It began with a chair and a few wigs. With those, Saleem Hameed hoped he could give his brothers from Kerala a chance to join him in the UAE. He could hardly have foreseen that, by doing so, he would not only found an industry but also sow the seeds of a conflict that would end with the brothers fighting each other in court.
Mr Hameed bought his first hairpieces and a professional chair, and arranged them in a one-bedroom apartment on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi. In 1999, Gulf Gate Hair Fixing opened its doors. At first, business was slow, with barely a handful of clients each month. Then came a breakthrough a synthetic hair, imported from Canada, that could be sown on to a fake "poly-skin" scalp to make a realistic hairpiece.
The hair was easy to style, either to the prevailing Indian taste short, and "fluffy or curly" in the front, or to the Pakistani preference long with layers, usually parted in the middle. More importantly, it was cheap, far cheaper than the best alternatives available at the time. Previously, the price of a toupee made of real hair was in excess of Dh6,000 (US$1,600) per hairpiece, Gulf Gate could sell them for a fraction of that, as little as Dh1,000. In any case, Islam forbids its followers from wearing a wig of hair taken from another person.
In an attempt to distance its products from any stigma associated with hair loss, the company abandoned all reference to wigs, toupees, and balding. Instead it offered "hair-fixing", a term that has now become synonymous with toupees. "You fix it on your head, and you are ready to go," says Shahjahan Hameed, 40, one of Saleem's brothers. "So you have fixed your hair in place. If somebody snatches it, it won't come off."
Sitting in his office, modelled more on a medical clinic than a hair salon, with the styles, colours and lengths of wigs stored discreetly in drawers rather than displayed on mannequins, Shahjahan exudes a sense of pride in his products. And well he might. The trigger for him to join the business was the thinning of his own locks, coupled with a growing awareness of the size of the potential market.
"I got thinking, there is so much baldness around me, too many men suffer the same problem." He estimates that at least 30 per cent of men in Abu Dhabi are bald or rapidly heading that way. "After knowing this, your life will never be the same again," he says. "Now you will walk into the mall and when you look at a man's hair, you will always doubt whether it is real or not." It is certainly a common problem in the UAE, albeit one whose precise cause is mysterious.
Theories include the chemicals used to desalinate the water supply, the stress of daily life, and the tendency of men to look after themselves less well when they are away from their families. "I think it was the water," says Abdul Gasoor, who was fitted with a hairpiece a year ago. "Also stress, but I can't say always that there was only one factor. But I cannot stop taking baths just because of that."
Mr Gasoor, a personal assistant for a health-service company in the capital, invested Dh1,150 in a synthetic wig that covered his bald spots in the front and middle of his scalp. He says his hairpiece, with clips on the side and a sticky tape in the front, has changed his life. "When I stand in front of the mirror and see myself, I have more confidence." Whatever the cause of baldness, for Shahjahan Hameed, the solution was to become his living. Today, his hair is well-oiled, slick and parted to the right. But, he is keen to point out, tomorrow he could just as easily part it to the left or brush it all back.
"This is my life," he says. The combination of a product that fulfilled a need, that consumers could afford and no longer shunned put almost everything in place for the market to take off. The final, inevitable factor was competition. As sales grew, the Hameeds were not alone in seeing the potential. Other companies joined the fray, in the form of small, one-man outfits of which there are now around a dozen and the more ambitious, like Happy Life.
It entered the market two years ago and has concessions in salons across the capital. Its staff see 25 to 30 clients a day for hair-fixing alone. Balan Vijayan, who runs Happy Life, says the popularity of the hairpieces has grown not only among its established base of over-45s, but is spreading to younger clients. The most common request, he says, is from men with curly, short hair, who want long and straight hairpieces.
"Even young men fix their hair now," said Mr Vijayan, 48, who proudly sports a mane of what he insists is his own albeit dyed hair. "They have hair but they want to make new hairstyles on top of their hair." As the competition grew, Gulf Gate and Happy Life embarked on aggressive advertising campaigns. They handed out leaflets and discount cards near labour camps. They advertised on community television and radio stations.
The TV commercials highlighted the wigs' stalwart qualities. One showed a hairpiece doggedly clinging to its owner's head as he rode a motorbike. Moreover, they list prominent Bollywood and south Indian film actors who they claim wear hairpieces. None of whom, naturally enough, is prepared to say so in public. It worked, allowing the Hameed brothers to set up an operation in Dubai, and then India. At its peak, Gulf Gate was selling 1,200 hairpieces per month.
"It grew so big that then came the problems," says Shahjahan. One of the brothers, Sakeer Hussain, now 38, found himself at odds with the others over the best way to expand the company. Eventually, Sakeer left to start his own hair-fixing firm. Two companies meant double the costs and half the sales. Shahjahan says his company now sells barely half as many wigs per month as the 1,200 that Gulf Gate sold in 2006.
"The cost of rent doubled, salaries doubled, and even advertising doubled," he says. "And it was all coming from one family with two different companies." He insists he and his brothers tried to reconcile with Sakeer. "Many, many times we approached him, but it did not work out." There was a bigger problem. Sakeer insisted the right to the Gulf Gate name and logo were his, and so he traded under it.
He produced promotional materials that were identical in style to those of the old company, and insists he was right to do so, saying he helped come up with the idea of the business expansion in 2002. "I made the logo," he says. "Tell [Shahjahan] to show the licence." That, inevitably, was what landed the companies in court. In suit and counter suit, each side accused the other of stealing its intellectual property, asserting that it alone had the rights to the trademark.
In the early days, says Shahjahan, "there was no writing down of business partners. But now it has been made into something that is only about money, not family". Last year, a court in Sharjah decided in Sakeer's favour, granting him the right to use the trademark. Shahjahan and his brothers now trading as Gulf Brothers, although their material still bears a strong resemblance to that of Sakeer's company say they will appeal against the decision.
Although they are not currently on speaking terms, Shahjahan says he prays the brothers will reunite. "It is not that I never want that," he says. "Money is nothing. Family is everything. But only Allah can change his mind. He [Sakeer] does not look back, only forward. If he looked back, he would see his family. He would come back." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org