A Saudi fashion label plans ahead for a coronavirus downturn

34-year-old fashion designer Shahd Al-Shehail, from Al-Mubarraz in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa region, hopes to make a difference with an ethical luxury label. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 11 October 2020

A Saudi fashion label plans ahead for a coronavirus downturn

  • COVID-19 has pummeled the world of fashion, clearing catwalks and emptying workshops and showrooms
  • To weather the anticipated storm, heritage fashion brand Abadia is seeking to add value for customers

DUBAI: The way Saudi entrepreneur Shahd Al-Shehail tells it, the businesses that will survive — and thrive — in the new normal will be those that offer added value. As consumers seek stronger justifications to part with their money in the coronavirus-fueled downturn, her heritage fashion label Abadia could deliver just that edge.

“I believe if we aren’t adding anything new or original to the work we’re doing, there’s no point in doing it. The world doesn’t need more clothes per se,” she said.

While developments such as online retail and drop-shipping have allowed more designers to launch their own fashion labels, business success in the sector is paradoxically harder than ever.

“Even before the pandemic, it was quite hard to set up a successful fashion brand. The market was really quite oversaturated,” said Al-Shehail.

The 34-year-old fashion designer, from Al-Mubarraz in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa region, hopes to make a difference with an ethical luxury label that marries traditional crafts with contemporary silhouettes for today’s urban nomads.

Sadu, the geometric weave characteristic of Bedouin societies across the Middle East, has been a mainstay of the line since it was launched in 2016. A recent collection reinterpreted naqda, a classic technique where thin strands of metal are embroidered onto lightweight fabrics such as silk and tulle.

Meanwhile, the farwa, a floor-length winter coat conventionally worn by men, has become the brand’s signature piece. Floaty but structured, Abadia farwas seem to echo the roles modern Middle Eastern women are carving out for themselves.

The robes have topped regional shopping lists since Jordan’s Queen Rania was photographed wearing one to her daughter’s graduation from the British military academy Sandhurst.

Yet, interwoven into every piece is an equally beautiful backstory. Abadia garments are hand-embroidered largely within Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qassim administrative region, where the company has helped to improve the livelihoods of about 45 traditional artisans, raising their income by 40 percent, Al-Shehail says.

*****

READ MORE: How Arabian design scene is moving from product to purpose

*****

“These are mostly older women who hadn’t taught their craft to the next generation because they didn’t see the economic benefit of passing on those skills,” she said.

Because regional consumers are often motivated by compassion, craftspeople experience significant income volatility. Demand peaks during Ramadan, but declines to next to nothing over the rest of the year.

“We wanted to help elevate Middle Eastern crafts in the same way that French or Italian traditions are celebrated, while at the same time safeguarding our heritage and the storytelling behind it,” Al-Shehail said.

“At a fundamental level, I believe we cannot ask artists to preserve any craft — or our heritage — if we don’t give them economic incentives to continue.”

Like everyone else in the fashion industry, Al-Shehail has battled economic problems of her own since COVID-19 appeared, clearing runways and emptying workshops and showrooms alike around the world.

“Looking at the rest of the industry, we haven’t seen that huge a decline in orders. Nor have we seen any growth, but we’ve had new orders from new geographies, particularly the US,” she said. The coronavirus has allowed her team to take a step back and think about aspects of the business that they do not usually spend time on, such as broadening their marketing outreach and developing deeper relationships with their customers.

In particular, the same long-term financial planning and calculated risk-taking that helped Abadia to break even in its first year of business will help it retain its full-time staff and freelancers.

“At the beginning of this pandemic, we sat down and forecast our business to the end of the year, that we’ll be able to keep everybody on board. We’ve always focused on growing the business organically, on making sure we never put our artisans and employees at risk,” she said.

“Every business has a different strategy, but for us the goal has been to build long-term sustainability. I don’t come from a place of liquidity and I’m not investing my dad’s money. So, it was important to define three-year, five-year and 10-year goals.

“The fashion industry is a very tough industry, it’s a very saturated industry, and it’s important to build businesses that are growing sustainably and in a financially sound way,” she said. 

---------------------------

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

Decoder

Farwa

The farwa is an oversized floor length coat traditionally worn by Bedouin men to survive the cold desert winters.


