#22 Asif Somji - No More Shackles

Asif Somji is a private client stylist at Farfetch. He's a two-time cancer survivor who left his family business to venture out on his own in the world of fashion. He is Kenyan and Canadian citizen, born in the UAE who has wants to lead a shackle-free life. 

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Transcript

Asif: I manage their wardrobe. I tell them what to buy, what's in, what's latest, what's new. Try and find them things that are hard to find. Consult them on their next big day. 

Aamer: Lovely. And how long have you been doing this for? 

Asif: I've been working as a stylist for now. Gosh. I have to come in 2014, eight years. 

Aamer: When you were growing up, did you imagine yourself becoming a private client stylist or a stylist at all? 

Asif: No, I'd never imagined that. 

Aamer: That was Asif Somji he has mentioned a private client stylist featured by the Rake magazine. He's actually one of the most sought-after stylists in Dubai. Until last year, he was working for himself. But then he decided on a big move. He now works for a company called Farfetch, taking on a new challenge in the world of fashion. This is his story.

 

Hello there. I am Aamer Khan, and this is Zed Medium podcast, a podcast that talks to people and about them, too. We take out the most significant experiences of an individual and package it in the form of a story, sharing those with you. We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. There's a new person every episode, so do check out the previous ones. I'm sure you'll find someone to relate to. 

 

Let's start with this one, shall we? This story starts midway, to be more precise. 

 

Asif: In the beginning of 2014, I was always keen on learning about fashion and the business of fashion, but I never did anything about it. It was just a passion. But actually, just early in 2014, I started doing a course, a styling course. It was online and it was just randomly. I mean, just saw an ad pop up and I said, you know what? 

 

This is cool. Let's just do it. So I did it and I was in the middle of it and I felt ill. I was diagnosed with cancer, the kidney cancer, actually. I had no idea this was going to happen. 

 

I was not sick. I didn't have any pain. It was just a random checkup at the hospital and they found a tumor. So they said that we have to operate and remove the kidney. So at that point, I was in the middle of this course, actually, and I wrote to them and say listen, I need to do surgery because I was about to give my exams or the final whatever. And they said, Sorry, you just have to redo the course. 

 

And I said I'm not going to redo the course. So I just decided to just finish it. So I finished that very quickly. I went to my surgery, and then after the surgery, it was not the easiest surgery in the world. Going back now, eight years, it was looking back, it was tough because of the removal of the organ, it's not the easiest thing. So the recovery time was long. 

 

So I think I was at home for like four months, four or five months, I'm not sure. And during that time at home, I decided to do something about this stylist course that I had done. And I said you know what, maybe there's some interest out there. So I started to do a bit more research and started to create and then ask how I created the name styled in Dubai.

 

 I don't know if you've heard of it, but basically Styled in Dubai, which is my Instagram account, came from that. And with the help of a few friends and context that I knew, we did a little bit of a photo shoot and post it on Facebook. At the time, it was Facebook. People loved it. So everybody was asking me, like, how does this work? 

 

And I was still even getting to know it. I don't think Dubai had a mail stylist at the time, so I was getting a lot of requests from men as well. And so that's how it all began, really. 

 

Aamer: Everything was coincidental, the decision to take the course, finding out about cancer, and taking the plunge from a well-established business to being a stylist and pursuing his lifelong passion for fashion. 

 

But was it coincidental, really? If you take a closer look, things do add up. Every time something like cancer, or something that big hits you, it makes you reflect on the life that you have lived, number one, and the life you want to live ahead, number two. And he chose the life he wanted to live after cancer. Would it have been different if he had never been through the disease? Well, we will never know. All we can say now is it all works out for the best. 

 

Asif: Was it before the surgery or after the surgery that the light bulb went out, saying, I think I should pursue this after? Before the surgery, I was in no frame of mind. I was in no frame of mind to do anything. Actually, after the surgery is when I had a lot of time on my hands. When I say I was recovering for four months. I was recovering for four months at home. Pretty much, yeah. I would go out for an hour maybe if I could, but I was literally recovering, so a lot of time on my hands. That's when the life of it and I said, you know what, maybe this could be something I could do on the side. 

