Drawing on their love of pop art, a new generation of upcoming designers in Qatar has been working to bridge local and western cultures by creating their own brand of homegrown fashion.
Two entrepreneurs in particular have seen growing success with their sales of clothing and accessories inspired by childhood and contemporary icons, including Marilyn Monroe, Game of Thrones, Popeye the Sailor Man others.
Buthaina Al Zaman, a Northwestern University in Qatar communications student, said she decided to focus on creating designs inspired by both regional culture and Western aesthetics after Google searches for Arab pop art characters yielded few results.
Speaking to Doha News, Al Zaman, who founded the brand Bothayna Designs and relies on social media to market her products, said:
“When I posted my designs on Instagram I got many positive comments. Some people kept on telling me that they would love to see the designs on shirts or iPhone covers. This is what actually got me started.”
She has now expanded her sales across the Middle East.
Her most popular designs include Hermès-inspired ‘Khaleeji” t-shirts and sweatshirts, which feature the word “Khaleejiès;” a silhouette of an Arab riding a sideways Land Cruiser, and t-shirts with the word “Um el Zain,” a commonly used compliment for girls.
‘Our culture is beautiful’
Other Qatar and Arab-inspired designs include mobile phone cases with a thobe-wearing Superman; famed American pop artist Andy Warhol’s depiction of Marilyn Monroe, but wearing a headscarf; and a black and white print of an Arab woman with the caption “Obaih” (which translates to “Oh my God”) inspired by Obey Clothing, a sartorial venture created by American contemporary artist Shepard Fairey and based on a 1989 poster bearing French wrestler Andre the Giant’s face.
Al Zaman added:
“My main aim is to associate Khaleeji-Arab elements within my work. I add cultural words or sayings such as ‘Um al zain’, or even traditional clothing (like the) batoola and niqab to my work, to represent our culture.
We barely see merchandise that contain designs related to the Qatari culture. If you go in a shopping mall and look for clothes with khaleeji or Arabic designs, you won’t find many…or even any. So, I want to offer this experience because I believe our culture is beautiful.”
Following her lead are several other local designers like Mubarak Al Thani, a recent business administration graduate and owner of Blessed.
His company, which launched this Ramadan, also centers around designs that cater to a local audience and fuse Qatari and western cultures.
With just an interest – and no formal training – in fashion, Al Thani is attempting to repurpose Islamic patterns and traditional sayings into more contemporary work.
Speaking to Doha News, he said:
“There’s a huge lack of casual GCC menswear brands, so I wanted to created a unisex line that appeals to both genders. Blessed is inspired by Islamic art in a modern way.
We always looking for the missing side in the fashion sector…Islamic patterns and Islamic art are popular and in high demand, and we’re hoping to give people what they want.”
Some of his more creative works include t-shirts with popular spinach-eating childhood sailor Popeye wearing a ghutra saying “nazel bahar,” (which translates into “going to the sea”); a “Game of Kout” shirt that refers to the widely watched fantasy novel and TV show Game of Thrones and Kout, an Arabic card game; and a silhouette of a ghutra-wearing Heisenberg, the drug-dealing protagonist of the Emmy Award-winning show Breaking Bad.
Social media marketing
In a nod to the increasing reliance of small and medium enterprises on social media to market their products, both designers say that their advertising platform of choice is Instagram.
“Instagram is a good first step since because it’s not risky or costly,” said Al Zaman, who has also marketed her designs at several charity events. “Most of the locals use Instagram, making it easier to reach the targeted audience.”
Al Thani cited cost-effectiveness as the number one reason for Instagram’s charm, saying:
“Instagram offers you free way to advertise your brand and spread your name fast. If you get an Instagram celebrity to endorse your work or post a picture of your designs, you get up to 1 million people exposed to your work at a fraction of the price you’d pay to post a similar ad in a newspaper.”
Acknowledging the app’s popularity among business owners, the Qatar Tourism Authority and the Bedaya Center set up an Instagram market last summer on the Corniche.
The aim was to spotlight budding business owners – mostly Qatari women – who mainly rely on the internet to sell their goods.
Instagram businesses also featured in a new zone at the recent Qatar International Food Festival, where virtual kitchens met real-life customers at the MIA Park during the five-day long festival.
Rewards and challenges
Though sales have been brisk, both designers said they have faced several bumps along the road.
For Al Thani, overcoming societal expectations has been tough.
“The main challenge is to be a male designer in our culture. It’s tricky. I represent myself as a graphic designer to avoid the stigma attached. To have a fashion brand as my livelihood is also not acceptable for my family and for society. It’s only okay if it’s a hobby.”
Other issues include manufacturing and production costs. Al Zaman said:
“Printing was a hassle at the start, as I barely knew anything about the market. I started off by getting sample shirts from an artist based American website (Society6). Then I tried several other factories in the US until I got the satisfying quality.
For other merchandise such as phone covers I had to contact factories in China. It was a very new experience to me because I had to have a good background about the type of printing I needed and the material.”
The rewards however, make up for the hassles, they said.
For Al Zaman, the support of her family and friends has been critical to her continued efforts. Having considered stopping her work several times due to school demands, she said comments from her Qatari customers also helped keep her going.
“A lot of people now recognize Buthaina as the person who ‘makes the shirts’ thanks to all the support I got…I got offered to be on QTV and Jeem TV for an interview about my project and they’re the ones who pushed me to do it.
(Also,) my mother sent a ‘broadcast’ on whatsapp telling her friends to watch the show that featured my interview. My dad bought some sweatshirts from my previous collection and gave it away to his friends. Whenever my friends see someone wearing one of my products they immediately tell me,” she said.