Jordanian handbag designer, Farah Al Asmar, has found her niche in affordable luxury fit for a queen. Now she’s looking to expand her style, by inviting in a fresh perspective.
There are few things that will get a designer noticed more than a celebrity sighting. Jordanian handbag designer, Farah Al Asmar, 36, knows this well. One of the most elegant and beautiful royal style icons around, Queen Rania of Jordan, currently owns four of Al Asmar’s handbags, and has been seen carrying one of them—a black mini Steffany tote—repeatedly. Each time she does, Al Asmar’s phone lights up. “For her to rewear it and carry the bag to different occasions means she really likes the brand, or the piece,” the London-based entrepreneur smiles.
Other celebrity enthusiasts of the Farah Asmar brand include famous bloggers and influencers on the social media scene. Lebanese beauty expert, Joelle Mardinian, is a regular supporter. A quick scan of Joelle’s feed will find her pairing Al Asmar’s handbags with other items from regional designers—and she has over 10.5 million followers on Instagram alone. “Farah has done a great job,” says Joelle. “Her bags are of high quality and I love to wear jewelry, clothes, handbags and shoes by Arab designers.” Many other famous fans hail from various countries including New York, Egypt, Korea, Kuwait and Germany.
A burgeoning fan base has helped Al Asmar steadily grow since she released her first collection in 2012. Starting with just $17,000 in funding to kick off production, three years later in 2015 she recorded sales of $197,000. The designer admits that 2016 and 2017 were tougher as she moved her production base from Turkey to Lebanon, but for a new designer producing in small batches, at a sales price point of between $400 and $1,000 per handbag, it has been enough to keep the brand moving forward. This year Al Asmar is confident that things are on the upward track.
Working in her favor is a knack for picking up on shoppers’ preferences. Al Asmar’s bags are famed for their geometric shapes and color blocking, as well as their use of trending smaller details such as studs and multi-functional straps. This is something that has proved very popular with Middle Eastern women in particular, who are well known for seeking out head-turning accessories.
Today, together with her husband Anwar Aldaoud— who supports her in design, creative direction and management—the mother of one is working on a new way to expand that will not only keep her style growing, but will also draw on expertise from fresh new artists as well as supporting young Arab talent. In September she hopes to launch an “Artist Hub” competition across her online and social channels, calling out for ambitious fashion and design students to create a new Farah Asmar handbag. The winner could receive a cash prize, as well as a percentage of sales, as they see their vision come to life in Al Asmar’s spring/summer collection 2020.
Injecting new blood into your label by inviting in creativity from someone else is an approach that even the industry stalwarts use. Dior, Burberry and Gucci are just some of the mega-labels that have welcomed new creative directors in the last few years. For Al Asmar, she hopes that the move to uncover new talent will have a big enough impact to create a buzz in the industry and a change in the company dynamics, albeit within the DNA of the brand.
“I still need to continue and do more things. And that’s part of why we are having creatives coming in, to lighten up the brand,” says Al Asmar. “A whole company cannot run for years with one person.”
The last seven years of running her own label have certainly been a hard graft, but Al Asmar has been working in fashion for over a decade—and she’s been showing a gift for it since long before then. “I used to draw fashion sketches and just throw them away and my mum used to collect them all. Today I have the file of all my sketches since I was six or eight years old,” Al Asmar laughs.
However, having been born and raised in Saudi Arabia in the 80s and 90s, the idea of finding a job in fashion in those days felt like a distant dream. Following her creative streak, Al Asmar moved back to her roots in Jordan to study graphic design at the Applied Science University in Amman before getting her first job in advertising—something she freely admits she hated.
After two years of it, her parents gave her a push. “My mum was like you need to stop nagging. You either find a school or you stick to your job,” says Al Asmar. So, she found a school—the Italian fashion school, Istituto Marangoni, in London. Completing her second graphic design degree in 2007, Al Asmar began applying for internships to get a foot in the industry. Daring and colorful handbag and interiors brand, Melli Mello, snapped her up. Although the company was based in London, production was based in Italy, so Al Asmar worked mostly in marketing. It was over the following two months that she found her passion for handbags.
“It’s such a bigger challenge than clothes given that you have a certain space where you have to create practicality and the usage of it and the multi-functionality of one small item,” describes Al Asmar. “It’s basically a necessity that looks like an accessory.”
