Meet the American Women Selling Lingerie to the Middle East
And then there’s the lingerie stalls — typically a mix of cheap lacy bras, multi-pack cotton underwear, and sometimes, “marital aids” like skimpy nurse costumes. Middle-aged men, their arms often crossed and mood desultory, commonly staff these stalls. When I walk past, I always think the same thing: Not in a million years do I want to buy a bra from this guy.
The Middle East is not a monolith and cultural norms vary wildly — as does the experience of shopping for lingerie. In Saudi Arabia, where women have only been permitted to work in lingerie stores since 2012, there are no changing rooms, making it difficult to find the right fit. In affluent Dubai, on the other hand, the offerings mirror any fancy mall in Montreal, Paris, or Los Angeles. (I procured one of the sexiest lingerie sets I own — a sheer black number with purple trim — at a very well stocked Agent Provocateur in Doha.) But in small cities and villages across the region, there are still often very few options.
Noting the unevenness and sizable gaps in the market, two American women — Nicola Isabel and Christina Ganim — have launched Kenz, an online lingerie business in Ramallah, Palestine with the aim of bringing tasteful, well-fitting lingerie to the women of the Middle East through a convenient and discreet platform. “There are extremes,” says Ganim of the existing landscape for lingerie. “You’ll find both crazy costumes and boring-looking cotton underwear. We’re trying to fill the middle with everyday, tasteful, high-quality things.”
Kenz means treasure in Arabic. In addition to an online business, Ganim and Isabel also host pop up shops in Ramallah and have started the very first online lingerie bridal registry in the Middle East. Ganim and Isabel hope to one day design their own collection to sell alongside the international brands, like Le Mystere, Else, and Timpa, that they presently offer. While Kenz has hosted pop up events for shoppers in Ramallah, they have identified the affluent and e-commerce-loving Gulf region as their primary target market. They like the idea of one day opening a boutique in Palestine, but for now they’re focusing beyond its borders. “Our goal is to be the one-stop shop for lingerie,” says Ganim. “We want to eventually serve the entire Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco to Kuwait.”
Isabel and Ganim met in Ramallah several years ago, but they took their own distinct paths to end up there. Ganim, 29, was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian family and raised between Palestine and New York City. She made her way back to Ramallah after college in Chicago. “I saw that the work I could do here could have more of an impact than working in a random job in the U.S.,” she says.
“I hate going to a store to try on lingerie. It’s cold and awkward. I like the experience of buying online, and we want to create a comfortable shopping experience for women.”
Isabel, on the other hand, is Italian-American and has no family connections to the region. The 27-year-old discovered the Israel-Palestine conflict when, at 16, she signed on to work at the Seeds of Peace summer camp, which brought together both sides in a bid for further understanding. “They usually bring Jewish or Arab Americans into the mix, but I just popped in there,” says Isabel. Her interest was further piqued after a high school visit to the region, and she returned to Palestine for a semester abroad while in college. She moved to Ramallah four years ago.
After becoming acquainted through mutual friends, Isabel and Ganim discovered a shared interest in nice lingerie, along with frustration over being unable to find higher-quality goods in Ramallah. “The lack of lingerie here sparked the idea — the ‘eh, this is gross’ feeling,” says Isabel. “I hate going to a store to try on lingerie. It’s cold and awkward. I like the experience of buying online, and we want to create a comfortable shopping experience for women.” Fit issues are a pervasive problem with lingerie, and Kenz offers free returns as well as fit tips on their website. They hope to roll out fit and style quizzes to help provide more curated content to browsing customers.
Kenz started from scratch, with self-funding from Ganim and Isabel and the encouragement of Palestine’s small but flourishing entrepreneurial community. “We just dived in and started Googling,” says Isabel. They hopped on a plane and went to a lingerie trade show in New York City to meet with different brands. They started off picking lingerie they themselves might like to own, but have since evolved to include bolder colors and prints. “We’ve realized that people in the region are obsessed with push-up bras, so we’re working to add more of those to the site,” says Isabel. They have done some formal market research, mostly by surveying women from their target market and gathering data from women who follow Kenz on social media.
