She is the founder and CEO of Virtue, the first true biotech beauty brand formulated with an exclusive and multi-patented human protein, the now famous Alpha Keratin 60ku™, developed by the military to heal battlefield injuries. She started her company in 2014, two years after meeting the scientists behind this revolutionary form of keratin, and her first products launched in 2017.

He is the creative director of Virtue and one of the world’s most acclaimed and creative hair artists, known for his overflowing energy, his magic hands and his true empathy for everyone around him. His clients confide in him like in no other. He is a true believer in individual style and he can spend days researching for inspiration to create not only the perfect look, but one that never be forgotten.

Melisse Shaban and Adir Abergel are not only partners, but are almost family now – a family that they built together with their teams over the past decade, along with their niche and very successful brand. Dedicated to helping women have the best “crown” possible – their hair -, they are generous and determined to help emerging artists, most notably Arab fashion designers. So, they collaborated with Fashion Trust Arabia by creating a limited-edition Best Sellers Set, featuring their Restorative Treatment Mask and Healing Oil. This exclusive duo comes in a versatile velvet drawstring pouch, and 30% of the proceeds from each set sold will be donated to FTA.

Shaban and Abergel were in Doha last week for the FTA 2022 Prize ceremony. Pulse met them at their hotel, around some almond lattes and fruit platters, for a conversation that could’ve never ended.

Melisse, what did you think of Adir the first time you met him?

Very, very, very talented. Not all stylists are gifted. Meryl Streep has a gift, Adir, too.

What’s his gift?

His hands and his heart. There is only one Adir. So I would say his vision, his art, his creativity, his fearlessness and his heart.

That’s the second time you use the word ‘heart’ talking about him…

You know in his job, he has to make sure that the women he’s working on/for/with have a sense of confidence and trust. He works with high profile celebrities who are a little insecure, afraid of the outside world, and he’s very protective, very discreet. When you’re having your hair done, you’re vulnerable and then someone is there to get the best out of you and make you feel beautiful.

Adir, what did you think of Melisse the first time you met her?

Visionary, loyal, determined.

Determined about what?

About everything. She’s determined to create goodness, to be there for her family, to fight for people. Melisse is an incredible family person.

Do you fight a lot?

Melisse: A lot. We get animated, we’re both Mediterranean, I’m Italian and he’s Israeli, we get feisty. But we fight over ridiculous topics. He’s the product person and I’m the commercial one, he creates, I execute.

So it’s the perfect symbiosis?

Yes. There’s mutual love and respect, and we put our relationship ahead of everything else.

Could you work with somebody else?

Adir: I truly wouldn’t want to. In this business, it’s very difficult to find loyal people, who share the same values. I can’t sell anything I’m not in love with! William Burroughs once said: “The only currency you have in your lifetime is your name, keep it clean.”

Adir, you never wanted to work on men’s hair? Is it that dull and boring?

I worked once with Tom Cruise… It’s not that I’m not interested in dressing men’s hair. If I have a guy who needs a specific look, well I’ll do it, but men always keep the same look, they’re not willing to explore all of their sides.

Do you blame them for not being creative?

No! Everyone does whatever they want to do.

Melisse: Arab men are very good looking, they take very good care of themselves, their beards are very well shaped and there’s clearly an attention to aesthetics and looks.

Why is hair so important in the fashion world?

Hair is your crown, it’s what everybody sees first. Go back to history, the Bible, Cleopatra, but also Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, Cher, Julie Christie, Diana Ross… Hair is such a powerful part of us.

More than makeup?

Yes, because makeup is transformative for the moment and then you wash it off. Hair can become your style and can change the way people see you, it creates a feeling for you.

Is ‘Show me your hair and I’ll tell you who you are’ relevant to you?

I don’t know if people are that simple, they’re complex and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, they have many layers and their personality changes with time. But, yes, I can do that at a specific moment of their lives.

What advice would you give to upcoming designers when choosing a beauty/hair look for their collection or runway show?

I love collaborations! I love working with a designer, a stylist and a celebrity to put together a cohesive, thought process around it. It all starts with deep research, you have to dig deep and understand the history of hair. I would say to emerging fashion designers to always have great teams around them, people who know more than them. I would tell them not to be scared to ask questions! I have a 25 year old assistant and I definitely don’t act like I know anything, I always ask them what’s happening right now, who’s the new hype designer or photographer, what’s going on, etc.

So you’re an avid learner?

Yes. I want to learn every day. I’m hungry for that!

