A look into Instagram’s explore page will introduce a user to numerous fashion businesses in the Arabian Gulf region which emerged in the last 5 years. Everything from abayas (traditional overcoat garments worn by Arab women, especially in the GCC region) to loungewear can be ordered directly from different Instagram accounts operating in Kuwait all the way to Oman. Sports activewear is the latest to be added to the long list of fashion offerings.
According to a research report by Global Industry Analysts Inc., the global market for sports and fitness clothing is projected to reach US $231.7 billion by 2024. Yet, the emergence of local brands in the Arabian Gulf region is still lagging behind the United States and countries in Europe.
In the summer of 2015, two Bahraini sisters, Dana, an athlete, and Hala Zubari, a fashion contour graduate, decided to address the gap in the market by launching their female-managed Tru Active, the first Bahraini fitness apparel brand. Their activewear and yoga mats followed their first collection of swimwear in the fall. Tru Active’s signature design incorporates Arabic calligraphy and is the first fitness apparel brand to combine this art consistently.
We chat with the sisters to find out more about the evolving GCC fitness scene and the challenges they face as the first local fitness brand in Bahrain.
What triggered you to start your own fitness apparel label?
Hala: We wanted to create a brand that incorporates activewear with traditional Arabic motifs, inspired by our base in Bahrain and the Middle East, that were unique and high quality. We design for style and the comfort of the women who wear our garments for their active lifestyle.
Dana: I’ve always believed in my sister’s creativity and have always encouraged her to design. She has been designing my race gear long before Tru Active was set up. I even got her to design custom sport bras for my fellow athlete friends. I took a leap of faith funding Tru Active because I really believed in my sister and that Tru Active could be something great.
Why did you decide to include Arabic calligraphy art in your designs?
Hala: Our father, Khalid Zubari, is an Arabic calligrapher; through his work I found the inspiration for our collections. I transform his calligraphy into wearable fashion depending on the theme of the collection. I do all the designs myself, with the help of the decision making with Dana. Since I come from a fashion background this is my favourite part of the process.
Do the calligraphy designs represent certain phrases or quotes?
Dana: Each of our garments have different Arabic words of encouragement or positivity embedded in the design. Our Taro Blu leggings from our latest collection Arabian Frost quotes a poem from Gilgamesh from the Dilmun Era [a vital, ancient civilisation that existed in the region], saying ‘Be happy night and day, make a feast and make every day your celebration’.
Challenges in this field of business?
Hala: Time. We are constantly working towards a new collection, and sometimes our design development stage is what takes the longest. Making a decision for the future is always challenging, but I always remember comments and feedback from our customers and this helps me move forward with what I’m creating.
Will you be expanding your menswear collection?
Hala: Yes, we plan on expanding into menswear, but not just yet. We are still developing our women’s range, and as you can imagine designing for more than one demographic comes with its challenges as not everyone fits into the same mould. Slowly but surely we’ll get there.
Will you be introducing some hijab-friendly designs?
Hala: We are always expanding. We do face a lot of technical issues when it comes to designing modest wear, especially since we live in such a humid climate. We like to reinvent our ideas, keep our designs fresh, original, and unique. If we put a design out in the market it needs to meet our brand identity, so we want to make sure our modest wear also reflects this rather than [just] filling a gap in the market.
How do you find inspiration for every collection?
Hala: I find inspiration from the themes that surround me at the time that I’m designing. Arabian Frost, our latest collection, is inspired by the everyday changes in nature, like how the clouds can descend from the sky to say hello on a foggy day, or to something so simple as an everyday sunrise reminding us that beauty surrounds us and to appreciate the renewal of life.
How is designing fitness apparel different than designing everyday wear?
Dana: With fitness apparel, the garment needs to be more functional than aesthetically pleasing. [But], we try to design where those two overlap. As a marathon runner and triathlete myself, garments need to withstand all my training rather than just look good.
Why do you think that there aren’t many GCC entrepreneurs who have ventured into this field yet?
Hala: Activewear is a tough field to enter even for me (and I would consider myself experienced in the world of manufacturing and design). There are a lot of factors that work against you; it’s more than just activewear, you need to think of the fabrics, the fit, the design and the outcome. I think the market is highly saturated with the same type of sportswear: mass market, unoriginal, poor quality, and low cost activewear.
It’s taken us three years of great quality production to convince mass market buyers that when you invest in a quality garment the rewards are sevenfold rather than when you purchase a cheap garment that falls apart after a few washes.
You are competing for consumers that have been loyal to sportswear giants their whole life, and for the most part they are not easily converted.
How has the fitness scene in Bahrain evolved?
Hala: The views on outdoor fitness are changing, and more women are beginning to take part in public events each year. As a Bahraini female this is so inspirational to women nationwide, because it encourages you to take part in an activity that you might have never thought to do.
In your opinion, what are the most important elements of success in business?
Dana: Customer service, being transparent, and honesty. Don’t sell a product that you wouldn’t use yourself. Be kind to those who have invested into your business, and take in feedback, good and bad. Don’t overcharge for a product that you know doesn’t deserve that price.
How are you encouraging people to be more fit through your label?
Dana: We have a Truly Active Initiative, where we host a series of events and talks to encourage men and women to get active within our communities. When you want to start working out, normally you look for the right outfit to wear to the gym. I believe if you have flattering and comfortable gym gear it always pushes you to go work out and get active.
Do you have a physical store or is apparel only sold through your website and stockists?
Dana: We are currently stocked locally at two stores, Meemo Space and Milk Concept. All of our other sales happen online. We are purchased from internationally, but are currently securing our international retailers.
Your plans for 2018?
Hala: We are aiming to expand our network of retailers and hope to be able to exhibit more internationally this year.
Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.