For UAE-based Estonian expat Margeri Ottis, being a newbie in the world of entrepreneurship involved initially struggling with making new contacts and finding the first customers for her own women’s fashion label Kimono Girl, which sells hand-stitched, embroidered silk kimonos – the traditional dress of Japan.
Ottis remembers walking for over three hours in The Dubai Mall wearing high heels, holding in both hands carry bags with her start-up’s brand and dresses. A few hours later, she managed to sign up one customer who bought a kimono.
“I felt as if my effort had paid off even though it was just one person who showed interest,” Ottis shared. “But then I said to myself that every business takes time to build.”
Do whatever it takes to make your business work. Do it relentlessly even if it sounds silly
This is why her message to every first-timer start-up founder like her is, “Do whatever it takes to make your business work. Do it relentlessly even if it sounds silly. I’ve even gone to an NFT event that’s completely unrelated to energy fashion and managed to sell seven pieces of kimonos.”
After a decade-long “empowering” corporate career in the UK, Ottis decided to start her own fashion brand with no prior experience and in a particularly niche line of clothing based on ‘energies’ or ‘vibes’, which is referred to as ‘energy fashion’.
“My initiation into ‘energies’ happened quite early when my father brought home a book on meditation. I was only eight at that time, yet it caught my attention and I read it. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time understanding such ‘energies’. I’d even take breaks from my job to spend time at monasteries in countries like Nepal. It was during one such trip to an island in Greece that Ottis decided to combine her interest in ‘energies’ to launch a mindfulness-focussed fashion brand,” said Ottis.
‘Energy fashion’ refers to a segment of clothing or accessories that exude positivity for the wearer by making use of various chants or mantras. In Ottis’ case she uses Buddhist, Balinese mantras among others.
Monetising an experimental concept
Investing a chunk of savings to start a business in a rather niche industry must have been a risky proposition even though the wellness fashion industry is growing, and kimono as a garment is gaining appeal as a modest wear. Having said that a mindfulness-focussed fashion brand and kimono as a garment are likely to appeal to specific segments and not the mass as such.
Asked if she felt a sense of uncertainty Ottis said, “Not for once during the ideation, pre-launch and initial post-launch phases. I had taken a leap of faith without even realising how hard it is to make a fashion brand work leave aside a niche concept like energy fashion. I was certain that my first collection would sell out in three weeks, which of course didn’t happen.”
The brand launched amidst positive reviews. It’s only when the initial high was followed by a period of lull that Ottis realised that she needed to plug a few gaps. Ottis feels these “expensive learnings” will help to optimise future collections.
Tip #1: Build a strong network
“Besides my family, friends and well-wishers I had no such network or database to leverage when I launched the brand. I had consciously steered away from talking about the brand until the first collection was ready. But that wasn’t the right strategy because to build a strong network I should have spoken more about the brand ethics and purposes to draw the right people. I should have leveraged the power of social media to build brand awareness and a customer base and reach out to the network once the collection was ready. This was a big learning. If anything, I’ve realised the power of having the right network to lean on. Everyone may not be buy from me but they might be able to support me in different ways.”
Tip #2: Set aside a budget for brand building activities
“Another massive learning is the need to allocate a certain budget for brand building activities. Especially for a new brand like mine that requires raising awareness among clients about the benefits of wearing energy fashion. When I did the initial forecasting and budgeting, I hadn’t allocated any money for marketing and brand building, which was a mistake that I quickly realised. Now, on an ongoing basis I’ve allocated roughly $2,000 (approximately Dh7,345) per month for branding and marketing-oriented activities. Organic can only create a certain amount of brand awareness after which paid campaigns/activities are essential.”
I had taken a leap of faith without even realising how hard it is to make a fashion brand work leave aside a niche concept like energy fashion
Tip #3: Optimise cost wherever possible
“From sampling, sourcing and shipping it is possible to optimise cost at every level. My first collection has ornate kimonos that are heavy, therein increasing shipping cost. Plus, I had opted for express shipping and paid a premium. Now I’m more mindful of making lighter garments and order stock ahead of time to optimise costs. I also plan to optimise production based on customer demand, something that I didn’t do initially. In fact, even my initial investment of roughly Dh300,000 to start the business was a bit lavish and could have been optimised. These have all been learnings. Besides that, the logistics of setting up a business [licensing, opening a bank account etc] in the UAE is quite straightforward and friendly.”
Stay true to your ‘why’
Authenticity is a huge differentiator, and a sense of purpose is crucial for any business, Ottis feels. That’s why staying true to the ‘why’ behind the business is important.
“Ask any entrepreneur and they will tell you that there will be cycles of highs and lows. What makes an entrepreneur stick to their vision is the purpose or the ‘why’. I decided to tread a rather unusual path because I truly believe in the benefits of integrating mindfulness into fashion. I’ve also consciously chosen to align with other women-led businesses be that suppliers or networks,” she concluded.