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Bahraini antique furniture startup eyes regional expansion
Two years ago, childhood friends Sara Sayyar and Mariam Fathi started a business based on their passion for “all things old and broken... yet beautiful.” Now, with a retail outlet and plans to expand beyond the GCC, the two friends may well also revitalize regional interest in second-hand furniture.
Their venture, Babushka — Russian for ‘grandmother’ — restores and preserves antique furniture pieces and home accessories, renewing their depth and character. They design custom-built furniture as well.
“We create new designs by utilizing extraordinary textured and decorative fabrics sourced from all over the world to produce charming pieces of furniture, capturing the eccentricity of diverse cultures,” explains Sayyar as she traces the embroidery on a pillow wrapped in Uzbek cloth.
In addition to Uzbekistan, the partners are on a constant crusade to find unique fabrics — and inspiration — from cultural hubs like Egypt, Turkey, and India, as well as locally sourced materials from Bahrain.
“Unlike conventional furniture stores we have the advantage of being able to offer custom-made products tailored to customer tastes and preferences. Most of our clients are women who appreciate culture and art, and are looking for unique pieces to express their individualism whilst furnishing their homes,” Sayyar adds.
Babushka’s products range from BD15 ($40 USD) for a small pillow to BD650 ($1,725 USD) for larger furniture pieces. These take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to produce, depending on the availability of the right fabrics and materials.
Sayyar, who is 27 years old and has a background in marketing and fashion, tells me that right after the first launch, they showcased Babushka products at local exhibitions, like the popular annual arts haven Market 338, and the Bab Market: a contemporary outdoor festival in the heart of the Manama souq. Babushka also managed to build an impressive fan base on Instagram, where they have over 8,000 followers.
The partners were then invited to become a part of Riyadat Mall, a mall established to support Bahraini female entrepreneurs by giving them the space and resources to promote their business and sell their wares.
“Opening a retail outlet has been a really great learning experience,” notes 26 year-old Fathi, who is originally Egyptian and comes from an advertising background.
“It has really honed our ability to discern what our customers are looking for — resulting in the expansion of our product range to cater to varied tastes. We’ve noticed, for instance, that most of our customers are really drawn to bright colorful fabrics and calligraphy. And they love our pillows and ottomans!”
The ladies are fortunate to have very supportive parents who have continued to mentor and brainstorm with them at various phases on their entrepreneurial journey.
Looking to the future, some of the challenges they face include market limitations for second-hand furniture, and the availability of exceptional and rare fabrics.
However, with both co-founders equally resilient as they are artistic, they say that this has only forced them to innovate and create their own designs.
The other challenge they face is the quintessential artist’s dilemma: remaining unattached to what is undoubtedly a labor of love.
“To be honest, we get attached to most of our pieces because we spend a substantial amount of time trying to figure out how we can creatively revive their beauty,” admits Fathi.
Asked about their favorite, Fathi says, “No doubt about it, the furniture piece that dazzled us with its beauty as soon as we laid our eyes on it was a beaten down dresser, inspired by the Victorian Era. We found it at a second hand furniture auction and we named it ‘Crème de la Crème’. It was sold almost immediately!”
Babuskha currently ships to the GCC and has plans to ship to the Arab world in 2014.
Leena Al Olaimy is a social entrepreneur and professional idealist as co-founder of 3BL ‘Triple Bottom Line’ Associates: a Bahrain-based social impact and sustainability consultancy and think-do-tank committed to the MENA region’s sustainable development. She is also the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) Quality Control Consultant for Sustainability Reporting Training Partners in the MENA Region.
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