How to fashion a modest success from covering up

A former investment banker has spotted a gap in the market for Islamic clothing, Hannah Prevett writes.

After Romanna Bint-Abubaker was left high and dry by investors in her first business, she could have given up and gone back to a promising career in investment banking. Instead she started work on Haute Élan, which showcases the latest in luxury modest women’s fashion.

Ms Bint-Abubaker, 32, caught the start-up bug while working in banking for small and mid-sized businesses at Qatar Islamic Bank. She set up her first company, Qatar Venture Capital, in 2011 because she “felt there were a lot of start-ups in the UK and Europe who really deserved funding and couldn’t get it”. It was enough to convince her to “establish the very first Islamic venture capital fund”.

With the help of two Qatari investors she had met during her banking career, she began building a portfolio of investments and hired a team of eight. Then disaster struck. “The investors disappeared overnight,” Ms Bint-Abubaker says. “We were stranded. It was a horrible time.”

Outstanding monies owed to a shared office space provider in Knightsbridge meant that the company’s remaining assets were seized. “We couldn’t pay our rent, so [the office provider] wouldn’t let us have access and took all of my personal equipment worth £70,000, even though the amount owed to them was only £8,000. I lost everything,” she says.

After the business was shut down, she considered her next step. “I thought long and hard about what I could salvage from the business and take forward — but without a team, because I could no longer afford to pay salaries.”

One of the fledgeling ideas in the failed VC firm’s portfolio was Haute Arabia, later renamed Haute Élan, a platform to sell modest women’s fashion, including Islamic clothing. “Haute Arabia had started to gain really good traction from social media followers and had garnered a lot of interest from the fashion community,” Ms Bint-Abubaker says. “We realised there were lots of designers of modest women’s fashion who wanted a platform like Haute to sell their designs.”

It is a market opportunity that department stores and other online fashion platforms failed to recognise until recently, she adds. “The luxury department stores in the UK just didn’t really get it. The best way I could solve that was to create a shopping platform so the designers can sell directly to consumers rather than having to wait for these retailers to get on the bandwagon.”

Three years after she had the original idea, high street retailers are finally realising the potential of the modest women’s fashion market, she says, with Mango and Zara launching collections “specifically for Ramadan”. They follow in the footsteps of fashion houses including DKNY, and Tommy Hilfiger, which already cater for this market.

However, it has been a slow and painful journey for Ms Bint-Abubaker to get the business to the stage it is at now. After her experience with investors the first time around, it’s a case of once bitten, twice shy. “People in the team think I must not have any contacts or relationships with investors. I do, but I’m genuinely afraid of taking any investment and the investors then changing their mind because they have lost their money in another market.”

She recognises that she will have to overcome her fears if she is to grow her business radically. “Obviously you need investment to go to the next stage, but I’m now considering only taking it from European or US investors.”

This nervousness to take on investment is limiting Haute Élan’s ability to employ more staff. “Without an investor, we don’t have enough money to pay the salaries that skilled people would need to be paid unless they’re genuinely very entrepreneurially minded.”

Still, with sales of £80,000 last year and predictions of more than doubling that this year, Ms Bint-Abubaker may prove the theory that slow and steady wins the race. Haute Élan now sells the wares of 150 designers from all over the world. “They’re not just from the Middle East — they’re also from places like the UK, France and Morocco.”

The entrepreneur is hoping that this will help Haute Élan to secure its position as the go-to destination for modest women’s fashion. “One of the biggest complaints we hear is that when retailers and fashion labels launch these collections they are impossible to find,” she says. “By bringing them all together in one place we hope to really bring modest women’s clothing into the mainstream.”

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