Shades of Excellence: Moussem's Sarah Allaoui is eager to preserve the heritage of Amazigh rugs

Sarah Allaoui, moved to the UK from Morocco to study electronic engineering. The founder and owner of Moussem started the business to reconnect with her Amazigh heritage after the loss of her grandmother. She now speaks to Kindred. to share her journey.

Calling electronic engineering a “random degree” that she quite enjoyed, Allaoui ended up working in construction as an engineering consultant “specifying technology for new building, commercial offices, hotels” and so on.

She says that coming from a developing country, most of the time young people are encouraged to choose typical careers such as engineering, law, architecture or economics, “those sorts of safe careers that will establish me quickly give me a stability and a job”. This is very similar for a lot of people in Morocco, says Allaoui, noting that the majority of Moroccans outside of Morocco are probably engineers.

“It was an industry that's tough,” she says. “As a woman, you go into engineering and you kind of realise very quickly how you're two out of 200 in a class. I never really thought about it too much and I think that’s why I’ve managed to finish it and kind of enjoy some of it.”

Going into construction, which is a very male dominated industry, she found out that the parts she enjoyed the most was talking to architect and “the creative side of consultancy” which is exactly what Allaoui does with her current business - selling rugs to end consumers, but also ding pop-ups and working with interior designers and architects on projects.

The beginnings of Moussem

In 2020, the 29-year-old started Moussem, going from engineering to selling Moroccan rugs. Being Amazigh (the indigenous people of North Africa), their culture sees rugs and weaving textiles as a way of preserving the identity of your tribe.

She describes how a lot of the symbols on the Amazigh rugs are tied to fertility, talking about the female body and the procreation powers. “All the symbols on textiles in Morocco will have meaning and differ from tribe to tribe and region to region,” she says. “Women tend to weave to almost kind of talk through the rugs and carry a lot of their identity and hopes and dreams.”

Allaoui thought of herself as an advocate of working from home even before the pandemic, so when this happened in 2020, she was enjoying it. However, that summer her grandmother sadly passed away and she was unable to go back to her family right away due to the borders still being closed.

“Not being there kind of affected me mentally and it got me thinking about all the time I’ve spent in the UK, it’s been 10 years at that time, I didn’t see my siblings grow up and I didn’t spend enough time with my grandma. I didn’t ask enough questions and all this stuff started bubbling up.”

She mentions the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, as a catapult into the desire to find out more about her roots and where she comes from. “My grandad was black and it’s almost like this side of me that I have’t explore as well as my Amazigh heritage and it was just a big kind of mash of identity,” she says.

“I guess the only topic that I heard from my parent growing up and my dad always used to tell me about were the rugs and what they meant and the symbolism in our culture. And that was kind of a first start.”

Allaoui’s journey to founding her business started from that with plans to only do a little bit of research. She however quickly realised that a lot of Moroccan women depend on weaving to support their families. With Covid-19 stopping everything including tourism, the options to make a living became limited for them.

“I literally went home as soon as they opened the borders, got a few rugs and then started selling them,” says Allaoui.

“It slowly built from a thing where I was learning from these women, hearing their stories and almost helping me piece together where I’m coming from… But then it turned into this massive thing of trying to empower them to be financially free but also have a sustainable way of making money and preserving the heritage that’s kind of on a way to extinction almost.”

At the very start, the founder of Moussem only wanted to get some rugs for her new unfurnished house, thinking of getting something with a meaning from the Amazigh women. This quickly turned this into “an operation and a movement”, which she describes as “an incredible ride and a job that’s given me a lot more purpose” compared to what she was doing before.

Moroccan women only weave when they’re happy

In contrast to businesses of similar nature, Moussem’s mission is to preserve the heritage. The weaving process is intuitive and Allaoui says that a lot of the women weave by memory and use symbols that have been passed won from generation to the next.

“We never want to push them into modernising the Amazigh rugs,” she says. “When you look at the high-street, you can see quite a lot, they’re called Berber rugs in the West, and they’re quite popular, but I feel like with the popularity they’ve lost the authenticity and the story behind the symbols.”

What Allaoui is trying to do with Moussem is let the women “freestyle” with majority of their designs coming from their weavers. They provide them with wool and “they just kind of five us their input and that’s their input”.

Another parallel, as she describes it, is “for example, we’re working on a hotel project at the moment. The brief we received was this kind of wabi-sabi art of imperfection”.

“The whole hotel from fabrics to materials they are using are all imperfect and each of the rooms has a story, so we worked with interior designers to come up with a design that captures the Amazigh heritage and tie that back into the theme of the hotel.”

Weaving is one of the oldest practices in the world, dating back to almost 30,000 years ago, and Allaoui says that women in Morocco only weave when they are happy.

In their culture, it is superstitious to weave when you’re grieving or going through a tough time.

“We have some other people that come to us with a crazy idea or a specific image they have and we try to recreate it, but we’re also very aware that we never want to go to the women and be strict in terms of what they have to do. And we explain that to all our customers, you have to keep room for creativity because weaving is a spiritual practice.”

She says: “You can imagine how they need to feel inspired, they need to feel connected to the rug to weave. So we try our hardest to preserve that authenticity when it comes to the designs.”

