Generation Start-up: self-taught Emirati designer challenges norms with his mixed-material leather goods
Eisa Alsubousi left his job with the Abu Dhabi Government to set up his label Tharb
The initial ambition was to design understated leather goods such as wallets and laptop cases, but there were several challenges: no formal training, lack of time and an absence of local role models from the accessories industry. But the sheer urge to take a risk and manufacture something unique, led to the formation of Tharb, a high-end product design studio based in Abu Dhabi.
“The journey was not easy. I had to leave my stable government job, I had no training in product design, manufacturers were not convinced of my theme, and there was a big fear of failure as I was putting in all my savings in the new venture,” says Eisa Alsubousi, 29, founder and creative director of Tharb.
“There were mixed voices, but I decided to go with my own gut feeling.”
After graduating in mass communications from American University in Sharjah, Mr Alsubousi worked for the Abu Dhabi Government for nearly four years before starting his own business, making and selling luxury leather goods. He left his job in June 2016, and six months later, he opened Tharb.
“I needed some time to study the market before launching my own brand. So, despite hesitations, I took the bold step of leaving my full-time job and started from scratch. I started making the rounds of factories and meeting manufacturers to gauge the market,” he says.
Mr Alsubousi’s first product was a woman's handbag called "Shamma", named after his mother and made of leather and marble. His first concept was to test the market but his idea of mixing materials was rejected by industry experts.
“Manufacturers said mixing leather and marble was not done before and it was impractical, they overruled it straightaway. But I was convinced in my mind and eventually found the right like-minded people, who were ready to produce it,” says Mr Alsubousi.
He registered the brand name Tharb and officially opened in December 2016. Shamma came out of the factory in January 2017 and was well-received by buyers at exhibitions, proving the naysayers wrong.
Tharb sells handbags, wallets, laptop sleeves and phone cases, and has built a loyal local following. More than 85 per cent of the customers are Emiratis.
“We specialise in creating products that are elegant, minimal and practical, using the best materials in the world. The idea is to allow materials to showcase their natural beauty with negligible interruptions,” he says, of the core philosophy behind his designs.
Mr Alsubousi sees huge potential in the luxury goods industry in the region.
The luxury goods market, including leather products, is forecast to reach $15.1 billion (Dh55.46bn) by 2022, from $11.5bn in 2017, growing at a compound annual growth rate of almost 5.6 per cent in the Middle East and Africa, according to British data analytics company GlobalData.
The UAE remained the largest luxury market in the region with a share of 41.3 per cent in 2017, and is expected to retain its top position through to 2022.
Within the first two months of starting his business, Mr Alsubousi was invited by the organisers of a community makeshift marketplace in Abu Dhabi, to showcase his products. He started with only two product categories that became an instant hit.
“Usually, Emiratis are big fans of global luxury brands that come with ultra-modern designs, so I was a little apprehensive before taking my products to the market. But immediately after the first event, I knew that people were interested in my designs, especially the young generation,” he says.
Mr Alsubousi used his Dh150,000 in savings to establish Tharb and has not approached any investor so far.
“I am not a business-minded person but I am a big saver of money. And I took a big risk when I decided to use all my savings. I wanted to build something purely on my own. We did not need investor just for the sake of it," he says.
Tharb has broken even and Mr Alsubousi says the focus is on entirely reinvesting into the company. He declined to disclose sales figures.
After establishing a base in the UAE, Mr Alsubousi is considering expanding to the US market, which he considers a hub for luxury products. He has already started marketing Tharb in the United States and will start selling there in the coming months.
“While making my products, I always keep in mind that the UAE is a home to dozens of nationalities, so my designs always have a global appeal. They will fit well in all geographies. The US is my next destination and soon we will announce our presence there,” he says.
Tharb, which has relied on online sales and pop-up shops so far, is soon going to have a more permanent physical presence in the UAE. Mr Alsubousi will open Tharb’s first boutique at Gate Avenue area in Dubai International Financial Centre in March or April this year.
“My first choice of selling is always online as I wanted to save on the middleman’s commission and we are also doing well in it. In fact, I had never thought earlier that I would be having my own physical space for Tharb products,” he says.
Tharb is a one-man show as Mr Alsubousi relies on freelancers for marketing and sales, and has tied up with manufacturers in the UAE for production. He is now planning to hire full-time sales staff in different parts of the Emirates.
“We will not go abruptly fast and end up burning our hands. The idea is to be patient and go step by step,” says Mr Alsubousi. “Now we are in expansion mode and will be hiring more staff and adding more products to Tharb’s portfolio.”
Tharb relies majorly on social media, especially Instagram, for promotions and marketing.
“Our target audience lives there and that is the best medium to reach them. Our customers are tech-savvy and always online, we have never thought of doing promotions through traditional media.”
Mr Alsubousi, who is fond of sketching and visual arts, wants to expand Tharb's product line in the next few years.
“My aim is to compete on a global scale. Now there is an established base and I am also exploring new markets. New inclusions could be customised furniture and items made from other precious metals and stones,” he says.
Published: March 3, 2019 08:30 AM