Dubai-based beauty mogul Mona Kattan
Dubai-based beauty mogul Mona Kattan Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

When beauty mogul and entrepreneur Mona Kattan invited you to her basement library at her swanky villa in Palm Jumeirah, you were forgiven for expecting rows of leather-bound books neatly stacked together under warm lighting.

But the trailblazer Kattan, co-founder of the multi-million-dollar makeup empire Huda Beauty and Kayali Fragrances with over 2.8million followers on Instagram alone, is no traditionalist.

As you descended down a set of narrow stairs into her warmly-lit basement in her posh mansion, you were greeted with a heady aroma of a thousand fragrances. Instead of a literary trove, the walls were lined with sleek shelves holding rows and rows of glass bottles in different shapes and colors, each containing a unique scent of various price ranges. Some of the bottles were so vintage that they were no longer available in stores anymore.

“We are in my perfume library basement right now, and it’s my collection that I have been collecting forever. I started collecting fragrances at the age of 14, and I have become more and more obsessed over the years, especially during Covid-19. I became crazy, like borderline insane,” said Kattan in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

Iraqi-American Kattan looked around her “perfume library basement” with immense pride. Some people are house proud (as she should be since her Dubai home has an infinity pool overlooking the ocean), but this 37-year-old Kattan sister is basement proud. There’s even a white bench with beakers and pipettes — like her own little cozy lab — where she could hunker down and refine her perfume formulas during the pandemic when her own madness for creating a new scent had peaked. The result? A new Kayali fragrance in the Yum Pistachio Gelato tones. Apparently, a girl’s trip with her sister Alya in Rome set the ball rolling and triggered this new business idea.

“I love Pistachio Gelato ice cream. I tried it for the first time in Rome in 2014 when my sister Alya and I went on this holiday together. I fell in love with this flavour … If any of my friends or an interviewer asks me about what would be my last meal or what’s my ultimate favourite dessert, I name that as my last meal or favourite dessert,” said Kattan. Even her power-suit, with faux fur detailing, was pistachio coloured and mirrored the bottle of fragrance she had just rolled out in this market.

Biggest Fear

While Mona Kattan is a seasoned entrepreneur in the Middle East for setting up a beauty empire, what was her biggest fear?

"Every time we launch something, I'm so nervous. Will it go well? Will we meet your expectations, the budget... It's always scary, no matter what you know," said Kattan, adding that a fragrance or product can never be universally liked. But her fears were exponentially eroded when she knew she was teaming up with the legendary father-son perfumer duo Olivier and Sebastien Cresp for Kayali's Yum Pistachio Gelato launch. Olivier is a French perfumer who has created a number of popular fragrances for various brands such as Thierry Mugler, Dior, and Nina Ricci.

“We worked on a masterpiece together … I met Olivier for the first time in 2018 at the Fragrance Foundation Awards in New York when he got the Lifetime Achievement Award. I met him and we took a selfie … I was fangirling and told him that I had always dreamt to do a fragrance with him … He’s the ultimate creator of gourmand fragrances. I didn’t think he would want to work with me because I was still very new and a small brand compare to what he normally works with like the Dolce & Gabbana ones. But he was very humble and down-to-earth,” said Kattan. Together, the two master noses and she came together to come up with a sumptuous scent.

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Mona Kattan (Centre) along with perfumer duo Sebastien and Olivier Cresp (right)

Mona, the younger sister of Huda, is no stranger to setting up successful business models. Her success with the Huda Beauty Empire is the stuff of legends. She's the co-founder of this highly successful cosmetic enterprise, which was valued at more than $1 billion in 2018, and is its Chief Operating Officer (COO), playing a significant role in the growth of her family business. Her Kayali Fragrance is also a hit story. So what does it take to build an empire with global reach?

Mona's nose for scent: 

“I think we should always think about just the first step of starting something because the empire will happen after many years, like 10-15 to 20 years of working your [butt] off and staying focused and having a vision to stay in the right direction. It’s not that hard to start, what’s hard is to keep it going,” said Kattan. The key to getting a business model up and running is to avoid getting side-track by “short-term” goals.

“Remember, my obsession with fragrances started when the fragrance industry wasn’t on fire. Only established brands were doing well and to do something niche meant, you either need a good budget or you have to start very small and grow very slowly over 10-20 years. Now, the fragrance industry is hot right now,” said Kattan. She also remembers a time when things weren’t going so smoothly.

“I had to stay committed, you know, at the very beginning, it wasn’t successful, it was not taking off. It was like, very stressful. And then you know, you just have to keep pushing yourself to keep going keep trying something new … You have to just have good people around you, who encourage you,” said Kattan.

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Huda and Mona Kattan at the Huda Boss Celebration in Dubai in 2019 Image Credit: Clint Egbert

She counts TV mogul Oprah Winfrey as one of her biggest role models and claims she would love to create a scent for her idol. Her winning formula is painfully simple. Hint: several rounds of therapy helped her nail it.

“To be honest, I only recently started following my gut – probably three years ago. Before that I was almost not in touch with my emotions. So after therapy, that’s when I got really in touch with my gut. So now, I have been following my gut for the past three or four years and it has changed my life … I am now connected to myself and I know the answers right away,” said Kattan.

True to her word, her gamble with the new fragrance seems to have worked out well. The pistachio-laced perfume in a frosted bottle has been given the thumbs-up by perfume aficionados. So, can women have it all – beauty, business, brains, and a life?

“It depends on how you define “having it all”. We all need to be balanced … I have been working so hard forever, like 10 plus years, but it also meant my personal life was taking the backseat. Now, I am trying to be a little more of an all-rounder.”

Mona Kattan gets married to Hassan Elamin
Mona Kattan with her husband Hassan Elamin