SME profile: Feathers creator has designs on flying high

While at university in Scotland, Khalid Basaeed was fascinated by the different design classes outside the scope of his urban design coursework.

An architecture graduate from UAE University, he found himself a regular at the lectures on textile, graphic and product design.

“When you do architecture, you do all types of design around a house – the interior, landscaping and some people even design the furniture inside the house,” he says. “With these extra classes, my capability in design got better.”


When he came back to Dubai in 2004 after the course he rejoined Dubai Holding, where he had worked for three years before going off to Edinburgh College of Art. But the idea of starting an accessories brand aimed at Emiratis was already sowed.

Not long after coming back, he started marketing the idea of a luxury Emirati retail brand called Feathers UAE through social media, and the company was finally set up in October 2010.

“Youth here like to wear branded products but there is no Arabic brand, and the western ones are expensive because they are long-established ones,” says Mr Basaeed, now the company’s chief executive. “We know what we need, the sizes, the style, the colour, and I want to present it in an affordable way.”

The 39-year-old, who is the designer for most of the products except the women’s scarves, some iPhone cases and Italian jewellery, left his full-time job a few years ago to focus on the company.

Feathers UAE is among a handful of Emirati brands fighting to stand out in the crowded domestic retail market. Changing the perception about local brands and dealing with the high cost of setting up the business were challenges for Feathers UAE, but the hard work is paying off, Mr Basaeed says. As a company that locally designs women’s and men’s accessories such as watches, pens, bags, mobile cases and scarves among others, it tries to capture the high-spending Emirati clientele. Feathers expanded its offering to include women’s shoes, sunglasses and belts in Ramadan.

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The UAE retail market is expected to be worth US$55.4 billion in sales this year, said Euromonitor International. The amount is forecast to touch $61.2bn in 2018. Of that, the personal accessories segment, now worth $6.2bn, is expected to rise to $7.3bn in 2018.

First opened in Abu Dhabi’s Dalma Mall in 2010, Feathers UAE expanded to Dubai Festival City Mall two years later. This year it opened in Al Ain Mall and started a kiosk at Yas Mall, where the company expects to open a store next quarter.

Mr Basaeed’s designs are minimalist in nature, with tones of grey, black and white and little use of colours.

“I believe less is more, and when you go minimalist, the design is carried for years to come,” Mr Basaeed says. “And you can target a bigger audience – it can fit a teenager or a woman of 60 years. The style stays forever.”

About 80 per cent of its clients are Emiratis while the rest are from the Arabian Gulf and expat Arabs living in the UAE, with a smattering of tourists.

The company started with Dh300,000 in seed money, three partners and one salesman, operating from a 25-square-metre shop in Dalma Mall. Two years later, it got a Dh500,000 loan from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development and opened its branch in Dubai Festival City. Feathers turned over revenue of Dh20 million last year and expects to grow by 30 per cent this year. It now employs 20 people, excluding the three partners. It broke even at the end of 2011.

“It is a challenge to change people’s perception about local brands,” Mr Basaeed said. “And it is tough to depend on Dh300,000. We were not thinking of profit [the first few years].”

It was also a challenge to convince shopping malls that it was a viable idea, he says.

While the business initially depended on social media to advertise, it is now splurging on billboards along major thoroughfares such as Sheikh Zayed Road and Nad Al Hammar to advertise the company. Every year it spends around Dh1m on marketing.

“I believe in advertisements,” Mr Basaeed says. “There are many attempts by locals [at business] but they operate from, say, Instagram. To differentiate yourself from others you need to advertise.”

Its global ambitions, starting with expansion in Qatar this year, means it needs to market itself to people to convince them that it is a brand that is here to stay.

Mr Basaeed works from home and late at night, when the rest of the household is asleep. That way he can give time to his family during the morning.

“I don’t want to have an office. I like to be free, because when you feel free you get inspired,” he says.

While the company has a couple of Arab designers to design women’s scarves and bags, Mr Basaeed does the rest. One of his favourite products to design are timepieces.

He hand-sketches the designs and then feeds it to the computer for a two-dimensional design. Once the Swiss watch factory gets it, it does the technical design, which can take up to two months. After it is finalised the prototype is built, which can take another three months, as the different components such as leather, buckles and machinery come from separate places. After approval, the production process takes another three months.

Feathers UAE releases one watch for men and one for women every three months. It releases 500 pieces of each model, and at times offers repeat models of its bestsellers, such as one featuring Sheikh Zayed’s poetry, of which it has sold 2,000 pieces. The watches range in price between Dh1,700 and Dh4,000.

While most of its products are made abroad, some products such as perfumes source their components from abroad and are assembled here. Its mugs are made in the UAE, but the ceramic range comes from Malaysia.

To focus on the company full time, Mr Basaeed resigned from Dubai Holding two years ago when he realised the business needed his total dedication.

“We have a saying that two hearts in the same body can’t work,” he says.

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