Local designer uses fashion to help Somalia

Hamdi Lilah, center, with models wearing some of her designs. Her "Free Somalia" design is second from left. (Photo courtesy of Hamdi Lilah)
Hamdi Lilah, center, with models wearing some of her designs. Her “Free Somalia” design is second from left. (Photo courtesy of Hamdi Lilah)

When Hamdi Mohamed first drew a map of Somalia, with the word “FREE” pushing out against the borders of the country, she wasn’t sure what she would do with it.

The Chief Sealth High School student just knew it represented her desire for her home country to be freed of anarchy, violence and the numerous other issues it faced in the midst of the Somali Civil War.

Four years later famine hit, quite literally, close to home. Wanting to get involved with the 2011 famine relief effort, she began organizing fundraising events in Seattle and saw her chance to share her design with the world. At a poetry slam fundraiser she helped coordinate, she began selling T-shirts with her “Free Somalia” design emblazoned across the front.

The shirts were a huge hit both locally and around the world. She sold hundreds of shirts and raised around $5,000, which she donated to an NGO called The African Future.

With her newfound success, Hamdi, whose designer name is “Hamdi Lilah,” found the intersection between a longtime love for fashion and a knack for social activism. In the next year, she established her own humanitarian clothing company called Peace in Theory.

Hamdi Lilah, founder of the clothing company Peace in Theory and recent UW graduate, in Red Square. (Photo by Shirley Qiu)
Hamdi Lilah, founder of the clothing company Peace in Theory and recent UW graduate, in Red Square. (Photo by Shirley Qiu)
Thus far, she has run the company almost entirely on her own, from creating the clothing designs to managing the shipments and drumming up funding and sponsors. This, all while completing her undergraduate degree in Law, Societies and Justice at the University of Washington. Her company has expanded to offer additional designs for tees, sweatshirts and tank tops, and she’s branched out to other global causes that she feels strongly about.

Now, she focuses on supporting education around the world, particularly for young girls.

“Education is power, and it’s a great tool to change the world,” Hamdi said.

She had the opportunity to see this firsthand during an internship in Somalia in 2012, her first time back since leaving the country at three years old. She worked with CARE International, an organization that combats poverty through empowering women. That experience, she said, was very hands-on and eye-opening to the obstacles some girls and women face that prevent them from attaining an education.

It also allowed the vision and mission of her clothing company to feel a little more tangible.

“After I went, I realized, okay, I can actually make a difference,” she said. “People appreciating you being there, appreciating the help that you’re providing, made me feel like this is where my heart is, and this is where I feel good. It doesn’t feel like work.”

Hamdi’s own fashion interest emerged from a young age. Her mother and several of her older sisters sewed, and she would often play dress-up with her niece, sometimes holding fashion shows for her family.

“To me, it was a hobby for a really long time, and it was something I just did for fun,” she said. “Now, it’s like, wow, I could actually do this as a living, and I could love it.”

Her family still serves as a strong source of inspiration and support for her fashion endeavors. She often speaks to her relatives for feedback and advice for her business. Her nephew, Mohammed Osman, is her design consultant.

Osman, who lives in California, said they talk three to four times a week, and have remained close despite the geographical distance.

“She’s so passionate about [fashion] and that motivated me to be more interested in it,” he said. ”Her passion just motivates you to do more with yourself as a human being…It’s always good to have someone like that having your back.”

Now that she’s graduated from the UW, Hamdi has much more time to devote to her budding fashion company. The first order of business is planning out Peace in Theory’s first-ever fundraising event in the upcoming months, to cover the costs of manufacturing more clothing products.

“It’s the perfect time for me to build momentum and build those relationships to really help me prosper the company,” she said.

She can then focus on expanding her inventory and developing different collections and clothing items, which she has already begun working on. And some day in the near future, she hopes, her products will be displayed for sale in stores.

Regardless of the direction Peace in Theory takes, Miski Ali, a friend at UW who helped Hamdi plan the Somali famine fundraising events back in 2011, can already see the clothing company’s success.

“It’s booming,” she said. “I see people that I don’t think necessarily know Hamdi wearing [her products], so that was very exciting.”

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