July 18, 2022 7:19 AM EDT

Natalia Shustova remembers cutting the sleeves off her school uniforms. She’s never been a conformer. “I always wanted to stand out,” Shustova says. Now the 44-year-old Belarusian lawyer is part of a creative revolution in the high-gloss city of Dubai.

Dubai has a reputation for luxury business, but not exactly the kind of quirky risk-taking that comes with more artistic endeavors. Many of the high-end businesses in the region expanded to Dubai only once they’d proved lucrative. Shustova followed that model, but her business was her own creativity. After building a reputation as a social media fashion influencer, she launched her creative floral-design company, Goshá, in Dubai in 2020 with almost instant success. Her very first commission? Flower displays for a Louis Vuitton fashion show.

The resilience needed to create a new life and a new business in a new city comes from Shustova’s upbringing. She grew up in a town 140 miles from Chernobyl, which, when she was just 7 in 1986, was the site of a nuclear meltdown and huge radiation leak. Life changed immediately for her family. “We only ate canned food. It was very traumatic,” she says. “Forty percent of my classmates are now dead.”

The family moved to Siberia, where Shustova’s love of nature was born. “We had 10 months of winter and then 40 days of spring, summer, and autumn during which everything blooms, then dies,” she says. “The power of nature is incredible.”

Natalia Shustova’s floral studio Goshá carved out a creative niche in Dubai (Natalie Naccache for TIME)
Natalia Shustova’s floral studio Goshá carved out a creative niche in Dubai
Natalie Naccache for TIME

Shustova first arrived in Dubai in 2006, a trained lawyer unable to speak English. “I was a fashionable, blond, 26-year-old Russian [speaking] girl with no idea who she was,” she says now. A local real estate law firm hired her to work with Russian–speaking investors, and she eventually became a partner, allowing her to indulge her passion for luxury fashion. Her creative style along with her spending sprees were soon noticed by Prada, which invited her to sit front row at its 2016 Milan show. “Runway shows were the most beautiful theater I’d ever seen, and I wanted to be connected to this world,” she says.

Social media provided the platform, and as her online presence grew, paid collaborations with large brands followed. By 2016 she had quit law and decided to pursue floral design full time. “I’ve watched Natalia come up, and she has remained authentic, which is really cool,” says Pratyush Sarup, content director at Architectural Digest Middle East. “She has a good eye for design and also good taste, and both are bookended by an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion.”

Since launching Goshá, Shustova has become a well-known presence in a growing boutique artistic community in Dubai. The city, she says, was the perfect environment for her to develop her unusual career. “Nothing is impossible in Dubai. No one is there to stop you, they’re there to push you forward,” she says. “Creative people are made to feel welcome here.”

TIME’s Destination Dubai series is presented by DUBAI

See the video at time.com/DestinationDubai

This appears in the July 04, 2022 issue of TIME.

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