The business is about empowering women

“I was actually quite lucky,” says Allaoui. “Setting up a business nowadays is very straightforward compared to what it used to be ages ago. From the set up to the admin side and legalities. You get so much support from the bank for example, the bank account and all that boring stuff.”

As a woman of colour, Allaoui feels like her business is a healthy working environment, which she’s never experienced in such way. “I run a business that is very much about empowering women, women of colour and also my whole workforce are women of colour,” she says. “So we’re 100% run and owned by women of colour which is so much fun.”

The young entrepreneur finds the working environment “very balanced”, where they “all wake up every day and we enjoy what we’re doing”. Coming form a construction industry which can be very competitive in a nasty way as she says, it is not collaborative and “the sharing of information is never straightforward”.

“I feel like having a women’s team everyone is so incredibly generous with their knowledge,” she says. “Even the interior designers we work with, most of them happen to be women, and it’s just been a joy to work in that kid of healthy and balanced environment.

“And as a woman of colour, I feel like you’ll always be different, you always have a disadvantage in business, and I'm sure as the business grows, I'll see more of those advantages. But the environment that you work in every day almost gives you the strength to face these things. And when I say a healthy environment, that gives me the strength.”

Referencing to the More Than Enough book by Elaine Welteroth who in said book said that you feel most coloured against the white background, Allaoui describes how when you’re in a male, white people dominated industry, you will always stick out. “But when you create a team and business that’s very much about women of colour, you don’t feel that and that’s what I mean by healthy.”

Behind the scenes

Apart from Allaoui, there are more wonderful women helping her run Moussem. “We are three based in London, we’ve got a woman doing marketing who’s based in India and we have my mum, the head of operations in Morocco.”

Allaoui’s mother is the person in charge of all Moroccan operations from shipping to managing the weaving teams. “She’s retired a year ago and joined the team which is a lot of fun. And she is somebody I couldn’t do this without because running a business remotely in a pandemic is very difficult to do,” she says. “So having somebody in Morocco who’s very close to the women that they can trust as well is very important for the business.”

Most importantly, Moussem wouldn’t be what it is without their weavers. “We’re now employing over 50 weavers and we started with two which is crazy.”

Speaking of the pros and cons of starting Moussem, Allaoui mentions that one of the pros was that the interior industry was booming during the pandemic and “a lot of people were spending time at home, trying to support small businesses and getting object for their homes that tell a story, are unique and they know who made them”.

She says while it was incredible she was honestly surprised. “I don’t know what I was expecting but I was really surprised about how much we’ve been embraced, especially in the UK.

“We’ve sold rugs around the world, but mainly in the UK and it was a beautiful surprise because it feels like finally after all these years I can be myself and working in a business that is very tied to my identity and my heritage.”

One of the challenges, Allaoui finds that running a team remotely and trying to communicate how the textiles feel to consumers. “It's really hard for me to send an email and try and describe one of our rugs or even send picture. Because when you touch them in person, that's the feeling, like the colours are dynamic with the light. So you have to see it in person, you have to see the movement.”

With an awesome team behind her back, the founder thinks that they are now even better than if they hadn’t had that opportunity. “Working remotely, obviously selling online, is a new experience for me, I haven't had any experience doing e-commerce,” she says.

Square’s products have played an important part in the formation of Moussem. From using the Square terminal for the pop-up stores to process contactless payments to originally designing the first website for the store using Square Online, the company’s free website builder, and “it is something that has been so accessible and so easy to do and kind of takes that hurdle off”.

She recalls the website being up and running within a month “which is really incredible when you think about it”.

Speaking about the pop-ups, Allaoui says that after the pandemic, when things started to open again, as an online business they wanted to meet their customers face to face and the pop-ups were an amazing opportunity to do that. “Going back to technology, with engineering background, I’ve always known the importance of technology, its role and with what I’m doing now having technology like payment processing and all these things, enabled us to bring the events together,” she says. “We got to meet people face to face and have them experience the brand and hear our stories while feeling close to our community and build the brand around London.”

The future

In the next five years, Allaoui hopes to host a “moussem” which means festival in Arabic. “It’s an event that happens annually in Morocco where all the tribes gather to celebrate the heritage and there’s a lot of weddings and trade happening.”

She remembers growing up how her father and grandmother used to tell her stories about all the fun they had during moussem which inspired Allaoui to wanting to host her own in Morocco. “I would like to make it a proper event that people can travel to and get the authentic experience of Moroccan colour, texture, smells, food and everything,” she says. “I would love to open that side, the soul of Morocco to the rest of the world and our customers as well.

“We’re building this very small but very passionate community that have been supporting us since the very start and I would love to open Morocco to them and perhaps do something in Morocco, that would be so much fun.”

Allaoui ends the interview sharing how Beyoncé’s Black Parade made her stop overthinking founding Moussem and went straight to buying the domain.

“I was renting this small garage because when the pandemic hit, I thought I need to train somewhere, so I got this gym equipment and had Parade playing.

“And it the song it said something like ‘I’m going back to the South where my roots aren’t watered down’. And I remember sitting there, thinking this is what I need to do, I need to go back to the South where my identity isn’t watered down. That’s when I stopped thinking about it and took my phone to buy the domain.”