In the heart of Notting Hill in London lies a wonderful emporium filled with sketches and colors and objects aplenty. Upon entering that light-filled space, you are met with fonts and illustrations and paintbrushes flying around you and dancing to upbeat music before falling softly to the ground. Well, maybe not to that extent, but it might as well be.
Sketchbook Magazine's studio is a hub of artists, writers and brilliant minded individuals who work together to produce the independent publication Sketchbook.
Founded in 2009 by the then 23 year old Bahraini Wafa Alobaidat, Sketchbook Magazine is an artist's dream. Blending fashion, art, illustration, photography and design to form a magazine that looks like it was printed on an actual sketchbook. Chock full of drawings and doodles, Sketchbook is an imaginarium of sorts; a place where no man has gone before… Deep inside the minds of creative individuals from all over the world.
Khaleejesque interviewed Wafa Alobaidat to learn more about this wonder of a magazine, running a business abroad and making it in the industry.
First off, we want to know more about you…
Wafa Alobaidat: I run a design/art/fashion/illustration magazine from a studio in Notting Hill, London. We run a daily blog, online magazine, SketchbookTV and I’m about to launch design agency Obai and Bash. I am also the editor of Dia-boutique, the number 1 e-luxury site in the Middle East.
I grew up and studied in Bahrain and went on to study Interior Design at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. I worked for 2 years while I was a student with designer Liza Bruce which literally changed my life. I applied to work with almost 100 designers – they were the first company I called – and they booked me for an interview. Working with Liza Bruce was phenomenal. I got to learn the ins and outs of running a fashion business in London – from sales to PR to buying to window display to designing. Liza and her husband really mentored me and taught me everything I needed to know about the fashion and art industry. After I graduated I worked with on/off, and Marko Matysik of Big/Show Magazine and Vogue Nippon, and later on with two more fashion magazines. I started writing for my blog, Fashion Ambitions, and became a fashion journalist reporting to High Life Dubai, Borderline and Prim Magazine in NY.
After launching Sketchbook, I was approached by the team at Dia to run their online magazine (I produce an issue every week) which till today is such an exciting prospect for me as I am from the Middle East and have so much to explore and report on in that region.
What inspired you to create Sketchbook Magazine?
WO: I started Sketchbook Magazine back in January 2009 because I realized I was looking for something in the market that I just couldn’t find anywhere. I wanted a publication rich in illustrations, drawings, and where the characters of my favorite bloggers and designers were being explored. I was constantly looking for raw scratchy magazines that resembled my own sketchbooks and notebooks. Something not so glossy and which I could be rough with (tear, add post its etc) so I went about creating the concept of Sketchbook.[The name] comes from my love for sketchbooks. Sketchbook aims to be a different notebook every time. I want my reader to be surprised by each issue and to have a favorite 'sketchbook' or issue. But what it’s trying to do is reveal the "behind the scenes" of the industry.
What makes Sketchbook different from other magazines?
WO: Its ability to embrace anything and everything. Anyone who walks through my door gets a place at the magazine. Even if it's interning for a few days, we always make room for people with ideas and projects. It’s the only way we are able to constantly evolve and embrace digital media. My entire team is on top of the social media game. I think it’s only with that attitude that we were able to communicate with our audience.
Was it hard to start your business?
WO: It was terribly hard because I went about it on my own with no funding whatsoever. I started to meet people to get them involved and when they saw that I was 22 years old they just ran the other way. I really had to sell the concept of the magazine via email so I spent a good 5-6 hours a day emailing illustrators/designers/writers to get them to contribute their work to the magazine. It was really tough, but slowly I started to accumulate a great team. Features Editor Luma Bashmi was the heartbeat of the magazine, she really combed through all the technical challenges of the Sketchbook brand and helped me push-start the project. Creative director and cover designer John Paul Thurlow agreed to illustrate my cover (Style Bubble cover we are now famous for). Charlotte Nicod was my dream graphic designer; she came up with the logo of the magazine and really nailed the look and feel of it. Sketchbook is still solely funded by me but it’s worth it when you see such great results.
How do you manage your business and keep it up and running?
WO: I have a great staff of writers, editors, designers, illustrators that work with me on a daily basis. Our studio is always buzzing with people conducting interviews, launching events. We have meetings in the kitchen, and the doorbell is always ringing. I delegate and give everyone freedom to do what they think is right. Decisions get made faster and quicker and people are loyal to the projects that they work with. I have a great PR team who update, update, update and are constantly coming up with creative ways to market what we do. I have been meeting 5 people a day consistently for almost a year which has changed the way I work. Just going through portfolios and having conversations with people keeps me excited about new projects and collaborations.
