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Dubai-Based Fashion Tech Startup Sawwad Is Paving The Way For Character-Driven Design Brands In The Middle East This fashion tech startup is on a mission to combine the best of the latest artificial intelligence/augmented reality (AI/AR) technologies and sustainable fashion practices to promote Middle Eastern designs.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed Edited by Aby Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Salma Awwad, Founder, Sawwad

This article was built in partnership with in5, an enabling platform for tech, media and design startups.  

A parallel universe. A mysterious kingdom protected by three fierce heroines- one of whom is a cyborg, and another a half-elf, half-human. Many a tale of honor and fortitude, alongside celebrations of Middle Eastern heritage. No, this isn't the plot of an upcoming fantasy series; it is just the theme that underlines the creations of Dubai-based fashion tech startup Sawwad, which is on a mission to combine the best of the latest artificial intelligence/augmented reality (AI/AR) technologies and sustainable fashion practices to promote Middle Eastern designs.

While the name of the brand, Sawwad, means "darkness" in Arabic, it's also a reference to the founder's name: Salma Awwad. Having formerly worked as the Editor in Chief of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Awwad has also been a fashion designer for globally renowned luxury brands such as Giorgio Armani and Alexander Wang in the past. Clearly, this isn't her first foray into the world of fashion and design, but with Sawwad, she is aiming to bring in an entirely new dimension to the industry. "Sawwad is a hybrid between technology-driven fashion and interactive gaming," Awwad says. "We address the future trends of the fashion world by targeting a younger audience, whose behavior is leaning more and more towards an online existence."

Awaken The Dragon 3D-printed bags. Source: Sawwad

This would explain why Sawwad is making use of fantastical tales with striking characters to showcase its products, with Awwad noting that each of the brand's avatars are aimed to be reflections of the region's culture, heritage, and values. Indeed, it's these stories that one sees when they first land on the Sawwad website. "The storyline represents our struggle to hold on to our heritage, as we embrace the fast-paced realities of a cyber-driven new world, and the beauty and tension of such a juxtaposition is what we design each chapter and each product around," Awwad explains. "Once a customer starts exploring the depth of the Sawwad universe, the journey and multi-sensory ecosystem will captivate their imagination at a deeper level than any standalone fashion item can."

Sawwad's Website Homepage. sawwad.com

Scrolling down the site will thus bring you to Sawwad's online shop, designed as a high-end fashion avenue showcasing apparel and accessories that epitomize the tales that underpin it. "Sawwad's mission is to create a globally influential fashion universe which transforms the way of promoting Middle Eastern design," Awwad says. "Our goal is to become first-movers in the inevitable shift towards character-driven fashion brands, as customers identify with deeper values and desire to directly impact a brand's trajectory." And it is this interactive, character-driven concept that Awwad believes is her startup's biggest unique selling point (USP), and she says plans are already underway to keep building on this narrative.

Related: In5 Fashion Lab Helps Emerging Designers To Launch Their Fashion Brands

"So far we are building on the release of our first two characters, their introductory chapters, and their adjacent tech-driven bag design," Awwad notes. "Their story has been released in the form of Chapter 5: Awaken The Dragon and Chapter 2: The Bionic Diva, and each of these chapters are also linked to a fashion collection." As per Awwad, the Sawwad line of products, which includes handbags, statement t-shirts and jackets, have evoked ample interest amongst the audience the brand aims to target. "For now, we are solely focusing on 3D-printed bags with leather craftsmanship and handcrafted elements that have never been seen before on the market," she adds. "Our first two chapters/bag releases have surpassed our expectations in terms of sales and generated interest. Our waiting list is growing by the day!"

The Bionic Diva full harness bag with hand embroidered shoulders. Source: Sawwad.

But getting Sawwad to this stage didn't happen without hurdles. From finding the rightly skilled manufacturing partners, to figuring out issues with mass production, Sawwad says her startup has faced quite a few hiccups along the way. "Manufacturers of every single item, from dust bags, to boxes and everything in between, expect you to put in mass orders, or they marginalize you," she says. "The idea of a long-term growing partnership has nothing but dissipated in the pressures of the corporate world we exist in today." However, according to the founder, being based in the Emirate of Dubai provided the startup with a lot of resources. "The main benefit of operating in Dubai is the support you get along your journey from multiple stakeholders," she says. "From the government, to fellow startups, customers, and even international platforms, the global exposure is truly unmatched. I know I am blessed to be here!"

This also ties into why Awwad decided to become a part of the in5 community of startups in Dubai. "I have been eyeing in5 and its ecosystem for a very, very long time- since 2014, to be exact, before a design branch was ever born," she explains. "So, when this new initiative was launched, I knew it was only a matter of time before I applied. Being part of a bigger family of entrepreneurs and changemakers is both inspiring and necessary in your first few years as a startup. For me, being an entrepreneur is a completely different school of thought and I had to put myself through a rigorous learning curve and reality check. Quick problem-solving skills are pivotal, and having the expert guidance from the staff and members of in5 has been of monumental importance to me."

The Sawwad team with Lebanese actress Nadine Labaki (center). Source: Sawwad

Having already completed an angel investment round for Sawwad, Awwad says the plan now is to raise funds for a new seed round a year from now. "Carefully selecting our partners is very important to us," she says, while remaining upbeat about the future opportunities that now present themselves to her and her brand. "Fashion has become a repetition of its past, an echo of fading creativity, and with the rise of the fourth industrial age, an opportunity presents itself which never did before," she concludes.

"TREP TALK: Sawwad founder Salma Awwad's tips for entrepreneurs

1. Learn to pivot- effectively "Know how to pivot your vision to address the new economic and social needs."

2. Embrace new opportunities "With vast change always comes vast opportunity. This is the birth of endless possibilities."

3. Be true to your passion "You will need to lean on it when things get really tough along the way. And they will! It is an inevitable part of the equation to reach your dream."

4. Build your team slowly and carefully "They are your new family! Infallible trust, complementary skills, and a unified vision is what will make you unmatched."

Related: Revamping An Industry: How Ecosystems Can Help The Fashion Sector Gain Competitive Agility In The New Normal

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.


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