 

So it started off as a side thing. I was part of my family business at the time. I was working in my family business, but I had taken some time off to recover, so I was doing this on the side. And when I finally recovered, it started to go to the mall and shop for people, shop with people. I was learning the trade, but I was doing that as a side thing. Initially, yes, but your education was never in this though. No, my education was I studied at York University in Toronto. I did my bachelor's degree in business, and yeah, that was basically my right. Where were you born and brought up?

 

 I was born in Dubai. I was brought up in Dubai. I lived here till I was 18. When I was 18, I left for Toronto the study. I was supposed to live there for three years. I ended up living there for ten years. I enjoyed it. I worked there, I got married. We lived there after marriage, maybe five years, I think. And yeah, I built a life for myself there. So it really became sort of my home. In 2007, I decided to come back. 

 

Aamer: He needed a change, and coming to Dubai with his own family was a welcome change. Up until 2014, the only thing he knew was to grow up, go to university, study management, and join the family business. There was an inclination towards fashion, but that always took a backseat, even in Canada.

 

 After his graduation, he set up his family business there and was leading it for ten years before coming back to Dubai. But his heart wasn't really into it. He knew somewhere, had he known what he knows now, he would have taken a different route altogether. Had he known, he would have pursued fashion right when he was a child. When was your first interaction with fashion? Do you remember it as a kid watching fashion TV?

 

Asif: For some reason, we used to get that channel, and it was very fascinating, to be honest. So I used to watch that. I don't know if you've ever watched fashion TV. It's very strange. 24/7 just fashion shows and there's hardly any talking. It's just one show after the other. I mean, there are interviews and whatnot, but it's literally just one show after the other. And I don't know if it's still awning when I never watch it anymore. But as a kid, I remember watching it and it would just be music background and people just walking on catwalks. I guess that would be my first interaction with fashion. I've always felt that I wanted to do something different, but I never actually actioned it. 

 

Either there were different points in life where for some reason or the other, I couldn't action it, or I didn't feel that it was the right time. Sometimes things happen for a reason, so I didn't action it then. I didn't action it after I got married, and I didn't actually after I moved back to Dubai. And then it's only when I fell sick, I guess I realized that life is really short and you need to it's either now or never. So I sort of tested the waters, and in testing the waters, I kind of realized that it's something that I can do. 

 

And then I was working as a freelance stylist until 2020. And then in 2020, we had our second baby in June, and in July, I was diagnosed again with same cancer that reappeared on the liver. And so this is just very recent. This is like about two years ago, literally almost. And so I had to do another operation where they had to cut my liver. This time, luckily, it was early days, so there was no issue as such. There was an issue, but I wasn't going to die. Basically. It was basically just had to cut my liver. 

 

I said I just had to cut my liver, but it was a big deal. 40% of my liver, but the liver goes back. So eventually it grew back. But recovery was a lot easier. The recovery time was a lot less. The surgery was a bit more difficult. But after that surgery is when Far Fetch offered me the job. Okay. I thought, okay, well, maybe this is the next step in life. It's almost like I have to go through surgery every time something is big.

 

 So at that point, I was like, oh, okay, this is interesting. And it was a step up, in a way. It was a step-down. It was a step down in the sense that for the first time in my life at this age, I'm starting to go work for someone. I wasn't going to be doing the same work, in a sense, but I was still a stylist, and I had less freedom in the sense that I was working for someone. But after joining Fire Fetch, I could definitely say that in terms of my freedom, nothing changed because it's an amazing company with amazing culture and they never manage you. You manage yourself. Like, I've not felt like I've been working for someone at all. 

 

And in fact, I've probably learned in the last, I think it's been eight months. I've been at farfetch for eight or nine months. I think I've learned more in nine months than I probably learned in seven years. 

 

Aamer: Someone who technically hasn't worked a day in his life for anyone else decided to take a job. That was a big move for him, especially when he was leading a very comfortable life before this. In retrospect, it is very difficult to get out of your comfort zone at the age of 41 and start fresh in another company. He was doing the same thing. Yes, being a stylist. But now there is a reputation to take care of. The reputation of a big company. Deadlines, client pressures, and schedule management, it was all very new to him. From managing his workflow at his own pace, he now manages upwards of 200 clients at any point in time.

