I had the ultimate pleasure of having a little (virtual) chat with Juliana Iskandar, just as promised in the last post. She was absolutely glorious and one of the best persons I’ve met, full of love and light and so much positivity (I’m absolutely in love with her we’re already best friends in my head).
We talked everything Gaya, how it’s shaped her and of course, her dreams for the future.
Hi Juliana! First of all, I must say it’s an honour – your granting this interview. Thank you once again. So here’s a run-down of the questions. 10 in all.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell my story.
1. When was the dream that was Gaya born? And what motivated you into actualising that dream?
It was the summer of 2013. Haha. This is starting to sound like a novel. But in all honesty, it was around the middle or summer of 2013. I had just returned from Qatar, at the end of 2012, after working there for 5 years as a Digital Marketer for Qatar Airways. After returning home to Singapore, I had this dream of starting up my own Digital Marketing agency and I was in the process of doing that when my uncle who owns a publishing company called CA Editorial (caeditorial.com) approached me asking if I would be interested in spearheading a local lifestyle magazine he had wanted to launch. Side note, CA Editorial has been in the business for years running trade magazines so GAYA was its first consumer magazine. I was intrigued and since I was in the midst of setting up my other business and had time on my hands, I figured I’d help him out.
The concept of GAYA was initially thought of as a lifestyle magazine primarily for the Singapore Muslim community – here as well as those living overseas. My initial idea was for it to be a platform to showcase new and emerging local entrepreneurs in our community big and small. We had a growing number of talented local entrepreneurs in our community that I felt needed some airtime. At that time, most publications that catered to this demographic was primarily written in the Malay language. But I wanted to do it in full on English to cater to the Muslims in our community who aren’t Malay. Side note – here in Singapore, Malays make up the majority of Muslims but there are also Indian Muslims, Chinese Muslims, Eurasian Muslims – and they don’t speak the Malay language. I, personally, am an Indian Muslim. My father is half Indian/Eurasian and is a revert so growing up, I barely spoke Malay. I learnt it in school but that was the extent of my Malay language skills. Although, I am getting better at it now.
With that in mind, we named the magazine GAYA which means Style in Malay to maintain its ethnicity and culture. It never dawned on us that GAYA could reach international status as it has now. For the first 3 months, we kept content pretty local until the third issue when I started getting emails from bloggers and writers from abroad who wanted to be a part of this growing community. I was hesitant as I had that initial concept in mind and I didn’t want to steer away from it but after much pondering and receiving more emails from abroad, I simply could not ignore that calling. So, I opened the doors and the rest, as they say, is history.
If you’re asking me what motivated me to actualizing the dream, I would have to say – the writers. These young, vibrant, spirited Muslim women from all around the world, with their stories to tell – whether it be fashion tips, their personal hijab stories, balancing their faith in a Western world – they motivated me to steer GAYA into a different, more impactful direction.
2. How did you prepare for a career that is two-fold – The Modest Fashion industry as well as a successful digital magazine setup?
The short answer would be- nothing. Nothing prepared me for this. As I said above, this was not where I planned my life going. I was content doing digital marketing and setting up my agency. I was not from a fashion background, although I do love fashion, I mean which girl doesn’t, but I wouldn’t say I am an authority in the fashion industry let alone the modest fashion industry. The digital magazine setup though, well, I have been in the IT industry for over 15 years (oh gosh, now you can calculate my age haha.). Right out of school, I started out as a computer programmer so technology, IT, digital, social media – that’s my life. It’s my bread and butter really, so going digital with the magazine was sort of a given. Plus, under CA Editorial, all their magazines run digitally as well. Then again, nothing prepared me for this.
3. How do you see Gaya changing over the years and how do you see yourself creating that change and by extension influencing the modest fashion industry?
On the surface, I see GAYA changing in terms of design. If you go back all the way to 2013, to our first issue and compare each issue till the most recent, you will see a drastic change in design. And that’s one of the main changes I see happening over the years. We are constantly changing and refreshing our design and layout to keep up with the changing times. And we love doing that.
Aside from the design, I also see content changing as well. Not changing drastically, but more evolving. When we started GAYA, content was like any other fashion magazine – style tips, fashion trends. But as time went on, and again if you look back and compare, you would see the direction of content change as well. We started adding more in-depth articles – from personal struggles to social issues – and here is where I see GAYA evolving. We push ourselves here to speak up about personal issues, social issues or issues that affect our Muslim community as a whole.