Returning to Jordan after her internship, Al Asmar took on various roles skirting around fashion, including one at “U” magazine, another in retail, another in PR management—but the seed had been sown. She knew by then that pure fashion design was the only thing she wanted to do.
In 2010, Al Asmar took a leap and set up “Love and Label”—a handbag and shoes brand—with a friend at the time. It only lasted a year and a half before being shut down due to creative differences between the co-founders, but during its brief life the brand had built a following in Jordan’s small marketplace, as well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Al Asmar now faced a new challenge: setting up her own brand, even though she was known among her consumers for something else. “I thought, they’ll either trust me because of what I’ve done, or they won’t trust me because that brand was discontinued for them,” she reveals.
She took the plunge regardless. Working solo for the first time, Al Asmar borrowed $17,000 from her parents to establish her business in 2012. Like many new businesses the first year was slow as she worked out her style and trends while conducting research into what the market needed and wanted.
Her first collection for spring/summer 2012 catered to an afternoon tea aesthetic, with big totes and weaving. The workmanship was high quality but sales proved to be sluggish—she sold just 36 bags that year.
Undeterred, she re-evaluated, recognizing that she needed to find her DNA and create a trend for people to follow, while giving them something new to fall in love with. “There is a challenge in every single process of having a product,” she admits. “Getting people to trust a small brand, and carrying it into something that they’d be proud to show off – that alone is a challenge.”
She honed in on her identity with her fall/winter collection. Inspired by architecture and travel, Al Asmar played around with geometric shapes and unusual cuts. One of her first successes was a multi-functional trapeze-shaped bag that could be worn as a square or expanded into a wider silhouette. She also learnt to not pressure herself to follow traditional collection cycles. “It’s fine if I bring out something in summer as a spring/summer collection, it doesn’t have to be in March,” she explains. “I’ll follow that up with a pre-fall or a fall/winter. Collections that are more limited, fewer styles and more focused.”
Al Asmar launched her website in 2013, after a year of selling her handbags at concept stores, niche exhibitions and boutiques. Being online gave the business a boost and introduced the brand to a wider audience. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia have proven to be her biggest-selling markets.
By 2014, Al Asmar was selling well over 200 bags a year. Having found her stride, she created her biggest seller so far—the Anabella—in a mini size, which she calls her “lucky charm”. Worn as either a belt bag, a tote or off the shoulder, she’s re-launched the design four years in a row, sometimes ordering new batches every two to three weeks using different colors and materials. She says that next season will again see a new version with a new twist.
Then, in 2015, the office of Her Majesty, Queen Rania of Jordan—a globally-recognized style icon and known supporter of local designers—got in touch requesting samples of four designs. Her Majesty ordered three of them. “The fourth one was just a small clutch that did not fit her mobile. After that I learned to just make them a little bit bigger,” laughs Al Asmar. Since then Al Asmar has sent another batch of samples to Her Majesty, of which she ordered one. Queen Rania has now been spotted carrying two out of her four Farah Asmar handbags—her mini Steffany tote three times, and her mini Anabella once. Unsurprisingly, that year was Al Asmar’s best so far. Producing a new batch of designs every few weeks to cope with the waiting list, she ended the year having sold 360 bags.
Al Asmar’s biggest challenge now is continuing to innovate in her designs, while boosting sales and growing her name as an affordable luxury designer. She feels as though the market may be improving after a dry spell. “Being in London I’m going to the biggest multi-brand stores and I’m seeing high-end brands offering 70% and 80% off, so it must be that the market is not as good as before,” she explains. “You have to keep up because if people are buying my items on actual retail price, it’s equivalent to a high-end brand that’s on 60% off, so we have to somehow compete with that.” However, some experts believe that looking at discount sales may not be the best way to judge the retail market.
“I don’t completely agree that the big luxury houses are throwing huge sales because of a tough market,” says Gary Thatcher, CEO of The Retail Summit. “The luxury market is particularly strong globally. Due to the weak pound and annual Middle East summer getaway to London, a 16% increase on Middle East spend is expected in the luxury sector in London over the next two to three months.”
That’s just enough time for Al Asmar to get to work on her next collection, as well as preparing for the upcoming Artist Hub competition. On top of that she’s considering opening up the business in future to investors and public shares— although that is something for the coming years. For now, she confesses to being a little too emotionally attached to her brand to be ready to consider handing a piece of control to someone else.
“I still get so excited when I have a design that’s coming up. I like the stress of it, I like the result,” she smiles. “Starting up my own brand was the best thing I have ever done.”