When Hebah from the Impact Hub, connected me to Karuna Advani, director of The Mode Villa, (a brand enhancement agency specializing in Brand Strategy, PR and social media for fashion), our conversation infectiously spiraled. As a designer myself, I found Karuna’s expertise in fashion, PR, and social media fascinating and deeply inspiring. Below are the highlights of our conversation: 

1.    What made you join the Impact Hub Dubai?

I was looking for a space to work from while my office was under construction. Impact Hub Dubai is a fabulous community of interesting, driven individuals and teams that are passionate about the projects they’re working on. It’s an inspiring space to be part of.  The hosts (Hebah in particular) are always on the lookout for ways in which to help each of us build stronger networks. The location and ambience is brilliant, making it easy to meet clients here, or spend the day plugging away on my laptop. There are also a number of engaging talks and workshops throughout the week that Hubsters can be part of. The whole cohesive feel sets Impact Hub Dubai apart from any other entrepreneurial workspace in Dubai.

2.    What is The Mode Villa and how is it different fromother branding/PR fashion agencies?

I set up The Mode Villa (TMV) while I was living in Switzerland with the goal of it becoming a platform for designers to launch into new markets. Being in the UAE makes it even easier to connect with both talented designers and with a fascinating marketplace for their products. My agency works on all aspects of brand enhancement for companies within the fashion and retail sectors. We offer a full range of services from brand strategy and PR, to representation and sales – so we can work with a brand through its full product cycle. Each client has very specific needs so we tailor-make packages to suit their requirements, which means we may be doing a pop-up event for one while we work on a complete social media plan for another. Our tailored hands-on approach for each client as well as our continued connections to retailers in the European market set us apart from other agencies in the region

3.    As a young, emerging designer, it’s financially straining to afford PR and sales presentation for your business. In my experience, even if you manage to find a PR agency to represent your brand, most PR agencies don’t give small brands much attention, and you are you competing with huge established brands at every level. How do you think small, young designers can develop their brands through PR to overcome these obstacles?

As an upcoming brand with limited funding, you can work with boutique PR agencies such as TMV or others in the city for which fashion is an area of expertise. You can limit PR to specific campaigns or events so that your budget is used more effectively. As a smaller brand, it’s important to create unique events that draw the media’s attention and also generate sales.

Do not underestimate the power of your own network and personal PR. Ensure that your social and professional circles are aware of your work and support your collections and events. Brand ambassadors are also a great way to amplify your message in this market and it is valuable to spend time developing your unique brand identity and connecting with potential ambassadors who resonate similar values and are willing to support and showcase your brand. Designers need to become their own brand ambassadors as well and find unique avenues through which to tell the story of their brand.

4.    It’s fantastic for your ego to get featured in high profile publications … but in my experience, PR doesn’t generate sales. How do you think this obstacle can be overcome? What strategies do you feel designers/PR agencies should develop?

Visibility for the brand is almost as important as creating a beautiful collection. Every buyer in the region is a consumer of media, and they are always on the lookout for brands that create a buzz. This increases the brand’s desirability and overall salability of the collection: both to retailers and end consumers. In my experience, especially in the Middle East, PR plays an important role in generating sales in the long term. Special events are a great way to generate effective PR stories while creating sales revenue. Brands can create trunk shows and pop-up shops for their collections in interesting venues in the city or within multi-brand boutiques they sell from. There are also a lot of interesting exhibitions within the city that a brand can participate in so that they can increase visibility and benefit from the overall footfall of the event. A very popular and well-attended event by the local fashionistas is The Pop-Up Party at Al Serkal Avenue. The format invites a number of different regional brands to be part of the event and a single brand is then exposed to the clientele of each of the participating brands. The Garden exhibit at Fashion Forward also provides an ideal venue for accessory designers to showcase their work. A strategy that encompasses focused activities and bursts of PR work best for smaller brands so there is continuous ‘talk value’ generated about the brand while the content remains fresh.

5.    You work with many local and regional fashion designers. What are their biggest obstacles, and what do you think needs to be done to support designers in the region?

Designers in the region experience an overall lack in mentorship and technical expertise. Production facilities in the region are also limited and designers struggle to effectively build production capacity. This in turn impacts the development of an economically feasible line. On the other end of the product cycle, retailers work mainly on consignment with local designers.  This is an extremely difficult model for new designers to work with as it greatly restricts cash flow and the designers’ ability to produce new collections.

There is distinct need for the creation of a fashion council that can develop training programs and expertise in addition to regulating the production process and helping promote upcoming designers in a collaborative space. I feel that with the growth of spaces such as Al Serkal Avenue in Al Quoz and the development of Dubai Design District, we are starting to see change and more positive prospects for regional designers.

6.    As fashion designer specializing in textiles I feel so much needs to be done to develop an appreciation of the history of textiles in the Middle East: from how it is produced and transported around, to a topography study of how patterns, yarns and colours are created in the region. You are presently working to promote appreciation of the textiles industry in Dubai, how did the project come about and what do you hope will be achieved with the project?

I have always been passionate about the cultural and historical heritage of the city. Although Dubai is not a large manufacturer of textiles, it is an important trading hub that provides designers in the region access to textile from various parts of the world. My current project involves highlighting the significance of textiles in Dubai. My aim is to showcase both the trading aspect as well as the local textiles that are being used by organizations such as Sougha and Little Farasha. When you live in Europe there is so much respect for the materials used in each garment and the work involved in the manufacturing process. In the Middle East and the rest of Asia, consumers don’t appreciate the work involved in the production and treatment of various fabrics. I would love to see this appreciation develop. The project is a stepping-stone towards building that awareness.

7.    How is social media changing the face of fashion PR? How do you think designers/small business can best utilize social media?

Social media is easily the best marketing tool for any designer. It is a cost-effective channel and an excellent way for brands to connect with end consumers. Social media is becoming one of the strongest marketing channels for most companies. Bigger brands are allocating more and more of their overall marketing budget  towards platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

Designers can easily engage potential consumers via their social media feeds. However, they must understand that this is a marketing channel and the brand’s tone of voice must be maintained and messaging be adapted for each individual platform. Understanding the brand’s personality and developing a social strategy in line with that is one of the aspects my agency specializes in. I look forward to sharing more insight on the topic during my social media workshop at Impact Hub in December. Karuna Advani is joining ‘Create Congress’ to run a workshop on social media and how it can be tapped to develop your business. Please check our calendar for further details! 

Guest blogger, Mia Jafari is a British/Iranian fashion print designer www.miajafari.com