Fortune Favors The Bold: Niili Founder And CEO Khaled Al Zaabi
Niili's founder and CEO is aiming to have his UAE-born fashion brand break into the US$350 billion global luxury market.
"We in the UAE redefined what luxury means to us in aviation, hospitality, and tourism, and we aspire to do the same with the fashion industry.” If a singular statement could encapsulate the vision that Niili founder and CEO Khaled Al Zaabi has for his enterprise, this would probably be it- and it should therefore come as no surprise that the Emirati entrepreneur is the one who actually voiced these words too.
Billed as “a luxury women’s wear fashion brand rooted in Emirati heritage,” Niili was launched by Al Zaabi along with co-founder and Creative Director Paula Quetglas in January 2020, but the idea for this enterprise has been long in the works- in fact, Al Zaabi says that he started research on building a business in this sector when he was pursuing an Executive Master of Business Administration degree from INSEAD between 2017 and 2018. “Niili started as my thesis topic during my INSEAD studies,” Al Zaabi recalls.
“I wished to understand the industry, its drivers, and the competitive landscape. It was a great eye-opener to learn that despite the large global industry, 100 companies control 70% of the global market share, with only 10 conglomerates controlling 50%, the majority of whom are from the West. The industry however is experiencing seismic shifts, and healthy growth projections that is driven by Chinese consumers (accounting for 32% of global sales) and millennials (accounting for 30% of global sales). The industry is experiencing a shift of influence from the West to the East, and a change in consumer demands and requirements.”
And the UAE is figuring heavily in this changing market landscape- Al Zaabi points out that the US$350 billion luxury retail industry happens to be the second largest contributor to Dubai’s gross domestic product. Indeed, this leads into why Al Zaabi believes that Niili -which means “indigo” in Arabic, a reference to the sea that has played a vital part in the shaping of the UAE- can carve out its own space in this dynamic sector. “I was inspired by the realization that a major gap exists in the industry when it comes to offering customers a luxury experience that is built on our own definition; one based on our love for culture, nature, and urban lifestyle,” he says.
“Understanding the gap, it was imperative to find a partner who is a veteran of the industry, an extremely talented designer with a strong business acumen, who shares the same values as I do, and INSEAD was the place to find that partner: Paula Quetglas, Niili’s co-founder and Creative Director. With Niili, we set ourselves a target to crack the top 100 companies ($200m/year revenue company) in the next 13-15 years.”
Now, this may sound like a lofty goal for Niili to realize, but one can’t help but believe in the brand’s ability to do so when one considers Al Zaabi’s zeal for the business he leads- and let’s not also forget his impressive credentials. Besides his role at Niili, Al Zaabi is also Vice President at Mubadala Aerospace and Chief Commercial Officer at NIMR Automotive- that should make it clear that this Emirati entrepreneur is a seasoned executive who is well-versed in the art of business. “As the CEO, my primary focus is on the commercial, financial, and strategic initiatives,” Al Zaabi says.
“Business development and developing sales channels consume most of my time. I take great interest in the creative aspect of the brand, yet trust in the leadership of Paula in that aspect. To me, the Emirati way is to have an ideological anchor, then attract and consult the best talents and experts from around the world. We are a nation where the nationals only account for 10% of the population, and thus take great pride in embracing people that share our ambitions and goals.” At this point, I ask Al Zaabi about his personal objectives for Niili, and he replies, “The aspiration is to be a global luxury brand that offers the industry an experience that is built on our values and heritage. We have a very rich culture and a unique taste in luxury that has proven to be internationally appealing, and that is what we want to share with the world.”
And it seems safe to say that Niili is certainly delivering on that premise- distinctive by design, the brand’s offerings are fluid and functional, and their craftsmanship and attention to detail hasn’t gone unnoticed by its patrons in the MENA region and beyond. However, Al Zaabi admits that the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 did put a dent in the Niili team’s plans for the launch and development of the brandbut then again, it’s a testament to him and his team that the company has managed to stay the course through the crisis, and move on ahead by doubling down on its online efforts.
“We launched our brand in January 2020, just prior to the lockdowns in March, and we were forced to change our strategy and approach,” Al Zaabi says. “We initially wanted to introduce the brand by hosting many intimate and private events, in order to allow people to experience our brand and grow brand awareness. However, we had to shift online quickly to raise and leverage social media, and direct traffic to our online platform. Nonetheless, I am very optimistic that the fundamentals in MENA are strong, and that the future of sustainably conscious luxury brands from the region is bright. One advantage we had during the COVID-19 crisis is our lean structure, which allowed us to weather the turbulent period.”
Al Zaabi thus remains quite confident about what the future is going to look like for Niili, especially given the fact that it’s a business based out of the UAE, and thus part of a region that he believes holds tremendous potential in the long run. But for businesses to succeed in this landscape, Al Zaabi believes that are a couple of characteristics that the entrepreneurs leading these ventures must display. “One must have strong values to begin with, values such as integrity and honesty,” Al Zaabi says. “The basic central characters for any leader are vision, passion, and competence, but what I believe is imperative for a leader is their capacity to listen, learn, and empathize. It is also essential to create an environment that fosters security, communication, and teamwork. People need to be motivated by the knowledge of how their work contributes to the bigger picture, and thus gain a sense of pride and ownership in their work.”
As for the MENA region itself, Al Zaabi is of the opinion that this is easily a great place for anyone wanting to chase their entrepreneurial dreams. “One thing that’s for certain here is the abundance of opportunity,” he points out. “The region looks to the future with great optimism, and that fosters an environment of ambitions and entrepreneurs.”
But given all that has happened in the region of late (and this includes the ongoing battle with the coronavirus pandemic), it’s pretty normal for one to wonder: is now still a good time for people to follow through on their entrepreneurial dreams? “I believe that now is always a good time to start a business,” Al Zaabi replies. “However, one must not start a business for the sake of starting a business; it is a matter of finding a niche, being passionate about it, then creating a solution that adds value. It may be easier said than done, but then again, one could spend a lifetime waiting for the right time.”
Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.
Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.