Are your colleagues your friends or people recruited for Sketchbook?
WO: When I first started out I pulled a lot of my friends into the magazine. Fashion journalist Kristen Knox became the Fashion Editor, Christie and Kevin my good friends and fantastic design duo from my foundation year laid out the first issue. But I started recruiting a team in the summer of '09 made up of feature writers and PR officers. But there is no hierarchy at Sketchbook, we are all friends. We always have a good laugh at work. We always find time to go out for a walk to get some cupcakes from the Hummingbird. We always celebrate birthdays. It’s a real family-like atmosphere and I would like to think that we are all working for the sake of the brand and the exciting projects we are privileged to manage.
What was your breakthrough moment?
WO: I hope this is not taken as a snobby thing to say – but I never had any doubt that Sketchbook wouldn’t be a breakthrough. You see I have to be strong for my brand and believe in it 100% or else no one else will. But recently my biggest moment was having Imran Amed founder of the Business of Fashion, someone I really look up to in the industry, telling me that Sketchbook is doing something right, that I was on to something, and that it was doing really well because people in the industry were buzzing about it. It also felt great to sell our 1000th print copy.
Have you had any exclusive features in your magazine?
WO: We have managed to score all the interviews that we wanted and I am grateful for that. We have interviewed bloggers Style Bubble, Facehunter, Garance Dore, Sonny Groo, Tavi, Prince Pelayo, Gala Gonzales. And from the designers, we interviewed Henry Holland and Editors Becky Smith of Lula and Amelia from Amelia’s magazine.
Where does your inspiration come from?
WO: It comes from people and a lot of what I am inspired by is what I am exposed to. Tyler Brulee, the founder of Wallpaper magazine, Editor of Monocle, and all his work as a creative director with his agency Winkcreative; Brent Hoberman, founder of lastminute.com, whom I had the pleasure of interning for when I was still a student with his new business venture mydeco.com; Terence Conran for his vision as a designer and entrepreneur; Jeremy Leslie for all his work with Print magazine and his commitment to the publishing industry.
I have objects of obsession at different stages in my life and Sketchbook is a platform that allows me to meet/interview my obsessions and then document it for my readers.
Who are the people that inspire you?
WO: My mother is my number one inspiration. She mentored me from a very young age on how to think big and have a large vision for my life. She also supports all my crazy projects and the 100 or so ludicrous failed attempts before Sketchbook. She is my number one fan and always invested in my love for the arts… She is a great listener and together we reflect on how we can make things happen creatively. She is the most ambitious person I have ever known.
What is the best and worst thing about working in the design industry?
WO: The best thing about working in the design industry is the ability to be creative and come up with solutions to projects. I enjoy working with a team so I am always surrounded by such talented people that help bring my ideas to life. I really can’t think of the worst thing. I guess what’s always being debated right now is how the online world is changing the face of traditional media. So trying to find a business model that suits you is a tricky challenge.
I also get to meet all my stars and idols at fashion weeks. We met Anna Wintour, Carrine Roitfeld, Rachel Zoe, Whitney Port, Olivier Zahm. We met Osman, Daisy and Pearl Lowe, Kelly Kutrone, Scott Shuman and Garance Dore, Hillary Alexander, Colin McDowell, Lilly Cole. It’s an exciting time to network and meet people that we look up to in the industry.
You're based in London; are you planning on staying there permanently or do you have plans for moving your base camp?
WO: I have been in London for 6 years. I am happy to say that I still love it. There is so much happening here in terms of art and design. I never run out of people to meet and things to cover. There is always so much to do. I would love to move camp to New York or LA but I am way too comfortable here.
London has a lot of (successful) emerging artists and designers. What do you think is behind that?
WO: I think the University of the Arts is behind that, and I am not just saying that because I graduated from there. It is the largest design and art institute in the world with 5 colleges dedicated to fashion, media, design, film, and fine art. All the colleges are based in London and produce such a high volume of quality designers that they filter out and get involved with the city. I think that for the Middle East the best way to go about supporting talent is to develop large design institutions to harbor them.
Finally, any words of advice?
WO: Don’t start listing why you can’t do something, that is the easiest thing a person can do. We are raised in a culture of fear – and people are always ready to tell you that your ideas are not realistic, but I think you NEED to be unrealistic to pursue what you want. If you have no passion for anything start exploring – path find, don’t just be stuck in a rut, nothing will ever come to you, you must go and find what makes you happy and make it your career.
Have the best life you can have – don’t settle.
Print copies can be ordered online (ships to USA, UK, Canada) as well as PDF versions. Or you can view it online for free. www.sketchbookmagazine.com
– Images courtesy of Sketchbook Magazine
By: Alya Al-Othman