Ramallah is the administrative capital of the Palestinian territories, which have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Ramallah’s entrepreneurial community is typically focused on business ideas that can virtually transcend the ubiquitous checkpoints. “It’s not the easiest place to be an entrepreneur,” says Ambar Amleh, Chief Operating Office at Ibtikar Fund, which invests in Palestinian startups. “There are many constraints that wouldn’t be present anywhere else. There are restrictions on movement — like when your team needs to come from Nablus [a Palestinian city] and Nablus is closed. Movement in and out is even harder. If you don’t have 3G [which was only introduced in the Palestinian territories last year], you can’t even test your own app.” Palestinian entrepreneurs are presently lobbying to make PayPal available.
But Kenz’s public face is a cheerful Goop-y lens into the world of tasteful lingerie and life’s little indulgences. Their Instagram feed is a mix of product shots (everything from simple sateen padded bras to black lace peignoirs), cultural references like Ramadan fasting tips, and girl-ish touches like glitter-frosted donuts and decadent ice cream sundaes melting under the hot Monaco sun. There are shout-outs to regional social media influencers and fashionistas – many of whom appear to be almost permanently on luxurious vacation.
The timing for Kenz is ideal, tapping into a broader global interest in the Arab fashion market. Thomson Reuters has reported that Muslim women are expected to spend $484 billion annually on clothing and shoes by 2019. Desires to tap into this market have become particularly acute in the last few years. In 2014, DKNY introduced a modest Ramadan collection styled by fashion editor Yalda Golsharifi and Tamara Al Gabbani, a fashion designer in Dubai. Earlier this year, Dolce & Gabbana launched a line of hijabs and abayas in Georgette and satin with lace details. H&M’s 2015 campaign features a woman looking incredibly chic in a hijab. And Conde Nast recently announced that Vogue Arabia will launch this autumn (first online, then in print) and will be headed by Saudi princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz – a local fashion icon who owns concept boutiques in Riyadh and Doha.
Part of this growing market interest has been a reality check on pervasive Western ideas about women in the Middle East. “There’s a misconception that people don’t have high-fashion taste, but these are some of the biggest luxury clients on the planet,” says Katie Trotter, Fashion Director at Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. Al Gabbani, the face of the DKNY campaign, tires of the narrative of oppression imposed on Middle Eastern women. “People think that [Arab] women have no rights, that they don’t decide how they look and that they’re submissive,” she says. “Women dress the way they want to dress, and that should be respected.”
Moudi Al-Sulaima, who owns Tiraz Mix fashion boutique in Jeddah, notes that Kenz’s approach is a welcome combination of fashion forward and respectful of local norms. “Here in Saudi, we do not have many lingerie stores and most women buy them online or when they travel abroad,” she says. “But we’ve proven that you can be both fashionable and conservative.” And Al Gabbani says that Kenz hits the right note in underserviced but desirable area: “The behavior around lingerie is discreet but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sell.”
Ganim and Isabel want to promote their business as by-women-for-women, and they consciously try to source from lingerie brands owned and operated by women, like Australian brand Kiss Kill, founded by two female friends. “We want to create a female-friendly workplace, and make this a place where women are celebrated and united,” says Ganim. But Isabel rejects that idea that a lingerie business in the Middle East is in any way revolutionary. “I’ve had a lot of [American] friends and family members express their shock and it just goes to show how little people know about life over here,” says Isabel. “It really fits into this Orientalist narrative about the region and how women are oppressed.”
As you might imagine, women in the Middle East have been wearing underwear for quite some time. For Isabel and Ganim, the bigger challenge of Kenz is not some sort of reinventing of regional fashion mores but rather working under a military occupation. “For us, here, the difficulties are way more about politics than gender,” says Isabel. “We’ve gotten press because what we’re doing is sort of a sexy topic to people in the United States. But the more revolutionary thing is trying to build something in Palestine.”