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In Conversation with Asil Attar: Lessons in business and life from a retail expert

Article-In Conversation with Asil Attar: Lessons in business and life from a retail expert

Meet Asil Attar, the Arab fairy godmother of fashion retail. From facing personal challenges to scaling the peaks of the retail industry, her 30-year journey is a testament to resilience and ambition. Dive into her inspiring story from shop floor beginnings to becoming a top CEO, and discover how she's now shaping the future of fashion.

It’s hard not to be bowled over by Asil Attar’s determination and ambition upon meeting her. Her 30-year career has spanned continents, diverged into different career paths seeing her climb the proverbial ladder from shopfloor to CEO, all while facing and overcoming immense mental health challenges. 

She has garnered the moniker as the Arab fairy godmother of fashion retail, was named by Forbes Middle East as one of the Top 50 International CEOs from the Arab region in 2019 and was featured in the Top 100 Influential Arab Women list in 2018, while being the first female CEO of the MENA region’s behemoth retailers.

Speaking from her London office, Asil explains that she’s often been described as somewhat of an over-achiever. Her determination and high-achieving attitude, she admits, was instilled in her as a teenager by her Iraqi parents.

It was their hard work and ambition that inspired her to graduate high school at 15 and then graduate university at just 19 with a Bachelor's degree in interior design. She quickly started her own interior design business and from there eventually went on to climb the career ladder, which allowed her to work with over 250 of the worlds most coveted brands and retail groups, in addition to taking the helm as CEO for multi-million-dollar retail businesses in the UK, Europe and Middle East.

“I was eager to start a business. I wanted to get out into the world as soon as possible. At that age, you’re young and foolish at times,” she laughs. “My parents have been inspirational to me; they were ambitious and supported my own dreams. So, after graduating I started my own interior design business in the 90s at a time when the term lifestyle was at the height of the fashion and interior design world, and I got to work with amazing hotel groups.”


But it was during a time of heightened anxiety and OCD, following her first pregnancy, when Asil decided to take a step back from her career as an interior designer. For her, it was a challenging period of managing her OCD and never wanting to leave home when an acquaintance advised her that the best way to deal with it was to immerse herself in a job, which ultimately became her saving grace.

“I thought to myself, where can I disappear for the whole day and be forced to be in an environment surrounded by people, tackling my OCD head on, that would also allow me to learn and develop my passion for fashion, brands and products.  That place was Harrods, the home to hundreds of the world’s best brands. I started from the bottom, as a sales person because that’s always the best place to learn. then, I even had to audition for the part of a salesperson, because I had not been working for five years, she said.

“Being thrust into a new role, I loved it, I was working 5 days a week, long days on my feet, with a salary of $12,000 a year, but I was learning so much, I loved every second of it was there that I developed the passion of the retail industry. One of my mentors at the time was prominent Egyptian businessman, Mohamed Al Fayed. A remarkable man, every day he would walk the floor and he would know every one’s name and he would chat to customers,” she said.

For Asil, those early days of OCD that led her onto a new path has been instrumental in shaping her career. “Today, I do a lot for mental health because it’s taken 40 years to recognise what I have. I owe my career to my OCD. Had it not been the issues I had I would have never entered the world of fashion and retail.”


It was after her second child, and still managing her OCD that Asil went back into the retail world but this time she wanted to take a different approach by learning the product side of the business of fashion and becoming an expert in it, and so she opted for a career as a buyer, where she returned to Harrods learning new skills, and gaining clients in the retail world.

She was headhunted from Harrods and joined Karen Millen an aspirational UK brand, thereafter joining other large fashion retails and then eventually headhunted to the Middle East assuming senior executive roles including the CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Fashion and within a few short years she began transforming the retail industry in the GCC working as CEO for the region’s giants including Damas Jewellery – where she was the first female CEO in 100 years.

“There are very few CEOs that are hybrids like myself, with the ability to think both creatively and commercially and there are even fewer female CEOs in the industry. The CEO persona I held in the organisations that I have led is unique, I am an integral part of the creative strategy, marketing, branding and communication as well as the CEO position which is the full responsibility and accountability of the operational side of the business and the P&L. I also lead with empathy and compassion for my teams. The frontline teams are always the most important people to me, they are the engine that makes the business run.


As a CEO, Asil faced a fair number of challenges. From navigating relationships, the politics that come with leadership, and gaslighting. 

“The first challenge is understanding the psyche of the people and teams you work with and lead, leading with empathy and heightened emotional engagement. I have a very distinct process when I joined any business of any size, is that the first 6 weeks I dedicate to meeting every single person in that organisation to fully understand the business in order to make informed decisions. I used to meet 200 – 3000 people in 9 cities and 6 geographies.  It was crucial for me to get candid direct feedback on the business from the teams involved in it. Once I gained a complete understanding, then and only then would I make plans, set strategies and move onto implementation,” she said.

The other challenge that she faced as a female CEO was the politics. “The thousands of no’s I received when pitching ideas to the board were immense. I have found that people will either love you and your vision or they will spend their time working for your demise. The nature of what I do was turnaround and transformation, so you know by default that’s going to rock the boat. I’m not coming into a stable business, my job is to fix a broken business. Whatever actions I took, I ensured that were based on my values.”

Looking back, Asil remarks that her worst bosses have been her best teachers, they taught her what not to do and her best bosses have been her inspiration. Today, her advice to young professionals entering the corporate world: “Arm yourself with knowledge, understand your limitations and guard your reputation, ask those questions am I being too stretched? No one can put you down unless you give them the opportunity. You’re also never going to please anyone so have total self-appreciation.”  

Today, her consultancy Lead AssociatesS is dedicated to start-ups, SMEs and helping retail businesses with transformation and restructuring. But mentoring, coaching and knowledge transfer remains her passion project. Asil has developed a fashion business accelerator programme for fashion, retail and brands sharing her 30 years’ experience.

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