelancers to help out when needed. So far, they have the same instincts when deciding whether to let a model join the Clay family and are yet to disagree on who to enroll.
They currently have 30 models in their books but are looking for more.
The women say they don’t do it for the glory but to fill a void and serve as a platform to elevate the industry.
“Other agencies take a percentage off the model’s rate, we don’t do that, we add our percentage to the model’s rate. The model pays us to do the dirty work, as if we were their agents. We simplify the customer’s life because everything is done, he has nothing to manage. All they do is book… So everyone is happy. It’s a win-win situation for the models, for us and for the customer. It’s like a perfect recipe,” Malaika said.