x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The vanishing tailor

My financial mistake This dressmaker and her employee resorted to sleeping at the office when times got tough. But when her only worker fled, she regretted this managerial decision.

Illustration by Rahul for The National
Illustration by Rahul for The National

Priya Mani opens her eyes. She's sleeping in the hallway on a thin mattress beside a rack of dresses. Around the corner, a tailor named Sanju is dozing under a table with a sewing machine on it. Rising for the day, Ms Mani and the tailor begin rolling up the flimsy mattresses. They take turns showering, put on a change of clothes and conceal their personal belongings on the balcony or behind thick curtains.

Their trip into work will be brief. Ms Mani, an Indian in her mid-30s, is living at her office with her sole employee. This arrangement wasn't quite what she envisaged when she moved to Dubai from the UK in 2002. After spending nearly a decade studying fashion design and media production at the American InterContinental University in London, and working for a number of companies there, she came to the UAE with Dh100,000 in savings and a desire to start her own business. Her parents covered many of her expenses in London, which allowed her to accumulate this sum.

Her goal was to establish Pristine Inc, and become a distributor for Colonial Dámes, a US-skincare line. Meanwhile, she would launch her own collection of haute couture evening dresses. It had always been Ms Mani's intention to return to Dubai - the city where she had spent her formative years. At the age of 14, Ms Mani started earning her own keep by designing wedding dresses for private clients at her mother's boutique in Dubai.

With a rental budget of less than Dh50,000 for the year, Ms Mani toured dozens of office spaces in Dubai, but all were beyond her price. She had almost given up when she passed a tower in Deira displaying a To Let sign. She made enquiries, and to her delight the landlord was renting out a former three-room flat that contained a kitchen and shower as a commercial space, all for just Dh35,000 per year.

"I couldn't believe that I found somewhere so spacious yet so affordable," she remembers. "Offices across the Creek were double, sometimes three times the price." Using her life savings, Ms Mani spent more than Dh30,000 on licences, a sponsor and setting-up costs. Finally, she arranged for Sanju, a tailor from Mumbai, to join her. She intended to hire him as her chief tailor and submitted an application for his resident's visa, putting down a Dh2,000 deposit. She put Sanju up at a relative's apartment in Dubai, paying him Dh1,500 per month.

"As far as I was concerned, it was all systems go," she says. "I had everything in place, so it was just a case of selling the creams and clothes." But it wasn't long before Ms Mani realised her first mistake. She didn't account for the fact that her office, which was on the seventh floor, was in a congested area of Deira. There was no parking for visitors. Even worse, according to the local authorities and building owners, she was prohibited from putting a sign on the building to advertise her venture.

"It was really hard to persuade people to come to my office," she says. "And sometimes they would set out but give up en route, as it was so hard to find. It was really frustrating." At the time, Ms Mani was renting her own flat in the same area. Each morning she would collect Sanju and head to the office. At first, the two enjoyed an amicable working relationship, and some business was rolling in thanks to old clients from her mother's boutique.

"But as time went on, I needed to branch out and reach new clients," she explains. Soon, Ms Mani was beginning to experience severe cash-flow problems. Only six months after opening the office she began to worry about staying afloat. Then an idea struck her: she would give up her flat and move into the office to save money. Sanju would join her. The two kept up this arrangement for two months. During that time she managed to attract several clients to her office, who each ordered bespoke dresses, worth Dh5,000 in total. Ms Mani ordered the fabrics and set Sanju to work on making the outfits in time for the special occasions on which they would be worn. She began to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Then, on an otherwise ordinary morning, Ms Mani awoke to bring Sanju his usual morning cup of tea. To her astonishment, he was nowhere to be seen. She looked around and noted that his suitcase was missing. Then she opened the drawer where he had kept his passport. It was gone. And so was her tailor. "I just couldn't believe it. I knew things had been bad, but business was beginning to pick up again. It would have been a matter of time before I could relocate Sanju."

Ms Mani could only surmise that Sanju had returned to India. There was no note, and she says he had kept any feelings of disgruntlement to himself. Ms Mani has never heard from him again, nor did she enquire of his whereabouts. Sanju's departure left Ms Mani in despair. She had several orders to meet, had to cancel many of them and try to make alternative arrangements for those that were already under way.

She hired a commercial tailor trained in couture embroidery, but at a premium rate. "Because I was in a hurry - and a mess - the whole process cost me a lot more than I had originally anticipated, and I did not make any profit," she remembers. Down on her luck, Ms Mani decided to close her business in the spring of 2004, a little more than a year after she had set up shop. The entire exercise depleted her life savings, but luckily she was not in any debt. Ms Mani says she was too keen to set up shop without doing her homework. Her "store" was too difficult for her customers to reach, and the lack of parking. which she says she should have thought about from the beginning, was a killer. 

When asked what her main advice to others would be, Ms Mani says that it pays to be sceptical about running a commercial venture out of a residential space. Secondly, she says she wouldn't have hired a tailor, or any employee, until she was more established. With hindsight, Ms Mani definitely wouldn't have expected him to live in the cramped office space. "Back then, I was ambitious, but naive as well," she admits.

"I had the talent to carve a niche for myself, but failed to put a business plan in place or anticipate how to overcome any problems ahead. I tried to do it all alone without seeking the advice of anyone else. I didn't think strategically." A week after packing up the business, Ms Mani landed a job selling property. She made Dh11,000 in her first week, which enabled her to move into her own apartment again. Today, she's running Global One, a property company located in the Ras al Khaimah free zone. And she has plans to open another fashion and beauty business in the near future.

But this time, she says, she'll do things differently.