Game Changers The Identity Issue

Third culture: From personal experience to a fashion brand

Meet this third culture kid.

By Sharifa Al Badi

Third culture kid Shaima Shamsi is the force behind Third Culture Co. Photo: Ishaq Madan.

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Third culture kids —people who spent their early years in a country that is not their parents’ homeland —often grow up feeling lost, and don’t know exactly where they fit in. If you’re a third culture kid and you feel that you don’t belong, then don’t be long checking out Third Culture Co, founded by Shaima Shamsi, a person with the freedom to not belong.

Third Culture Co is a global fashion brand currently based in Bahrain that pushes the borders of separation away, and brings forth social, cultural and environmental issues through its pieces.

“Clothes are a singular conversation,” says Shaima. “It’s what’s on top of our body and what people are drawn to first.  Clothes say a lot about who you are as a person, how you want to be seen and spoken to. If your clothes stand out, people will come up to you [and start a dialogue].”

With its unique designs and growing customer base, it’s difficult to imagine that the 28-year-old did not initially see herself in the fashion world.  After spending her formative years in Saudi Arabia, Shaima moved to the UK, where she studied business.  But it was during her studies that the idea for her conceptual clothing brand first came to her.

“I wanted to create a tangible form of the art of storytelling. I wanted to give my ideas meaning, purpose and value. Some people express themselves through painting, others through writing. I use concepts as my medium,” she says.

The Dialogue Collection featured t-shirts with the word ajnabe (Arabic for “foreigner”) on them. Photo: Nineboutiqueco.

The name “Third Culture Co” comes from Shaima being a third cultural kid, but the number three has also played a big role in her life: In her family they were three girls, she associates herself with three specific countries—Saudi Arabia, India and England— and she speaks three languages.

Growing up, however, Shaima’s many worlds were not as married as they are today. Although she was born and raised in Jeddah, Shaima’s Arabic did not extend beyond her ability to read The Quran. As was—and still is—the case for many foreigners in Saudi at the time, Shaima and her family lived inside a secluded multinational compound. Her interaction with the locals was very limited, as Saudis were not generally allowed to attend international schools, such as the one she attended.

In addition, although ethnically Indian, Shaima did not go to India often and did not speak the language eloquently enough. “I was made fun off as a child for not speaking Urdu clearly enough, and that automatically makes you disconnect from who and what you are meant to be,” she tells me.

She related to England the most because she spoke the language well, knew the history and visited often growing up, “When I grew older I was expected to fit myself within the borders of a place, and because I visited England a lot growing up and I loved it, I said England because of love. That is how simple it was for me.”

Today, Shaima resides in Bahrain. But with every space and place, Shaima experienced an array of emotions and experiences, and with that the brand grew to become what it is today, “Over time, I reached a place I was excited about and it was ‘Third Culture Co’, where my overwhelming experiences have led me to create concepts for wearable art in social dialogue.”

The Regenerate Collection was designed to raise awareness about water preservation in the GCC Region. Photos: Ishaq Madan.

It was the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung who coined the term “synchronicity.” Jung believed that the events in our life are meaningful coincidences based on our consciousness of the human experience. Shaima describes the whole coming together of the Third Culture Co and all of its collaborators, in a similar manner, as a group of people with intent who want to create something meaningful that would push people to be more aware about certain social and environmental issues. “All my collaborators had something to add. We don’t do seasons, we do bold moves,” says Shaima.

Third Culture Co’s first collection, Hiraeth, was launched in February 2017 . It was inspired by the flamboyant culture and architecture of the Maharaja Empire in India. It incorporated the handwork of local artisans, which consisted of beautiful, intricately woven details of sequins, beads and gold thread. Hiraeth is a Welsh concept that means “longing” or “missing a place,” a sentiment that is felt by third culture kids, many of whom continue searching for “home.” The sequins stood for people, the beads for different cultures and the fine gold thread is what kept them together.  “My idea for the line was that I saw the world as one, but it still wanted to be segregated, like pieces of a puzzle scattered all over the place.”

Pieces from Third Culture Co.’s first collection, Hiraeth. Photo: Hannah Hunt.

Another early collection was the Dialogue Collection, which featured t-shirts with the Arabic word ajnabe.on them. Ajnabe is the term Arabs use to describe a foreigner and at times it can come off as an insult. However, Shaima considers the term to mean feeling “displaced” and without any roots tying you to a place.

“I create concepts and use fashion as a medium,” says Shaima. “Any piece from our line can become a story, one that sparks a meaningful conversation.” Shaima’s newest collection, Regenrate II, which launched in Bahrain earlier this month, opens a social dialogue on and raises awareness about a more environmental issue: single plastic use in the GCC Region. The collection features a unisex bag that was designed in collaboration with Bahraini environmental engineer and fashion designer Rawan Maki. The bag is made of organically produced materials as well as handwoven Bahraini fabric. It has been designed so that one can carry their cutlery with them on the go in order to avoid the use of plastic utensils, whilst still being fashion forward.

The Regenerate II Collection features a unisex bag, which was designed in collaboration with Bahraini Rawan Maki. Photos: Ishaq Madan.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Shaima dedicates a collection to raising awareness about an environmental issue. Last year, the first Regenerate Collection tackled the issue of water consumption in the GCC Region and the importance of preserving water.

As for where she belongs, Shaima is not a patriot of any country. She feels happiness and sorrow for each equally, and not just for the familiar three. Her heart aches for all of humanity, regardless of race and place. “Being rootless has made me more humanly connected to this world than any other label could. I am truly grateful for that,” she says.  

Click here to find out more about the Third Culture Co.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Sharifa Al Badi is a published writer and author from the magical lands of the Sultanate of Oman. She has written for Esquire ME, Khaleejesque and The Culture Trip. She is also the author of “Themis Aella & The Magical Forest” and “50 Things To Know As An Adult.”