Is there a fashion designer you really love to work with?

Christian Lacroix, definitely, he’s absolutely my idol.

You never approached him?

No. I was working in the music video world for a very long time (Tina Turner, Britney), and then I moved into the world of celebrities (Anne Hathaway, Sandra Bullock…), I wasn’t immersed in fashion, it was a different direction for me…

What line or formulas from Virtue work in the Middle East’s climate?

I am Moroccan, and we all have very similar hair, between the Maghreb, the Levant and the GCC. When there’s a lot of humidity, you need stuff that hydrates your hair, and the two products that I would recommend for every single women living in the MENA region are the hair mask (the restorative treatment) and the healing oil. I couldn’t do without them if I were living here.

But I want to say that everywhere in the world, people have a very messed up relationship with their hair because they don’t treat it the way they treat their face, for example. People use facials, scrubs, masks, lip balms, etc., but they forget to put on a hair mask once a week, and they hardly wash their hair. People have to start treating their hair the way they treat their skin.

What are the steps to creating a red-carpet look?

Research. Understand what the person is going to wear. Stay open, don’t be narrow minded, and then get your craft down really well, I work very hard on my technique and I’m getting better at it. We need to get great at what we do.

Do you still need to train your hands?

I train my brains. Then I do have to train my hands if I’m going to do complicated things. Then the next step is crucial: Listen, be present and hold space for the person. There’s a lot of stress before the red carpet, lots of my clients are mothers…

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Everywhere. Literally everywhere. Old tribes, notably, but also Italian and French cinema of the 50’s and the 60’s. And let’s not forget street style, and young people’s social media – Instagram, not TikTok…

Is there a woman you dream of dressing?

I love very smart and powerful women who use their minds and who have an impact on the world.

You never wanted to dress women who are in politics? Like Kamala Harris for example?

Well, I did back in the days, I dressed Hillary and Nancy Reagan. And it’s funny you ask me about Kamala, when she was campaigning, I sent an email to my agent telling them to let her know that I would love to do her hair if she’s in town and wants it done. I really like to support women who need help in the moment.

Does that come from your mother?

No, from my dad. He’s one of the most important human activists in Israel, where he moved in the late 60’s. He started the Black Panthers movement in the 70’s, and he fought for the Palestinians, the Yemenis and the Moroccans, and I grew up fighting for other human beings’ rights.

So you’re deeply inspired by the Arab world?

Completely. I grew up listening to Um Kulthum and wearing kaftans, I’m very Moroccan.

Melisse, what does it take to be a leader?

Compassion! As an entrepreneur, failing fast is the best thing you could do, and also quickly acknowledging what’s working and what’s not, and not being afraid of it. When you work for a big company, you don’t want to get tagged with a mistake, but with a startup, it’s about taking risks, not blaming and not finger pointing. Today, to be a leader, you have to be empathetic, but in a soft way, in understanding people, trying to feel what somebody else might be feeling.

How hard was it to bring Virtue to life?

It was very complicated. It was a piece of technology that was very complex to make, and it was developed by a biotech company that was paid to discover, not to commercialize.

Would you have done things differently?

I would have wanted to do things differently, but I don’t think I could have. Where I was challenged was raising money, because the people who understood biotechnology and understood the quality of what was going to happen didn’t understand how you commercialize a product.

How do you personally overcome obstacles? The hard way? The soft way? Diplomatically?

No, not always diplomatically. I’m a Capricorn, I’m a street fighter, I never give up, especially if I believe in something. I knew we had something special with Virtue. We gave away thousands of samples and the feedback was just amazing.

Is that what you’re most proud of?

Yes. We exceeded the consumers’ expectations, and in the beauty industry, that’s almost impossible to achieve.

Where is Virtue available in the Arab world?

At Sephora, exclusively, and it will remain so. They are very good partners for us, they really understand the Arab market and they have a big appreciation for small niche brands, they put a lot of effort and love.

How does the Arab consumer differ to the rest of the world?

They are more discerning, and very curious about how we can help their hair’s condition. Arab consumers have a huge appetite for beauty and a deep appreciation for quality and authenticity.

Why is it important for Virtue to collaborate with an initiative like Fashion Trust Arabia?

There’s nothing that we love more than mentorship in our lives, and this initiative is amazing at highlighting emerging talents, and pushing people to be more virtuous in their art.

Will Virtue have a little sibling, Vice for example?

Hahaha, why not! What we surely know is that we will go after the men’s business.