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How a 25-year-old Saudi Entrepreneur is Rethinking the Hijab
Fashion entrepreneurship is one of the fastest growing segments in the world of startups. The clothing industry is estimated to equal more than a $1 trillion globally and, with a pie that large, everyone wants a piece.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the fashion industry is of particular interest to the region's entrepreneurs as unique cultural characteristics provide great opportunities for disruption and re-invention in everyday fashion trends. However, few are attempting to revolutionize local fashion trends as ambitiously as Rand AlBassam. She wants to revolutionize one of the region’s most recognized clothing items: the hijab.
When traveling outside MENA, she noticed that many of her friends felt uncomfortable with the negative attention their hijabs attracted in countries outside of the region. “A lot of my friends were removing their hijab when they left Saudi, not because they did not believe in it, but because the attention it brought made them feel uncomfortable,” she says.
This discomfort intensified with the rise of heated political debates globally such as the hijab ban in France and Denmark. Young family members close to AlBassam were even starting to reject the hijab because they felt it lacked the glamour and beauty associated with fashion. “My little cousins were referring to the hijab as an ugly cover and disliked it because it did not go well with their colorful dresses,” she explains.
While travelling back and forth between MENA and Europe, AlBassam felt stuck between rejections of the hijab’s style from local women and accusations that the hijab is a tool of oppression from western observers. She felt compelled to create something to challenge both assumptions.
As a fan of Hollywood glamour, AlBassam was captivated by the elegance of golden-era icons, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, especially when they dazzled the audience while wearing colorful turbans.
“A turban is pretty much a hijab,” she said, “I mean, you cover your hair much like you would with a regular scarf. In fact, it is better and more secure at covering the hair. You can do whatever you want with your turban, and look good doing it!” In late 2011, the Italian luxury fashion house, Prada, introduced loosely fitted turbans (for both men and women) during Prada’s Haute Couture show in Milan. AlBassam took this inspiration and decided to re-introduce turbans to women in MENA, with an Islamic touch. Thus T4Turban was born.
Building the Brand
T4Turban is a line of custom-made turbans specifically tailored for Muslim women. The turbans combine stunning patterns and colors with style acceptable for the region’s tradition and culture. AlBassam had a soft launch on Instagram to simply test the response to her designs. Within just a few weeks she was receiving e-mails from consumers as far as Turkey and Canada. She was even surprised to receive a high-volume order from a Malaysian princess.
The immediate interest was so overwhelming that she had to stop taking orders for several weeks to expand her team and build a more traditional e-commerce platform. “I think they are interested in buying turban because it allows them to dress up, mix and match, express their personal style, all while remaining within the acceptable borders of Islamic dress code,” she said. AlBassam has sold more than 600 turbans to date and she is now able to accommodate the steady demand for her product.
Her success story was not without challenges however. Launching from Saudi Arabia, a country often notorious for restrictions on women, AlBassam needed support to address the logistical challenges of launching a fashion business there. Thankfully, her husband, Abdulaziz AlBassam, supported his wife’s venture and helped her navigate the launch.
He helped AlBassam to set up the design studio, bank accounts, and to organize the various staffing and logistical needs for the startup. In addition, her family proved to be an invaluable marketing team as they created a word-of-mouth campaign in the Gulf, which quickly spread to other countries both within the Arab world and beyond. Much of T4Turban’s promotional work is still done with the help of family members.
T4Turban designs are now sold in renowned boutiques across the Gulf including the DAS boutique in Jumeirah, Dubai.
For AlBassam this is only the beginning. With the e-commerce platform almost complete, she hopes to begin featuring her product in boutiques around the world. Her dream is for Muslim women to proudly cover their hair and feel beautiful while doing so.
Ahmed Al Maid is a graduate of McGill University with a degree in engineering and management. He is interested in collaborative consumption and the application of gamification elements to increase user/costumer engagement in social entrepreneurship projects. He currently works as a project engineer with Saudi Aramco at the Kesytone Center, an idea translation lab being built inside the anticipated King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He is also the co-founder of the upcoming mobile app KareSpot, a mobile network that aims to connect volunteers with volunteering opportunities in MENA. You can find him on Twitter at @ahmed_oo.
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