It all started, if my memory serves me well, around the third issue. I had this inner voice, this gut feeling that it wasn’t enough. We had style tips, fashion trends but GAYA was missing something – I call this, the ‘heart’. So, I penned a personal story – one of pain, torment and struggle and how I came out stronger after that. I poured my heart out into that piece and for the first time, put my name on it. Scary! From that article, we started receiving emails from Muslim women all over the world wanting to do the same, to share their stories – no matter how painful. And there it was – GAYA had found its heart. So, if you ask me how do I see myself creating the change this is how, I suppose. Usually from what I am going through personally or if I see someone close to me struggle and I think to myself “I’m sure there are women out there who are going through the same thing. How can my voice help?” And I know this has barely anything to do with modest fashion and perhaps it doesn’t. But what I believe we are doing here at GAYA, is using fashion, in this case modest fashion, as a vehicle to deeper conversations and to show the world the beauty and diversity of our Muslim women, whether hijabi or not, and hopefully changing the narrative about Islam and our sisters. As my late grandmother used to say We aren’t that all different. You got to read the next answer to see where I’m going with this. Haha.
I honestly don’t see myself influencing the modest fashion industry. I don’t think I have that power. Haha! But one of my main goals with GAYA is to forge an understanding that there is a difference between modest fashion and Muslim fashion – personally I don’t really like the term Muslim fashion but I guess that’s the easiest term I can use. Basically, modest fashion is for all women regardless of faith. It simply is a way for women who don’t wish to show too much skin, to dress and feel comfortable. Modesty is subjective and it is interpreted differently by the woman wearing the garment. Whether you’re Muslim or not, hijabi or not, modest fashion sees no distinction, it is all inclusive.
4. How has Gaya affected your personal life and choices – obviously, a lot of thought pieces, opinion, fashion and lifestyle articles has passed through your desk from different people in different walks of life. Has this affected your own personal opinions and principles in any way?
Oh, definitely it has changed my life. The amazing stories that have passed through my desk have opened my eyes and my heart. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have always looked at things from a different lens. My personal principles have not changed but they have evolved. My personal principles stem from my amazing grandmother whom I recently lost. She was my fathers mother, was Eurasian by race and Catholic – and my best friend. She raised me when I was young while my parents were out at work. I tell everyone that for the first 12 years of my life, I lived in a very Catholic home with statues of Jesus and Mother Mary hanging on the walls, and going to church. OK, wait. Before anyone goes astagfirullah, they didn’t bring me to church to convert me. They just couldn’t leave me alone at home. But at that young age, it opened my eyes to a different world – a world with different colours, culture, faiths. Even though she brought me to church and taught me to play the church organ, she always taught me about my own faith and what I can and cannot do or eat. She made sure I was raised Muslim. During Ramadan, she would prepare Sahoor and Iftar for me and eat with me so I didn’t feel alone. She taught me about Lent, which is when Catholics would fast. At that young age, I saw the subtle differences and similarities of faiths, and how they were beautiful in their own way. It taught me empathy, respect, appreciation, love. I once asked her why she loved me even though we were different and her response, I will never forget to this day, “Are we really different? You have my eyes, my nose, my smile, you have my blood flowing through you and if you cut us, we would bleed the same colour. Now you tell me, is that different?”
OK I know you didn’t ask me what my personal principles were but I had to set the stage. Haha! GAYA has changed my life in ways that I cant quite put into words. It has evolved my principles, heightened my senses, opened my eyes to deeper issues. I have had writers tell me how much GAYA has changed their lives and they thank me for that. But truthfully, it is them to have changed my life and I thank our writers every day.
5. How important is communication between you and the contributors for the magazine? What sorts of things do you do to prepare yourself for an upcoming issue?
It is extremely important for me to maintain communication with our contributors. As I said above, they have changed my life and honestly GAYA wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. I am truly and eternally grateful for each and every contributor for putting their trust in us to tell their story. And for me building the community of strong, vibrant, Muslim women who love and support each other, is my ultimate goal. But I do have to say though that it gets hard sometimes to maintain communication because of the time zones – were in Singapore for those who don’t know and there are many who don’t. Also, I still run my Digital Marketing agency so work gets crazy and it does get hard to reach me. But I try my best to always reply emails, DMs and even text messages for those who have my personal phone number. It is very important for me to have a friendship with our contributors.