A Jordanian holistic snacks range sweetens a healthy lifestyle

Updated 54 min 37 sec ago

A Jordanian holistic snacks range sweetens a healthy lifestyle

  • Karma Bdeir’s snacks company sprang from her desire to satisfy her own sweet tooth in a healthier way
  • The MedShed provides holistic alternatives in a region where obesity and diabetes have become prevalent

AMMAN: When discussing healthy eating patterns and holistic wellbeing, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is not the first region that comes to mind. Now young Arab entrepreneurs are starting to change that. Karma Bdeir, a Jordanian-Syrian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, is one of them.

Bdeir launched The MedShed five years ago with the aim of reintroducing healthy eating to the region under the theme “mind, body and soul.”

“There has been some major development over the past three years in the MENA region in consumer habits and there is still room to grow,” said Bdeir. “It’s so refreshing to see so many new healthy brands arising in the region and more awareness around healthier alternatives.”

Based in Amman, Bdeir’s healthy snacks company sprang from her own desire to satisfy her sweet tooth in a healthier way, at a time when there were few healthy options available.

Initially it started off as a hobby while she worked in interior architecture. Shortly after, she created a food and health blog, and received a certification in Holistic Nutrition from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York.

“I have always loved health and nutrition, and found myself immersed in learning about the holistic wellness industry,” she said. “The MedShed was born out of my own relationship with food and body because I had a lot of misconceptions — I focused way too much on being too strict with eating healthy and being perfect about it.”

One of her courses highlighted the differences between primary and secondary food, and what she calls a “game changer” for her. “Secondary food is the food that you eat that pertains to you as an individual and to your lifestyle,” she said. “Whereas primary food has nothing to do with food — it’s about relationships, productivity, physical activity and spirituality. When I started looking at it through that lens, I saw the missing link. Health goes way beyond food.”

She started focusing more on internal healing, feeding herself through primary food and balancing the scales.

Based in Amman, Bdeir’s healthy snacks company sprang from her own desire to satisfy her sweet tooth in a healthier way, at a time when there were few healthy options available. (Supplied)

“My mother inspired me to look at things through a holistic lens.” Bdeir said. “Pills are not the answer. You need to heal from within, find out what is unbalanced in yourself and let the symptoms be your guide. It’s all about healing yourself from the inside out.”

When she launched her snack line from home in May 2015, she was the first to successfully introduce healthy sweets and snacks to Jordan. And when Amman opened its first juice shop, Seed, at around the same time, she was able to start selling her products, which also began appearing at local shops and gyms, before moving into supermarkets. “I was simultaneously doing health coaching and testing out my product range,” Bdeir said. “It took two years to develop the recipe for my cookies. I did a lot of trial and error, market research and feedback.”

After refining her products, she went on to launch her bakery line, followed by ice cream last year. Now she plans to expand into the Gulf, starting with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “The pandemic delayed my plans to launch, but I’m pushing it to May 2021 for Dubai and 2022 for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region,” she said. “I think the brand has the opportunity to flourish in the Gulf, because I’ve done pop-ups in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the response was great.”

She describes her products as the perfect healthy yet indulgent snacks — made from dates, nuts, coconuts and oats, as well as date molasses, almond flour and coconut sugar, the snacks contain a good balance of healthy fats, fiber and protein, which provide long-term sustained energy release.

“I want to help promote the idea that if you have a sweet tooth, it’s a pleasure and it’s okay,” Bdeir said. “It’s in our culture to eat dates as well, so it’s local goodness. I’ve always loved an almond-stuffed date and I wanted to create something more exciting from the same ingredients.”

Now Bdeir is increasing her range from 16 to 20 snack products in two different serving sizes, adding to her 15 baked goods, which include cakes, donuts and ice cream sandwiches. She hopes this will provide another stepping stone to change in a region where obesity and diabetes have become prevalent.

“You still have people going on unhealthy diets,” she said. “I’m really against the diet culture and pre-calculated meal plans. It can be a starting point for newbies, but you have to reach that place of intuitive eating, where it’s 80 percent healthy and 20 percent indulgence. After that, you just live your life.”

-------------------

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.