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Small Steps: How Egypt-Based Fashion Brand Okhtein Went Global

December 2019
Siblings Aya and Mounaz Abdel Raouf were on cloud nine. It was September 2017, and the Egyptian duo’s latest line of Okhtein bags had just been applauded by formidable Vogue editor Anna Wintour during a Vogue Italia contest. Feeling jubilant, the entrepreneurs shared the news with their clients and waited for orders to kick in. None came. Days passed and orders remained slow. If the sisters wanted to create a splash with their latest collection, it had to be soon. Disgruntled, Aya told her sister wistfully: “We need Beyoncé to wear our bag.”

It was too close to call. The deadline for orders was in five days and there was no hope they could contact Beyoncé’s stylist to introduce the product. But then, three days later, the sisters received a notification. Beyoncé had posted three images of herself on Instagram posing with one of Okhtein’s bell bags—part of the older collection. Aya’s wishful thinking had worked.

Immediately things turned around, catapulting the brand into international acclaim. Orders started picking up just two days before the company closed production.

“We always believed that positive thinking brings positive things,” says Mounaz. Later they came to know that Beyoncé’s stylist had chanced upon their bags in a boutique in Los Angeles where they were stocked.

Today Okhtein is a fast-growing business, with sales picking up by 476% year-on-year in 2017. In 2018, the brand sold 3,000 bags with 34% of sales coming from international markets. It is an achievement that has propelled the two entrepreneurs, Mounaz, 28 and Aya, 27, into Forbes Middle East’s prestigious 2019 class of the Middle East’s 30 under 30.

Okhtein—which translates to “two sisters” in Arabic—was inspired by Cairo’s architecture. In 2014, in their early 20s and keen to start a business of their own, the sisters spied an opportunity in Egypt’s waning craftsmanship. “Egypt and the Arab world are full of heritage, so we thought to transform this heritage into a carriable piece of art,” says Mounaz.

With seed capital of just $5,000 given to them by family, the Abdel Raouf sisters turned part of their father’s office into a workshop and hired an artisan. Aya, a student of graphic design from the American University of Cairo, was just fresh out of college, while Mounaz, who also was a student of the same university, had worked in advertising for three years before deciding to take the leap into business. “I knew since high school that as soon as I graduated from university, I’d start something from scratch and grow it. That was the entrepreneurial drive that sort of pushed me to start Okhtein,” says Aya. In the initial days, the duo painstakingly worked on the designs of each bag, either basing them on an aspect of Egyptian culture or channeling subliminal messages about female empowerment through their creations.

The sisters used social media to market the brand and spread the word through WhatsApp groups. This simple strategy helped extend their reach as far as China and Australia. Okhtein’s bags retailed at a price range of $250 - $500 in the first year. With sales of just 50 to 100 bags per month initially, international orders started picking up and Okhtein established a website. “I can’t sell a bag to a customer in Australia through WhatsApp chat,” says Mounaz.

Mounaz and Aya ran a tight ship, not raising any funds over fear of losing their creative freedom. They relied solely on grants and entered contests that offered cash incentives and mentorship as prizes. Eventually, this made it difficult for them to continue purchasing leather—a major raw material in their bags.