 

Asif: It was a very new challenge in many ways. Not just as a stylist, but also personally, it was a challenge because I left a very comfortable family business to go work for someone, so I had to make sure it worked at it. So there was a lot of pressure. That was one challenge. And then the challenge is a stylist to make sure that I claim I'm a stylist. So I have to be good at it, so the clients have to see it.

 

 But that was a challenge. And then on a personal level, I'd never worked a day in my life in a company around so many people. So my ability to interact and mingle, although I'm a very social person in general, it was still a challenge for me to make sure that I can survive in a workplace. And also I'm a lot older than most of the people I work with. 

 

So that was the other challenge that I had to fit into a much younger space. Like, we're talking people in their late twenty s and early thirty s. Forty s. So you have to have the skills to do the job. A that's the most important thing. But someone who can fit into the culture. If you're amazingly talented and you're an asshole sorry, can I use a word? I don't know if I can use a word. Sorry. So if you're amazingly talented but really are an idiot, like you're not fit for Farfetch. 

 

Farfetch is a great workplace for anyone looking to be a part of a diverse culture that welcomes everyone that is fit for the role. You have to blend in. 

 

Aamer: Asif says you cannot afford to be an asshole. But the takeaway is more on the culture and diversity because Asif himself is a man of different nationalities. 

 

Asif: Kenya is a beautiful country. Actually, I think it's heaven, but my opinion is biased. I was born in Kenya. Both my parents are Kenyan. My dad is actually born in a country called Burundi, which is, you could say Rwanda, like close to Rwanda. But he grew up in Kenya as well. And he is of Kenyan nationality. My mom is a Kenyan national. My grandparents, my great grandparents, we have four generations, four or five generations in Kenya. 

 

And before that, we are of Indian origin. Gujarati Indian origin. Many who moved to Africa, some moved to Kenya, some Tanzania, some Zumba, some Uganda, some wherever, right? Everybody moved. So my ancestors had moved to Kenya. And so even though I was born in Dubai, as you know, you can't have citizenship in Dubai. I lived as a Kenyan till I got my Canadian passport when I was like 22. 

 

And then now I have citizenship. For anyone listening to this who wants to venture into this field. What are some of the things you realize very late or some early mistakes that you made while doing what you did? I think one of the biggest mistakes I made was I started without knowing enough. I needed to do more before starting, so I should have studied more, researched more, and understood the profession a bit more understood. 

 

I don't know if you know much about fashion, but fashion is insane. It changes every 2 seconds. It's so big. Every country in the world has its own fashion. Of course, there are major players in fashion, but there are so many smaller players in a fashion that are so relevant. Okay, I just didn't know enough. I think that was one mistake. I think I should have learned more before starting out. I guess one of the things that I learned slowly as time went by, I wouldn't say it's a mistake, but maybe some things you just have to learn on the job is that people really need to trust you. 

 

And that takes a certain skill and takes certain know-how and ability. So I think that that sort of something that I learned on the job slowly. And I didn't know in the beginning how to gain someone's trust because remember, I'm making them spend a whole lot of money so they have to trust me. What was the first like, how do you when you get the confidence to finally start charging for what you're offering because for a long period of time you are not taking money? Right. What got you that confidence? 

 

The reason I wasn't charging is that I wanted to learn easier to get people to start when they're not paying. So I think that was the main reason. And then I started to say to myself that, look, I think it's time to start and if they don't like it, then they can go to someone else. 

 

Actually, it kind of worked out better because when you charge, people take you a lot more seriously. They don't miss appointments, they're not late because they end up paying for it. They act very fast. You should always charge. If anyone is listening to this, you can do some free work in the beginning, like just to learn, but I would suggest you learn with your friends. But people who can actually afford you should pay you. 

 

Aamer: Do you remember any clients that you spend? Do you remember the number? Not the name of the client that I spend the most on a wardrobe changer, on shopping with you? Do you remember the number? 

 

Asif: Well, I went out with a client once and we bought only two things. This is many years ago. This is before the whole watch boom. We bought a gown for her. For her. She had an event that she was hosting and I believe the gown was about 60,000. So that's what is that? About 15? $16,000. And a watch, which was $85,000, was a hublot and that's about $25,000. So we spent that in maybe 2 hours. 

