The QELA Experience

Crocodile skin jacket by QELA

Crocodile skin, classic cut, classy look; but it’s going to cost you. This expertly tailored genuine leather jacket is 420,000 QR and can be found at QELA, Qatar Luxury Group’s first homegrown high fashion brand, which launched its first boutique in the Pearl in October.

This pricey new company has ambitious plans to expand to international fashion hot spots like Paris and New York, and possibly even Milan, Los Angeles, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. No small feat. But QELA has the daunting challenge of competing with established name brands that have been favorites for decades. And so the question comes up: why would patrons of high fashion splurge on a QELA product, yet unknown, when they could spend the same amount or less on a famous brand that immediately communicates a certain status. After all, most of QELA’s products are crafted in Doha with the exception of their shoes, which are made in Italy. This starkly contrasts with most other high quality fashion products, most of which are touted for their fine Italian craftsmanship.

The average QELA bag costs about 8,400 QR, according to Caroline Guillone, the marketing manager of Qatar Luxury Group. That’s more expensive than some bags from established stores in the Pearl like Chloé, Mulberry and L.K. Bennett.

“We are still a new boutique, so we are not trying to compete with major brands in terms of sales or profits yet,” said Guillone. “We are currently trying to create products that are well-made and stylish yet discreet, much like Hermès.”

Many are skeptical of whether QELA will ever actually reach the status of the big brands they set out to match.

“We’ll see how [QELA] positions themselves, but they do not have the aura of an Hermès or a Louis Vuitton,” according to a Huffington Post article from 2012. “There is a probationary period in which a brand transitions from new to trendy to luxury.”

QELA does not consider its Doha-made products a disadvantage; rather they pride themselves on it, as it makes their designs stand out. The subtle Arabic touches add a soft and authentic quality because they are created right here at home. In fact, the brand name is inspired by the phrase al ‘ain al kaheela, or “the eye lined with Arabian kohl,” which rings true to the company’s Arabic roots.

There are two main Arabic motifs of the brand. First, there is the mashrabiya pattern, which can be seen in some of their designs as well as the interior of the store. The pattern is most known for its presence in Islamic architecture. The second motif is modesty, as the clothing is conservative and not as revealing as some international high fashion lines.

Leather bag behind a mashrabiya at the QELA boutique

Leather bag behind a mashrabiya at the QELA boutique

These motifs were developed throughout a long and difficult branding process, which was so detailed that it even came down to choosing a scent for the interior of the store to represent the brand’s key messages, according to Zeena Kanaan, a senior consultant at Forbes Associates, who worked exclusively with QELA throughout the public relations and branding process. “QELA-scented candles” were also given out at the boutique launch, added Kanaan.

“We really had to get to the core of what we wanted the brand to be known for,” said Kanaan. “The main message is that QELA is made for the sophisticated individual, one who is cultured and independent, one who is known for their remarkable taste in fashion and art.”

It seems that the brand has succeeded in communicating its subdued minimalist style, according to some of the boutique’s visitors.

“The brand’s image is very clear,” said Aisha Al-Mesned, co-owner of The Vanity Room in the Pearl. “I recently went to QELA’s boutique and it was an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had before. The clothes are classy and modern, with an Arabesque twist.”

QELA's fireplace

QELA’s fireplace

Fine jewelry

Pink gold with amethyst, citrine, smoky quartz and brown diamonds

When a customer climbs the spiral staircase, past the fireplace and fine gold jewelry is a couture room where QELA allows its customers to search through a small cabinet and dresser full of fabrics, leather samples, color choices and metals, so that people can customize their very own bags and designs, according to Al-Mesned. Although she did not end up buying anything from QELA because of the steep prices, she noted that their products are high quality and require a person with “a certain kind of elegance and deep knowledge of fashion to understand why they cost so much.”

Fabric samples

Fabric samples

Leathers and metals

Leathers and metals

If a customer wants to see how a dress looks, the store has a model who can try on outfits in the fitting room, according to Karine Wehbe, the senior brand ambassador at QELA.

This painting of a unique shopping experience helps to understand why the brand is so expensive even though it is not yet well established. People hand-pick a durable product and pay top dollar for it because it is meant to last long enough to pass down to their children and grandchildren, so it is seen as an investment in family tradition, which is something that Qatar is constantly trying to preserve.

It is not necessarily a bad thing to charge so much, said Al-Mesned, because it sets the standard and reputation of the brand, which is more important in the beginning stages than making money. It lets people know that this is a serious couture brand with big goals.

