Meme (mee-mee), whose real name is Marwa Biltagi is the founder and EIC of Mademoiselle Meme, a fashion and lifestyle magazine currently based out of Palo Alto, California (Silicon Valley.) Mademoiselle Meme came out of Marwa’s need for artistic expression. It was 2013 and she had just moved from Los Angeles to Oxford after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art history. She had been an avid Instagrammer under the playful name “MademoiselleMeme” but needed a more fulfilling, creative outlet, and thus the Mademoiselle Meme digital media lifestyle magazine was born. We sat down with Marwa to find out more.
Your website features various sections; fashion, lifestyle, arts, and eats. What is your favorite? How did you get into featuring all these things?
When I was studying Arabic at Oxford University, I started playing with this idea to create a platform about a lifestyle, different from a blog about selfies and basic fashion looks. I wanted it editorial, of substance, transcending the era of outfit-of-the-day blogs. I was inspired by my travels and wanted to create something blending my European and Middle Eastern heritage, but had no way to express and show all the things I was experiencing abroad. Thus, the idea for a fashion and lifestyle magazine came to me. This was before many fashion bloggers had added lifestyle features to their blogs.
I wanted something built on honesty and sharing. Mademoiselle Meme is a lifestyle of eating well, dressing well, traveling well, and living well, whether it is our secret list of eats in Los Angeles, or the new fashion brand about to trend that we want our readers to hear about first. We post that which we believe in, we are wearing, etc., no matter the trend or what could get us more website traffic. It's a lifestyle by “Meme,” with my own personal curations yet without having the magazine's identity revolving around my personal life. It features what is underground, what hasn't trended yet, things off the beaten path, the unusual and the exotic. I want to provide a platform for those who have not had the opportunity to show their art, music, or designs to the world. We aren’t so mainstream, we focus on the artisans, the masters of their craft, the creatives of unparalleled talent, no matter if our readers know of them or not. I think that captures well the values of Mademoiselle Meme.
My ideas began in Oxford, but the magazine was born the following year when I moved to Scotland and finally debuted Mademoiselle Meme.
It is difficult to pick a favorite topic, as I feel each lends to a piece of me and my passions in life. But of course, the root of Mademoiselle Meme has always been fashion. Having worn a hijab for over 15 years, before the mainstream modest fashion movement really took flight, finding suitable pieces was difficult, but also rewarding. It was the beginning of a hunger to discover new brands, travel to the Middle East and make things for myself to fulfill this need for modestwear. That was how I got into the idea of a fashion and lifestyle magazine. It is natural for me to seek out brands, to travel, and explore the lesser-known because things weren't widely available for women longing for fashionable modest wear choices, especially in the US.
What is it like living as a Muslim in the U.S.?
For me, it is a positive experience because that is what I choose it to be. Living in the US has forged my identity as a Muslim woman who is also Irish-Palestinian, and also first generation American. My identity is multi-layered because the US is just that, layered with diversity. I don’t always blend in exactly, nor would I want to. I, as every hijabi, am a walking representation, for others, of a Muslim. Hijab is a very visible declaration of the faith I follow, one that sometimes gives people cause to make hijabis the scapegoat for Muslims worldwide. Instead of keeping us "hidden" (what many incorrectly believe to be the purpose of the hijab), the hijab has pushed us into the spotlight. Hijabis have become some of the more prominent voices in Islam in recent times, an empowering position for Muslim women. It's given me a new perspective I couldn't have had without it. For me, being a Muslim in hijab is an opportunity, it always has been. All the hardships or racism I may face, just as many others do, doesn’t affect me because I don’t allow it to. In a way, the thing that makes me a target to some has also always been a shield protecting me by reminding me of my identity and values. In the end, when it comes to fashion, I view my hijab as an asset, not a liability, and I'm especially hopeful about the role American Muslim women can play in fashion.
NYFW showed me that Islam can be talked about in different conversations, as something that inspires art and creativity, just as it has for centuries. Muslim women, moreover, can not only contribute to Western styles of fashion and beauty, but dominate in the modest fashion movement that we understand more than others.
What challenges have you faced to reach the destination or the position you’re currently at?
I think one challenge every entrepreneur and business owner faces is staying true to their brand. We have consciously chosen to have slower growth because we are not willing to sell our values for an advertisement that might be good for the website in the short-term. Everything on Mademoiselle Meme is from brands we shop at, places we have visited, and things we are eating. We believe in what we feature, and thus are very selective with content.
A challenge every hijabi I think is facing, is getting more exposure. There is plenty of room for us all, but it’s about the industry and brands making space for more than just one hijabi. We all offer something different, and as a minority in the fashion scene, we are still trying to break through.
What was it like entering the fashion world as a wearer of the hijab?
It sets me apart, in a positive way. Women of hijab have to be very creative sometimes with fashion choices and making pieces/trends work. There is potential for them to be some of the most creative individuals in the industry. After NYFW, I was convinced of the avid interest from the fashion industry in hijabis to contribute their ideas and influence to fashion. My hijab was not only a religious statement, it was also a fashion one, and I don't think people saw a reason as to why it couldn't be both, especially if one sees fashion as a part of one's identity and self-expression.
My hijab has never been something to block off opportunities; on the contrary, if anything, my hijab has opened many doors for me, and a part of that has been my recent experience at NYFW. Many people are open-minded and we forget that sometimes when only the negativity gets amplified. I think that this is an especially unique moment for Muslim women to take advantage of the reactions our hijabs inspire, good or bad. We can take what's good, but also take the opportunity to correct what's bad. Having a sense of confidence and pride in our image will not go unnoticed.
Have you ever felt like being a wearer of the hijab gave you unexpected attention in a positive way?
Yes, all the time! I was actually sitting in a Los Angeles at this popular cafe with my best friend when these two men sitting nearby kept turning around to look back and forward at us with a friendly expression. One of the men looked familiar, but I had no idea from where I knew him. The repeated looks struck me as odd, and it was only at the end of our breakfast we ended up speaking with each other. The two men turned out to be artists, and one of them was the talented and famous Gary Baseman. Gary and his friend Trevor had drawn the both of us in our hijabs in their signature art aesthetics. Gary specifically drew us in the caricatures of his popular Nickelodeon cartoons and game Cranium. Of all the fabulously dressed people at this cafe, he decided to draw us, two hijabi women! It was our hijabs that drew their attention, and I was flattered to see that this religious garment had inspired them to make it beautiful with their pencils and humanize hijabis.
Another example is when I was at NYFW, I was unexpectedly photographed by Phil Oh from Vogue magazine. I learned that the fashion world was interested in seeing a Muslim woman's take on fashion. They were all asking the same thing: “What do you have to say about American fashion? What is your contribution to fashion?” My voice was a part of the conversation, a possibility which I think was facilitated through my hijab, not hindered by it. I knew change was here when a fashion figure said to me: “I never thought a woman in hijab would make it into Vogue.”
Fashion could benefit by other perspectives, and as an American Muslim in modest fashion, I am trying to both satisfy a demand, but also show that fashion is universal. I’m hoping to bring a new and diversified perspective to fashion.