Amanda Navai: The Art Of Entrepreneurism

BY Nina Catt / Mar 3 2019 / 15:55 PM

Why the Dubai-based founder describes herself as more of an entrepreneur than a designer, and how a motivational speech from the co-founder of a coffee retailer inspired a life-changing decision

Amanda Navai: The Art Of Entrepreneurism

For 39-year-old Iranian-born entrepreneur Amanda Navai, the path to launching her luxury accessories label was by no means a traditional walk. Having spent her childhood in Sweden before moving to London to study international relations and politics…and finally relocating to Dubai, many are surprised to discover that an accessories brand wasn’t always Amanda’s vision, until 2008 when she met Sahar Hashemi, co-founder of Coffee Republic, that is.

It was towards the end of a five-year career at Chalhoub Group, where Amanda had worked her way up through the retail group’s marketing department, launching beauty brands such as Nars and Benefit into the region, that she crossed paths with Sahar Hashemi. Little did Amanda know that throughout her career with Chalhoub Group she was refining the entrepreneurial skills it would require to found her own successful business – a venture that would see her pieces sitting beside some of the world’s most renowned luxury brands. All she needed was a little encouragement to take the leap.

“Sahar Hashemi was a guest speaker at a conference that I attended in London in 2008. As the co-founder of coffee retailer, Coffee Republic, and co-author of Anyone Can Do It, I absorbed three pieces of advice that inspired my business; One, anyone can do it. Two, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to improve it, and three, launch a product that you are passionate about.” Inspired by Sahar’s motivational words, Amanda began brainstorming concepts, but it didn’t take long to decide on her product.

Amanda puts the finishing touches to her beautiful bags.

“I was always obsessed with bags. When I was a student in London I used to go to Portobello Market and search for vintage handbags from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. The python skin bags had remained in pristine condition. You can use exotic skin bags forever, they become nicer over time,” she explains, “New bags of this kind were so expensive and niche brands at affordable prices didn’t exist in Dubai.” And so, the idea was born.

Amanda’s strategy from the very beginning was to create a home-grown luxury accessories brand that would compete with well-known international labels – a concept at that was very new to the UAE, and those in charge of buying brands for the region’s major department stores. Going against the grain of the traditional design process of focusing purely on trends and aesthetics, Amanda knew from the start, and still to this day as her brand celebrates its ninth year, that she wanted to create a line of handbags that were of course beautiful, but just as importantly, practical, durable and classic. “I always try to create timeless bags that can be passed down through generations,” she reveals. With a passion to change the mindset of local consumers, who, at the time were only investing in international brands, Amanda set out on her one-woman mission to make her mark.

In 2010, with just Dhs18,365, the first samples were created. “For months, I cold-called the buyer’s office at Al Tayer Group five times a day, until I finally got through to Head of Buying, Jessica Crawley. My dream was to launch into Harvey Nichols. Jessica agreed to meet me and fell in love with my reversible bag, my use of bold colours and my unique price positioning. She placed an order for eight pieces – not for Harvey Nichols, but to be carried in Bloomingdale’s! I’m eternally grateful to Jessica for having an open mind to launch a local brand into such a prestige store.” Those eight bags sold out within one week.

In May 2010, as the first local luxury accessories brand to enter Bloomingdale’s, Amanda Navai, quickly garnered a devoted clientele. The collection and Amanda’s story were featured in the fashion pages of prestige magazines (with BAZAAR being the first), cementing the brand as one to watch.

Shirt, Dhs1,800, Palmer Harding. Trousers, Dhs2,350, Etro. Bag, Dhs4,995, Amanda Navai. Necklace, Amanda's own.

In its first year at Bloomingdale’s, the brand sold in excess of Dhs1 million. “Since then, my brand has been one of the top performers in Bloomingdale’s handbag department, season on season,” Amanda explains, “If you don’t have sufficient sales results you will be removed from the store as there are always new immerging brands, especially these days. It’s the job of the buyers to introduce new labels, and to withdraw those that don't work.” Impressively, the brand has sustained its presence in Bloomingdales for 19 consecutive seasons - no mean feat for a self-funded label that is positioned next to some of the most prestigious international luxury brands, figuratively and physically.

In March of 2018, a revenue report from Bloomingdale’s luxury accessories department revealed that Amanda Navai was the top-selling brand for that particular period, generating more revenue than Valentino, Chloe and Stella McCartney to name just a few.

“It is important to ensure your business makes commercial sense. Make a business plan and follow it. Have a good strategy in place with a clear vision of what you want to achieve and stick to it, be consistent, and be persistent,” Amanda, who refers to herself as an “entrepreneur, not a designer” explains, “Never give up on your vision. My vision was to introduce a locally produced line of exotic skin bags into a market that, at the time, was purely focussed on international brands. I wanted to prove that a local brand could sit alongside international names and stand the test of time. Being ranked number one in terms of sales in Bloomingdale’s in March of 2018 is one of my biggest achievements.” Amanda Navai was also the first Dubai-based label to exhibit at Paris Fashion Week in 2011 and at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2013 – placing Amanda, and the region on the global map.

Of course, as with any start-up there have been lows alongside the highs. “For me, the biggest challenge is the emotional challenge.” Amanda, who looks up to successful female leaders such as Rania Masri, the chief transformation officer at Chalhoub Group, reveals. “Fashion is a very tough industry. People can be unkind. You’ll likely face numerous rejections, so you must develop thick skin in order to survive. I have attended business meetings and walked out completely traumatised and de-motivated. My advice? Hire a business manager to take care of those meetings for you.”

Blouse, Dhs4,550, Givenchy. Skirt, Dhs 1,100, Rixo. Belt-bag, Dhs3,893, Amanda Navai. Boots, Jimmy Choo, Amanda's own.

Over the past nine years, Amanda has stayed true to her original mission, shunning fads and trends that have an expiry date in favour of a luxurious, yet practical product that beautifully transcends time. A point of reference that will always meander through the brand’s collections, relies heavily upon logic. “My sales analytics show that our customers are of all ages and nationalities, so I create bags that are versatile. My bags are of course, luxurious. They are handcrafted from ethically sourced python skin in Lebanon. I oversee the entire production process. But my career in marketing taught me that in order to be successful, a brand needs to be functional and not just pretty to look at. With that in mind, I do not call myself a designer or an artist, I am an entrepreneur. I know what will sell. I spend my time creating bags that will compliment a woman’s lifestyle. For example, I will measure the size of an iPad or a bottle of water and ensure there is enough room inside to fit some of those essential items. I do occasionally work on passion projects, but ultimately, the reason my brand has succeeded is because I focus on what actually sells.”

With the price tag of designer handbags often exceeding Dhs5,000, it was crucial to Amanda to create a line that’s affordable and accessible, without compromising on quality.

Producing just 10 versions of each style, the brand has a remarkably exclusive feel. Often named after her friends and muses, one of the most noteworthy and recognised styles is the Rosemin, named and designed alongside BAZAAR’s very own Rosemin Madhavji. In a move that follows new methods for producing luxury leather goods, a line of mock-croc bags is also well underway.

Attention-grabbing they may be, but unlike many other luxury brands of today, Amanda’s bags are not created with the Instagram influencer in mind, but the smart, confident woman who wants a stand-out piece that can be carried from season to season, for years to come.

As an instigator in changing the way consumers in the Middle East perceive and regard local labels, we cannot wait to see what the future holds for Amanda and her pioneering home-grown brand.

From the February 2018 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Arabia.

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