x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dubai entrepreneur puts wearable art on T-shirts

Luma Makhlouf, a young entrepreneur, brings wearable art to Dubai to encourage local Middle Eastern artists and graphic designers

Luma Makhlouf, Ursom's co-founder and jack of all trades, at her workspace in a warehouse in Dubai's Al Quoz industiral area. Antonie Robertson / The National
Luma Makhlouf, Ursom's co-founder and jack of all trades, at her workspace in a warehouse in Dubai's Al Quoz industiral area. Antonie Robertson / The National

Growing up in Chicago, Luma Makhlouf had limited options to connect to her Palestinian and Arab identity.

She could wear a scarf or listen to Arabic music, says Ms Makhlouf, who has an undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Illinois in Chicago.

But accessorising her looks, as college students love to do, was not among them.

The lack of wearable art that would bring a touch of Middle East to the cold streets of the Great Lakes city finally gave rise to a start-up in Dubai in February. Ms Makhlouf's company Ursom, which means "drawing" in Arabic, sources art and graphics from local artists and prints them on T-shirts.

From wrapping and folding to printing and putting it in the mail, Ms Makhlouf does it all.

"We are bootstrapping the business," says the 25-year-old entrepreneur.

Most of the days, including weekends, depending on the orders, Ms Makhlouf is holed up in a small printing area inside a warehouse in Al Quoz industrial zone in Dubai.

Surrounded by mountains of plastic-wrapped furniture and cardboard packages of a moving company which occupies the rest of the warehouse, art gets printed in Ms Makhlouf's small cage-like space.

"We realised we love T-shirts, our friends love T-shirts, and we wanted to bring art to life through T-shirts," she says.

Ms Makhlouf has two business partners in Baher Al Hakim, master chief of napkin, a company which turns ideas into start-ups by handling the technology and product design part of the business then invests in them, and Amir Farha, a co-founder of Beco Capital.

Over endless amounts of coffee, she says they decided not to hire designers but scour the Middle East for artists.

"What made us believe in [Ursom] is that everyone who knew about it loved it, including designers and potential customers, so that gave us the confidence to invest and believe in the idea," Mr Al Hakim says. Napkin has been involved in five start-ups since its beginning in January last year.

One of the artists is Nadine Kanso, a fashion designer based in Dubai and Lebanon. She uses Arabic calligraphy to write "Salam" in a peace symbol.

All T-shirts are now priced at Dh120 (US$32), and the artists get 20 per cent of the listed price.

The designs are chosen by a 19-member committee called the Urban Design Community, which includes graphic designers, artists, art professors and fashion bloggers.

Ursom now has 15 active artists but a database of 400. Almost 60 per cent of the artists are from the UAE, and the rest from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and one from London.

It ships only within the UAE but expects to open mail orders to Kuwait in two months.

"People are starting to shop online," Ms Makhlouf says. Enterprises "selling products online are doing well, not [those selling] services".

While it has shipped about 55 T-shirts, she knows she has to scale up to remain viable.

A credible credit card gateway and a shipping partner are key to that game.

Now, Ursom uses Dubai-based Speedex, which picks up the packages from the warehouse. At times, such as on Valentine's Day, when Ursom promised same day delivery on orders, Ms Makhlouf drove around town handing out eight packages door to door.

For payments, she uses Gate2Pay, a Jordanian platform, because it does not charge a deposit amount.

The biggest investment was the printer that came for Dh150,000 last October.

None of the founders in the three-member team is paid a salary and Ms Makhlouf does not think they will be breaking even any time soon. But she is willing to give Ursom three years to do so.

By the third quarter of this year, she would seek investment of $100,000.

With more funding she would like to hire a customer service representative who would take the responsibility of handling all calls, which she now fields. By end of this year, she wants to have a team of five.

"I have learnt that customer service is the winner at the end of the day, not price-slashing, especially in e-commerce, [which is] a fragile industry in a fragile market," says Ms Makhlouf, who has worked with Bayt.com and GoNabit.