 

Aamer: Are there any failures in this job? 

 

Asif: I've never mentioned it and I'm not going to give you his name because very popular in the UAE, but very strange character, extremely wealthy. And I was contacted by someone in his family that he would like to have status because he has a lot of social engagements and basically needs new clothes every week. An Indian businessman, that's all I can say. And I was invited to his office to have a meeting. I have never in my life he's a really nice guy. He was very polite, and very hospitable. I was in his office. He was very kind. We joked, we talked. He was a great guy. He's very smart, very intelligent. This guy was so cheap. 

 

My God. I can't imagine how cheap. He started giving me his I don't know whether it's a businessman thing or Indian thing, whatever. Maybe he felt that I knew he was such a rich man that I was going to overcharge him. And this guy was like, you don't think I'm so rich because you see the cars outside, they're not really mine. They were gifted to me. He was, like, thinking I was like, stupid. If somebody's going to gift you that car, and I'm not even going to tell you the car, but if somebody can gift you that car, that means you're definitely somebody, right? He was really pretending to be very poor. He's wearing a very big watch. 

 

He said, Look, I make my suits at this one place, and so we have to use them. I said, okay, fine. It's not my choice of Tailor, but he said, I never spend more than 2000 errs on a suit. I spend more than 2000 on a suit. Judging from his suit, he should be spending more than 2000. Yeah, I mean, for a guy at his level, he was so cheap. It was unbelievable how cheap he was. He only cared about having a big watch and a big belt, and cheap clothes, and he would brag about it. Do you know how much I bought the shirt?

 

 It's fine by me. Like, okay, I have to work with the client's budget, so there was no issue there. I said, okay, fine, I'll work with your tailor. We'll figure something out. And I knew that once I gained his confidence, I could move him to the next level. I really did. And with the money that he had, he could do wonders with his looks and his style and his presence. So I said, okay, send me your quotation. I sent it to him, and honestly, judging from how cheap he was, I sent him a very low quotation. And he came back to me saying it was too much money and it was the lowest I would ever go. Because I'll tell you one thing, and I probably should have said this before, money can buy you a lot of things. 

 

It cannot buy you, class. That's a worthy contender for the episode title, but the title is different, as you probably noticed, and that's for what's coming next. 

 

Aamer: Asif has gone through two fights with cancer. He has ventured into something very different from the family business. He has two beautiful children and has transitioned into a new phase of life that is very different from what he usually did before. There's a whole lot more for him on this journey. But as of now, what does a successful life really mean to him? As we near the end of the episode, here is something for you to take back with you from this particular episode. How do you see yourself in the future having a successful life, making it, sitting back? It can either be spending time with your kids, it can either be chilling with your family in some place. It can either be finishing a good day of work or coming back home. What is it for you at this moment? 

 

Asif: Look, it's a very difficult question, to be honest. And it's exactly all of the things that you just said. Maybe one thing I can add for me, successful life is when you reach a stage in your life, when you're completely free to do what you want. You have no shackles, your job is not restricting you from doing something, your family is not restricting you from doing something, your social circle is not restricting you from doing something. You have the freedom to do whatever it is that you want. I think that is the true success and happiness in my books today. 

 

If I want to leave doing what I'm doing, like how I left my family business to move, for me, that was a sense of freedom to just leave everything behind and just move on to the next thing. And I think that's the hardest thing to do because everybody has some shackle, something that's tying them to something, whether it's family, children, night, cancer, I had a baby, a new baby born, I had responsibilities, bills to pay. And I said, you know what, screw it, I'm going. And I think that the freedom to be able to do that brought me a lot of happiness.

 

I think that whoever is listening to this, they can chase all the money in the world, they can chase all the women in the world, all the men in the world, power. They can chase everything. Nothing is going to really give them that satisfaction until they are completely free, completely. The true freedom of being able to do whatever it is that they want, whenever they want, however they want. 

 

Aamer: If you like that episode, share it with others. You never know how you sharing. It could impact someone in the most difficult of times. You never know, you might just share something life changing for someone else. And yes, the commentary. Follow us for the latest updates on LinkedIn and Instagram. We are here to stick, we promise. And we are bringing a whole lot more for you. Stay tuned and goodbye for now.