I wish I had a very editor-like answer for your second question to make me sound good but I don’t. Haha. There isn’t anything particular that I do to prepare myself for an upcoming issue. I have been asked also what are the themes for each issue and the honest truth is there isn’t. Alhamdullillah, everything seems to fall into place every time were nearing a publishing deadline. We can plan all we want but Allah is the best of planners. Oh, there is one thing I must mention though that I do before an upcoming issue and this is going to be funny – I go off the radar. So, if you don’t hear from me, you know I’ve locked myself in the office and I’m going through each and every article that passes through my desk to make it into the issue. I sometimes work into the night. To our contributors out there reading this – I read everything, every word… your stories change me. Even the design and layout of your article goes through me.
6. What do you value most about the Muslim community, especially the womenfolk.
The sisterhood. After 4 years of running GAYA, I have met amazing women and many have become my good friends. You know the funny thing is I have never met these women in person but when we get going on text, were chatting like old friends. And it nurtures my soul.
7. What is the rationale behind your choice in this career path?
None whatsoever. Haha! It makes it sound like I’m an aimless wanderer. As I said before, GAYA found me not the other way around. But that said, it set me on a different path and given me a different life goal. One that is more eternal and I am grateful for that. Perhaps this is the path that God gave me.
8. What has been the biggest let-down in your career so far and what has been your biggest accomplishment?
Wow this is a tough one. Let me start with my biggest accomplishment and I would have to say that it is the sisterhood, the friendship, the kinship. GAYA began as a fashion/lifestyle magazine that evolved into a vehicle to deeper conversations, and whilst it still is, it is not lost on me that by extension, it has created a community and given me, and even some of our writers and readers, friendships that may last a lifetime.
The biggest let-down, truthfully, is when I get let-down by people. Regardless of its direction, GAYA is still a fashion magazine, were still in the fashion industry and to be quite frank, it is a cut-throat industry. I have experienced people in my life who use our friendship for their own gain. I wont lie. But that has not fazed me to be quite honest. I still lead with my heart and if I get let-down then well I guess it was not meant to be. But that makes me cherish the friendships that I do have.
I do have to say though that one let-down or perhaps more of a disappointment really is when modest fashion is conflated with Muslim fashion (again I don’t like this term). Basically, what disappoints me some days is when modesty is conflated with religion and because of the whole Islamophobia thing, modest fashion becomes labelled as oppressive like how the hijab is labelled as oppressive and that in turn casts a shadow over our beautiful religion. Hijab is a choice – a choice a woman makes on her own. In fact, I only just started wearing the hijab myself and was not forced into it. It doesn’t mean that a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab is less of a Muslim than one who does. We have to stop labelling each other and learn to embrace our diversity. Modesty is subjective. Modest fashion is for all regardless of faith, culture, nationality, colour.
9. Has running a style magazine changed your own personal sense of style in any way?
Hmm. I do have to say that I do get inspired by some of the style tips provided by our contributors. I even try out some of the beauty tips our Beauty Editor, Naira Ghanem, puts out in her articles.
My personal style is all about comfort. I’m always in jeans or pants and sweaters. And I love my sneakers. I’ve always dressed modestly but I didn’t wear the hijab until November 2016, so maybe GAYAs hijabi contributors inspired my hijab style? I don’t know. Then again GAYA isn’t a hijabi magazine and I hope people understand that. We stand for all Muslim women regardless whether you wear the hijab, niqab, turban, or no hijab at all. Muslim women come in all shapes, colours, cultures, nationalities; we are beautifully diverse.
10. Would you quit your job if say… You won the lottery, even if you loved your current position?
I wish I could win the lottery! Haha. But even if I did, I wouldn’t quit doing what I’m doing now. Its an eternal thing for me. One that money can’t buy.
To contribute to the magazine, find out submission guidelines here. You can find Gaya on Instagram here, on Facebook here and on Twitter here. And of course, find Juliana on Instagram here and on Facebook here.