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Wed 7 Nov 2018 08:00 AM

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Meet the entrepreneur who is taking modest fashion global

Six months after Haute Elan's takeover, British modest fashion pioneer Romanna Bint-Abubaker speaks to Arabian Business about her transition from start-up founder to corporate doyenne

Meet the entrepreneur who is taking modest fashion global
British modest fashion pioneer Romanna Bint-Abubaker.

Style queen Romanna Bint-Abubaker has been all-systems-go since her London-based modest fashion firm Haute was purchased in February by Indonesian retailer Hijup.

The transaction was facilitated by Malaysian investor Aidijuma, who will invest venture capital funds as Hijup seeks to venture into the UK and become the world’s largest modest fashion brand.

Declining to disclose financial details of the deal, Bint-Abubaker said the acquisition has seen her assume a new role as director of Hijup’s activities outside Asia.

“Our [Haute Elan] technical and operations team are now run out of Jakarta in the Hijup offices,” she told Arabian Business. “I’m director for the UK and international markets. We are also pushing into Europe, the US and Australia.”

Bint-Abubaker is working closely with Aidijuma founder and CEO Norjuma Habib Mohamed, Hijup’s CEO Diajeng Lestari and COO Akli Djumadi.

“Aidijuma facilitated the deal – the financial partner – while Hijup is the head brand,” said Bint-Abubaker.

Modern designs

While modest clothing is not yet a mainstream feature of the western fashion industry or its advertising campaigns, Muslims have colossal spending power when it comes to clothing.

According to a report by Thomson Reuters, Muslim clothing and footwear expenditure is expected to reach $484 billion by 2019, accounting for 14.4 percent of global spending.

Today’s modest fashion designs often eschew traditional abaya styles, opting for more practical and modern designs, which are popular with global Muslim women who lead increasingly busy lives.

Bint-Abubaker’s Haute Elan platform was one of the first pioneers of modest fashion in the UK, combining an upmarket bricks-and-mortar store with a strong online presence.

The 35-year-old Muslim entrepreneur also established the pioneering London Modest Fashion Week event in 2016, which has seen patronage from the likes of US celebrity Lindsay Lohan and world-famous fashion influencers, bloggers and buyers.

New beginnings

Following the Hijup acquisition, Haute Elan moved its London store from Chelsea to Tooting, and opened a new headquarters in the southwest suburb of Wimbledon.

In some ways it has been a relief to hand over the reins of her start-up to Hijup’s Jakarta office, said Bint-Abubaker.

“The transition has been fine and relatively seamless. Our operations are cheaper and more efficient now. Labour is much cheaper in Asia, so we can be leaner and the chance of survival is much better.”

Bint-Abubaker explained that recruitment in the UK was a "big problem".

“We can now find employees [in Asia] to run our tech and operations, who want to do the jobs. And it works out about twenty times cheaper,” she said.

Another challenge Bint-Abubaker said she faces is "designer disloyalty".

Haute Elan previously worked solely on a brand curation basis and showcased hundreds of designers for a commission fee. “But we found with some brands, once they got big, they decided to cut out the middleman,” she said.

To counter this issue, Bint-Abubaker is busy launching "own-brand" garments and halal cosmetics for Hijup UK, which will utilise British in-house design services and be manufactured in Turkey and India.

The new private labels – dubbed Nur, Nur Cosmetics, Rad and Rad Junior – offer more choice for consumers and are her first foray into private label products.

Bint-Abubaker said the firm’s Mumbai-based factory employs women to support the firm’s not-for-profit foundation, WeAreOne.

Shee said: “We’re now expanding with our own products created in our own factory. We employ more women; women who have no support systems and we want to expand to add a crèche facility onsite with leading educators. We aim to transform a generation of children and families.”

Industry challenges

However, Bint-Abubaker admitted that, despite experiencing stellar growth to date, the modest fashion industry is facing challenges.

She said: “We are in quite a difficult time right now; it’s been difficult for us to work out what the issue is. It was growing really well but it has reversed frankly. It may be to do with the fact that more brands have their own resources now.”

The director is keen to move towards the production of higher quantities of garments, where minimum batches are "300 or higher".

She said: “To accelerate our growth we need to compete with the mainstream market – some modest fashion needs are being addressed by mainstream retailers such as Zara, Cos, Mango and Jigsaw who all produce modest daywear in some form. To compete, we need to be faster.”

Bint-Abubaker added: “We will be adding more facilities and taking on more production for other companies around the world to help support the growth of the WeAreOne Foundation. We believe our purpose is to serve others and through this we create a legacy of serving.”