According to Guillone, QELA is doing well financially considering that they just opened two months ago and that they only have one boutique for the time being. They are still in the starting stages, so they are not really expected to be making profits yet like their more established neighbors in the Pearl.

Wehbe added that QELA did not make any sales in their first two opening days. “Our first sale was on the third day, and we have gradually been making sales since.”

Those who do end up buying something from QELA seem to be confident that they are walking away with a quality product.

“I decided to buy a mini leather cardholder for 1,580 QR when the boutique first launched and I’m so happy with it,” said Fahad Al-Hedfa, a Qatari communication executive at MMG Publicis Qatar, as well as a huge fan of QELA. “The more I use it, the more I see its beauty.”

But, of course, beauty is subjective, especially in the competitive fashion world.

Even though Al-Mesned enjoyed the QELA experience, she was not impressed with the bags and shoes, which she felt were not nearly as impressive as the clothing. “The couture line was so special, but the bags and shoes didn’t have that same unique Arabic feel that I loved in the clothing. It was too classic and typical for me.”

Calfskin sandals with silver-plated asymmetrical rings

Calfskin sandals with silver-plated asymmetrical rings

Leather goods are actually QELA’s specialty, and their primary aim is not to create trendy bags. The focus is on quality and timelessness, and on creating a product that, again, can be passed through generations, said Kanaan.

So where will QELA be by the time the next generation comes along? This seems to be the question on people’s minds, especially those who want to see where the young brand will go.

“As a public relations professional as well as someone who is familiar with QELA, I think they have already left a footprint in Qatar,” said Kanaan. “For it to build a reputation and grow will take a bit more time.”

In Al-Mesned’s experience, brands like QELA tend to succeed in reverse. “What I mean by this is that they first become known internationally and then locally. This is mainly because only about 10 percent of the population in Qatar can afford to spend like this, and not everyone from this percentage will be convinced that it is nice or worth it,” Al-Mesned explains. “This is why it has to gain popularity internationally, so people at home will see its value.”

QELA hopes to wow everyone by making history, said Guillone. “We aim to become a trusted and popular brand, both in Qatar and beyond.”

A Man of Culture

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While most 10th graders were grappling with schoolwork, Abdulla Mohammad was taking a step into the real world and starting his career as a salesman.

Now, the 23-year-old Syrian lives in Qatar with his mother and siblings and happily co-owns a small shop in Souq Waqif. He sells traditional Arab items, like swords and bishts, which are cloaks worn over thobes primarily in the Gulf region.

“I am proud of the decision I made when I was younger,” Mohammad said, while looking around at his quaint shop. “I am part of a successful business and I am passionate about Arab culture. I could not have asked for a better job.”

Mohammad cited his late father as his greatest influence while growing up in Syria because he taught him about tradition. He says he aspires to pass on tradition to his customers just as father passed it on to him.

“My father did everything he could to teach me the fundamentals I need to succeed in life until the day he died at age 65,” said Mohammad. “He was a good man and he has made me the serious and successful man I am today.”

After Mohammad’s father passed away, his family needed a new source of financial support. Mohammad and his two older brothers got jobs, and the money they made sustained the family for a short while, but then times became hard.

“There was a time when we realized we really needed a better lifestyle,” he said in his hybrid Syrian-Qatari accent. “We always had our eyes and ears open for good job opportunities.”

One day, Mohammad recalled, a Syrian family that had moved to Qatar contacted his eldest brother with word of a new job offer at a new souq. After they discussed the job for a few days, Mohammad’s family decided to move to Qatar.

After coming to Doha and earning a good amount of money from the traditional shop, Mohammad’s older brothers decided to pursue other career paths. The eldest brother decided to study philosophy and the younger one became a geography teacher.

“I was the only one who stayed at the shop. I don’t think of it as though they’re abandoning their tradition. I am happy we are all doing what we love.” He added, “Besides, I know my father’s words are in their hearts.”

Even though his father and brothers were the main family members with whom he interacted, Mohammad says he also deeply cares for his mother and sisters who all stay at home.

“The main reason I have made work such a big part of my life is that I love being able to support my mother and sisters,” he said with a smile.

In the little time Mohammad spends outside the shop, he says he enjoys going to the cinema and playing football with friends.

“Football is my favorite sport and I always feel happy when I play, but I also feel guilty,” he said.  “I feel like I should be using that time to think of ways to improve the shop.”

However, he already has begun making future plans.

“I am content with the shop the way it is right now, but I would like to expand it in the future and maybe open another branch somewhere else in Qatar,” he said. “I want the shop, as well as my career, to flourish.”