How Kanzeh became the label of Arabia

Kanzeh, an online platform selling T-shirts and hoodies featuring Arabic calligraphy and pop-culture references, has expanded its range to include custom-made varsity jackets. We meet the brand's Syrian-born Dubai-based founder

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It took more than five weeks after an Instagram post showcasing his creative T-shirt designs for Amir Sebai to receive his very first order.

“We created about 300 T-shirt designs in Photoshop before we even thought about selling a single one,” recalls the 26-year-old Syrian designer who has been living in Dubai since he was 4. “I didn’t have money to create the stock or actually make the T-shirts. All I could do was design them, familiarise myself with Instagram, post my designs on there, and see what would happen.”

What did happen over the next three years is what rags-to-riches tales are made of. Since its launch in 2015, – an online venture selling T-shirts, sweatshirts and now varsity jackets, all with an Arabian touch – has experienced 800 per cent growth. Which means Sebai eventually received enough orders to be able to make the garments that have since become so popular, and even start shipping them worldwide. “I still can’t believe it,” says Sebai. “When that first order came in after five weeks of us posting and reposting our designs, we were ecstatic. Suddenly, it picked up, and in six or seven months, it practically went viral. I’m actually not that old, and I’m running a company that’s making a profit. I really can’t believe it.”

A fresh graduate armed with a degree in interior design, Sebai and one of his friends from school were eager to use Arabic calligraphy in a cool, modern way that would appeal to young, style-conscious consumers. “I wanted to combine fashion with calligraphy, but also with Arabic culture, phrases and expressions. This business has given us a chance to create interesting, edgy fonts, and also to showcase our tendency to be sarcastic, all through what we wear,” he explains.

A T-shirt with wordplay by Kanzeh

Initially, they put every dirham made through the sale of a T-shirt right back into the company. “When the orders started pouring in through Instagram two or three months after we had started, and when we reached a point where we couldn’t respond to messages immediately, that’s when we knew things had become real. We used all the revenue we had made to go out and licence everything. We got ourselves a logo, we got a trade licence at the Sharjah Free Zone, and we made everything official,” says Sebai, who has since bought his partner out.

One area of the business he didn’t spend money on was marketing. Word of mouth, he says, is the best and most trustworthy marketing tool. And that’s how he wanted Kanzeh’s popularity to spread. “I don’t like doing things half-well, so in those early days when we were creating our first T-shirt designs, I spent a lot of time learning about Instagram,” he says. “It’s a social platform, sure, but it’s also so much more than that. I learnt how hashtags work, how to use the site as a search engine, how to find out about the most searched hashtags.” Kanzeh products are now available on other e-commerce sites, including Souq, Namshi and Desertcart. Sebai has also expanded his clothing offering to include tank tops, pants and printed accessories such as mugs, and has even considered making shoes. But his bestsellers, he maintains, are the T-shirts and fleece hoodies in three basic colours – white, black and grey – which have always been the brand’s staples. It makes sense, says Sebai, since the word “kanzeh” is the Arabic for a T-shirt or sweater, and it’s what appeals most.

A hoodie with the words Habibi Dubai by Kanzeh

"We have special collections that aren't necessarily Arabic, but are still what young Arabs are interested in," says Sebai, referring to his Game of Thrones collection, and T-shirts that pay homage to musicians such as Drake, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur. Kanzeh's appeal is that it does something different, says Sebai. It's streetwear with an Arabian touch. Sweatshirts are adorned with colloquial Arabic expressions such as "ease up" or "don't mess with me", or lyrics from Arabic songs, or even English expressions, such as "don't be dramatic", but written out phonetically in Arabic. A Turkish collection features phrases printed on T-shirts and hoodies in Turkish, with the Arabic translation printed underneath, to pay homage to the soap operas that are a favourite of the region.

This summer, Kanzeh also launched the option to customise varsity jackets, a popular choice among high-school seniors in the UAE and wider Gulf region. “Students can go online and customise everything about the jacket: the colour of the sleeves, the cuffs, the neck, how much embroidery they want on it, the lining, everything. They can upload their own designs, or pick from our database; whatever they want.” The jackets are priced from Dh130 and go up to Dh600, depending on what’s requested.

“We come up with ideas for what to design, but [after] seeing what our customers are seeking. We look into what the most searched words and phrases are on our website and on Google, what’s on trend, and what the most highly ranked keywords are, and we take it from there,” he explains, adding: “Everyone was searching for Tupac, so we had to give them Tupac.”

With T-shirts ranging in price from Dh70 to Dh90, and hoodies priced from Dh130 to Dh150, the clothes are affordable in addition to being well-made. The majority of customers, says Sebai, are in Saudi Arabia, with 60 per cent of orders coming from the Kingdom, while 30 per cent come from the UAE, with 10 per cent being a mix of regional and international orders. “Arabs living abroad love wearing our hoodies. It allows them to express themselves through fashion.”


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