A real entrepreneur is defined by his or her ability to push the boundaries, blur the lines, and create uniqueness where others see uniformity. May Barber, founder of the Dubai-based concept store “The Cartel” embodies these characteristics, a fact which is reflected in her business’ success over the past few years. The Cartel is a unique concept showroom and store which aims to fuse art, fashion, and architecture into “wearable art.” Through the Cartel, Barber aims to enable an interactive platform for designers and artists to engage and to provide a showcase and expose their products and their creations to the Middle Eastern consumers. Since its establishment, Barber and her team have developed emerging designers who went on to win national and international design awards.
Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with May in the Cartel’s new showroom in the Dubai Design District to discuss the origins of the concept store, how to build credibility in the fashion industry, and the changing requirements of today’s consumers.
Perhaps we should start with why you are so passionate about what you do because your actual background isn’t fashion. You have a different professional background.
Correct. I’ve always believed in multidisciplinary approaches, especially in the creative industry. Myself, I studied architecture. I’ve won a few awards in architecture so this has always shaped my vision. I ventured into art and later on, and I completed this whole triangle of art, architecture, and fashion with The Cartel in the heart of this triangle. And many of my designers, in fact, come from different backgrounds as well so you’ll find sculptors doing fashion, you’ll find interior designers venturing into fashion or collaborating with other artists from different disciplines. So The Cartel is very much an open environment with no rules to strictly be limited to fashion designers but any creative person who would like to showcase their products and who has got the potential and the talent.
How do you find and attract the designers with whom you work? How do you spot the talent?
In The Cartel, we’re always very active, very busy and we travel a lot, but not often to the regular destinations of fashion. Obviously we cover Paris fashion week, London, Milan, and New York. There’s a lot of talent and established designers as well showing in these fashion capitals, but also there is an abundance of talent coming from Eastern Europe and from Southeast Asia. We also went to Seoul Fashion Week, Slovenia Fashion Week and what we found was an amazing body of talent that required just a little bit of attention and some level of fine-tuning. Obviously throughout the year we also do the fashion retail activity so all the ready-to-wear, all the designers creations are available to shop in the show room itself, and some of our activations where we collaborate with external retail partners as well as online.
What you’ve done is really quite novel. It’s not necessarily something you’ve seen a lot, especially in the Middle East. What has been the reception from consumers, from the customers and also from your partners, your fashion designers?
I think response has been great and the trust in The Cartel and the credibility we’ve established over the years has increased. And this has resulted in more and more trust from our partners and more of a willingness to collaborate. Looking at the local market in the beginning, it was a little bit of a shock. People are used to shopping in the typical mall environments which are known in this part of the world. So to move away from that environment, it’s quite disruptive, let alone going to where we started which was in a warehouse. But, at the same time, it gave us an edge. It fitted with our story, we kind of rebelled against the typical fashion offerings, the typical fashion environments.
Anyone who has attempted to launch a business knows firsthand the entrepreneurial journey itself, is always a difficult thing. So can you share with us the biggest entrepreneurial challenge that you faced when you set up The Cartel?
My entrepreneurial journey has not been easy and any entrepreneur knows they will always face challenges. We are now living in a time where there’s no such thing as constant, everything is changing so fast. Some of the challenges I faced had to do with trying to balance a sustainable business model with the creative enterprise. It’s common knowledge that the business of the arts is not easy, it’s not necessarily the most profitable. So we did have challenges with sustaining the business model. Adding to this was the fact that the retail environment in the UAE and worldwide has changed rapidly. This whole immersiveness online, consumers are changing their behaviour so rapidly, they’re demanding different things. So I had to reinvent the business model and look at what is it in The Cartel that makes us who we are. It’s the expertise, our well-established network of trusted partners, and the credibility we’ve built. I said, lets look at all of this, we’ve been launching emerging designers for the longest time ever since we started. So I’m very confident and very happy about this particular change or venture that we’ve added here because I do feel this is the right step for us. We’ve always been more than a boutique, more than a retailer so I felt this has been a change in my entrepreneurial journey.
From your experience over these last few years, what have been the major shifts that you feel have been key in the changing perception of your consumer towards fashion?
The change has been quite tremendous and I always say I learned from my clients. They teach me many things and they’re very tech savvy. This is the age that we’re living in so everyone has access to information and fashion is at the heart of this world. People are very much using the gadgets of the time. They are influenced by social media, by trendsetters and this whole ‘see-now-buy-now’ mentality kind of summarizes where we are at the moment. And this poses a whole new threat to the fashion game. We as fashion buyers will order six months in advance for collections that will go in the fashion stores. But these days the consumers are not going to wait for six months so this challenges us in how to anticipate their needs. How to initiate collaborations, how to avail to the client what they want and because we’re focussing on this new model on our client. We now dedicate time in our trips to engage these clients in what we see so we send them the photos and ask them for their opinions. So they feel they are empowered, they feel engaged and that their opinions matter. It very much matters to us because they shape and they influence our decisions. So it’s been quite interesting working with them in that way and learning about the new trends in consumer behavior.
In terms of how you as an entrepreneur have shaped the industry that you’re in, have you seen anyone else attempting doing something similar?
I do see an increase in the number of concept stores in Dubai, and in the region in general. And I think there’s a concept store in Kuwait that people often compare to The Cartel. They also started in the warehouse and focussed on the avant-garde and so on. So I’m glad to see people are opting to start ventures that are different from the typical retail environments, but I still think that the edge that we have in subtly injecting the art element into what we do continues to make us distinct and unique. Because we continue to reinvent ourselves, I think we continue to lead in a certain way.
Do you feel like other entrepreneurs understand the value of investing time and effort into creating that kind of substance?
I think many entrepreneurs in this part of the world are doing incredible things and believe strongly in what they’re doing. But at the same time, yes, we do see an abundance trendy projects that I don’t think will sustain. Part of the success of being an entrepreneur is continuing to believe in what you do. You doubt yourself many times, I mean how many times have I told myself, ‘I’m stopping this, I can’t do this’. It’s quite overwhelming, but when you remember the content and the substance and the value of what you create, it continues to drive you. If an entrepreneur creates something that’s not dear to their heart, maybe it was a mere response to a trend they were influenced by. If there is no relevance with the project to the community, I don’t think this project will last long. I wish we would have a better or more refined, supportive ecosystem for these entrepreneurs to thrive and grow. They don’t need the space to the function, they need mentorship and support, we all do.
Lastly, as you move into your new space here at the Dubai Design District, what kind of make-overs do you have planned for the brand?
So this move is quite a strategic move. It’s not simply a change in physical address, it marks what we call The Cartel reborn. So a whole rebirth of the brand. We started with art and now it’s time to move to fashion to align ourselves with this umbrella. The new space continues to offer fashion retail but still in a disruptive environment. So it’s still exclusive, it’s showroom, it pays an homage to the boutique destination shopping that’s common in many other parts of the world. At the same time, it has an incubator space where fashion entrepreneurs are welcome to come in and interact. Young designers are welcome to come and showcase their products and engage with other clients and engage with industry figures that we meet with. We created this wooden box in the middle of our show room as a canvas for designers to come and interpret it in their own way. I think this could be very interesting and also very inspiring for us to see what designers from around the world are doing and how to interpret something like this. We have a live fashion and art showcase in the heart of a retail environment, in the heart of a large incubator environment.