Arshed Mohammed is the Founder of Spirit of Arabia, a brand of choice for contemporary stylish clothing, accessories and gift items designed around an Arabian theme.
Spirit of Arabia aims to emerge as a truly unique concept that merges fashion, retail and tourism sectors. Arabian Gazette’s Moign Khawaja and Mahsoom Thottathil sat with Arshed Mohammed and asked him about his background, business strategy and future ambitions. Following is the script of the interview:
Please tell us a bit about your background.
Basically I’m an IT man with over 25 years in this field. I’m from Glasgow, Scotland, graduated in the UK and got my first job at British Aerospace near Preston. Then I moved to London and continued working in the IT industry in different roles.
I came to Dubai in 2001 and have been living here over 11 years now. I moved across while I was working for Sun Microsystems as a project manager. I’ve worked for several companies here in the UAE, including du and Mubadala, implementing infrastructures and applications.
However, I’ve been thinking about setting up my own business for a long time. I wanted to be my own boss and in a world more artistic than IT! It was just a question of when to do it as it costs a lot to get started.
When was your eureka moment, when you said: “Enough of IT, now I need to switch and do something different.”
I’m afraid it was not as dramatic as that! I’ve had this concept in mind for quite some time. The basic premise of an idea goes back to 1990 when I was based in London. My daily commute would bring me out at Tower Bridge tube station and I saw the merchandise sold to tourists, including the London t-shirts and souvenirs. I used to say to myself that this could be done in a better and more fashionable way. I didn’t have enough money back then to do anything but I retained the idea in the back of my head.
When I arrived in Dubai the boom in infrastructure building was starting and almost every day I heard announcements in the media of some new tourist venture. The government of Dubai announced its 2015 initiative where it projected 15 million visitors coming to Dubai annually.
I reserved the name Spirit of Arabia in 2004 and then had to set up the company as a legal entity in 2007 to retain this valuable name. Finally, I decided to take the plunge and jump-started the venture in 2010 by selling my house as banks were not interested in backing start-ups.
When did you start your operations?
My business partner and Creative Director, Amira Alaoui, and I started working together in 2010. It took some time to find suitable offices, set up a sampling room, design the initial collection and find manufacturers for our products.
It also took a bit of time to find the right location. This mall (Sunset Mall in Jumeira, Dubai) where our store is located was the third location we looked at. We found it to be the best because it promotes new brands and is in a great location. The mall opened in December 2011 and we were one of the stores that opened our doors to the public then.
Spirit of Arabia is still in its infancy. How do you see it growing?
Well, we’ve got very big plans and this is just the beginning. We’ve got a unique brand. What we’re doing is very different from what others are offering. We’ve got some very nice products based on the Arabian theme. We call the style of our clothing ‘easy chic’. The designs are contemporary and casual, not haute couture or more formal Arab fashion. We want all people, both locals and expats, to wear our products. We also want tourists coming to Dubai to buy our clothing.
Most products we have currently are for women. There are a few items for men and we’re going to introduce a line for children soon as well. Plus we have some beautiful scarves and fashion jewellery. Everything is designed in-house by Amira. Our aim is to widen the range quickly as the basic idea is to attract as many people as possible.
Currently I’m working on developing the online store and this should be open by the end of June. The online store will have an international reach and so we will attract customers from all around the world. This is a very exciting prospect.
Of course, I’d like to expand the number of stores in future as well.
So yes, this store is the first of many things we’ve planned and I see our brand moving fast.
Who are your customers? How do you address their needs and connect with them?
We’re trying to attract the local populace as well as expats. Visitors to the city are also our prime customers. Luckily, here in the Jumeira neighbourhood we’ve got that demographic. We have both Arab and non-Arab customers who are fascinated by our tagline ‘Bridging Cultures In Style’. They like our store design and understand our message. Our sales staff are also very receptive to their needs and explain our story – this is appreciated by the customers.
We always try to get their email address so that we can stay in touch with them and let them know when we launch any new product.
The best thing is that our concept is very simple, like other good ideas. I don’t think there is any need to make it sound complicated. You can bridge cultures with some nice designs that people will wear in other countries and that will help spread the word. Women especially are always curious about clothing and if we can give them a snippet of information as well on Arabian culture, I think it will make a big difference.
We also hope to start our online store soon so that will help boost sales around the world.
And we have started approaching hotels and other players in the travel chain since tourists are a big part of our customer base. We’d like to take our products to them so they can wear with pride back in their own countries.
You say that the clothing that you’re offering is Arabian. Can it also be called Muslim clothing?
No, not at all. And I don’t want it to be seen like that. Amira is inspired by Arab culture and has incorporated certain elements in her designs. However, it is not the ‘cover up’ style people associate with Muslim clothing – that is not our offering.
We want the Spirit of Arabia brand to be inclusive and for people to wear our clothes in New York, London, Paris or anywhere in the world because they like our styles.
What marketing plans have you employed so far to bring in people to your store?
Sunset Mall is situated in a good location and we’re in a good spot inside. We’re at the front of the mall so people can see the Spirit of Arabia store through the glass front of the building when they’re passing by on the main Jumeira Beach Road. This road leads to main tourist destinations including Burj Al Arab, The Palm, Dubai Marina. We’re trying to make the most out of that.
We’re also developing our presence on the social networking sites and expect that will get the Spirit of Arabia brand noticed and entice people to visit us in Sunset Mall.
And, of course, we’re approaching fashion magazines and newspapers for coverage for our products and story.
Do you have any competitors at the moment?
At the moment we have no direct competitors. If you look around in this mall and the others in Dubai you will not find anyone else doing what we’re doing. This concept is unique. Spirit of Arabia offers good quality, casual, contemporary products and the price is very affordable as we want volume sales. Many other fashion brands are more expensive and have a western feel to them while ours has that Arab touch in a subtle way.
On your website ‘SpiritofArabia.com’ there is a section called ‘The Library’. What can you tell us about that section?
One of the beauties of Spirit of Arabia is that we intend to offer a lot more than just our products. We’ve got nice fashionable products all based around the Arabian theme. Through the Spirit of Arabia brand we have the opportunity to bring out what Arabs have achieved in history and their contemporary accomplishments. I’d like to trace back to the Golden Age of Islam when Arab civilisation was at its peak and contributed a lot to science, art and literature. And there are a lot more positive things going on in the Arab world now that the press does not pick up on.
The Library for me is a repository of information and I really want to develop this. We want to highlight Arab poetry as well as information about Arab contributions to architecture, astronomy and other fields from which the world has benefitted.
The information in The Library will help us convey the true spirit of Arabia.
What are your future plans?
Our first challenge is to find an investor to come on board and help with our expansion plans.
Then, once the online store is operational we want to open a new physical store in Abu Dhabi. The capital city is developing its tourism sector so our presence there would be very beneficial.
We’d also like to have regional stores in Doha, Riyadh, Cairo and Casablanca in the next few years.
The dream of course is to take Spirit of Arabia around the globe. I want to be in Oxford Street, London, one day. And on Champs Élysées in Paris as well. We want to take this brand around the world as we believe cultural exchange should be a two way channel.
We also want to promote local talent and sponsor cultural and social events in order to develop the Spirit of Arabia brand. We’re looking into ways to sponsor local sports teams and musical events for instance to get the brand name out there.
So in a nutshell, we want to boost our product range, develop our online store, open more stores regionally and internationally, sponsor local community initiatives and develop the knowledge repository on the website. That should keep us busy for a while!