Andrea Kolb: From Renovating a Palace in Marrakesh to Founding a Social Enterprise With Donna Karan as a Customer

Andrea Kolb in MarrakeshAndrea Kolb is a social entrepreneur, marketing expert and co-founder of the “Club of Marrakesh”.

In 2001 she founded the communication agency “Calliope”, which develops and implements marketing projects for companies such as Deutsche Bank AG, o2 Deutschland, Mercedes-Benz and, Volkswagen.

In 2007, Andrea and her husband moved to Marrakesh and opened a city palace they had restored themselves, the AnaYela, a "Place of Inspiration" established as a hot spot for international thinkers and doers. This led to the creation of the "Club of Marrakesh“, which unites an interdisciplinary network of scientists, entrepreneurs and creatives from all over the globe.

In 2011, Andrea started her social business company “ABURY” with the expert support of the members of the “Club of Marrakesh”.

With the tag line “Beyond Fashion”, the goal of ABURY Collection GmbH is to ensure that people in various regions of the world can earn a living through traditional skills and knowledge.

At the same time, ABURY Foundation gGmbH initiates and supports educational projects and drinking water projects, etc. in these regions.

We talked to Andrea about renovating a palace in Marrakesh, the origins of her social enterprise, and having one of the world's greatest fashion designers as a customer.

TNW: Why handbags, is there still a sweet spot?

AK: ABURY Collection is not only about handbags - actually it is a kind of "accident" that we started with handbags. The goal of ABURY is to market authentic manufactured "products with a story" from all over the world and to enable indigenous people to once again be self-supporting with their traditional handicrafts. These can be all kinds of handmade specialties (woven silk from Bangladesh, but also pottery from Ecuador...), traditions which are dying out.

I partially moved from Berlin to Morocco 5 years ago with my husband to renovate an old riad in the Medina of Marrakesh to become a "Place of Inspiration". We renovated it without using electric tools - and realized that not many craftsmen still know traditional handicraft.

Traditional BerberbagThis is how I found our about the craftsmanship of embroidery and learned that the art is dying. Young people don't learn embroidery anymore, as it doesn’t offer them the chance to earn enough money. Then I got an old traditional Berberbag as a gift. All these bags are UNIQUE, no two are the same; they are little pieces of art. I took it to Germany and women stopped me in the street to ask where I got it - and this is how the idea started. We found a couple of older women who still knew how to embroider bags - so we built the first embroidery schools and started the business.

TNW: How big is the market for handbags?

AK: Well, women love handbags, but many new brands are entering the market – many of them low-priced. But ABURY Bags are a statement; they are a statement for authentic and sustainable luxury. They combine exclusiveness and ethics. Moreover we are not bound to the handbags market; we also offer exclusive handmade special editions for companies, for example a special phonebag as a gift at a telecom company event; a cosmetic bag for fair trade / eco-cosmetic line, etc.

TNW: Who are your customers?

AK: We are entering a new, developing market segment, as more and more people start to talk about sustainable lifestyle etc. They still want to have fun and wear beautiful things, and this is exactly what we offer: lifestyle with a statement - no matter whether for a private or business customer.

TNW: How are you financing your company? Looking for external funding?

An ABURY embroidery schoolAK: ABURY has two pillars - the ABURY Collection and the ABURY Foundation. The ABURY Foundation builds the schools and takes care of the community projects, it is funded through donations and 50% of the profits of the ABURY Collection. The ABURY Collection is takes care of Production, Sales and Marketing.

And yes - we are looking for funding to complete the next step: creation of more embroidery schools and expansion of our sales network internationally.

Moreover we will launch a new culture range each year; next year we will go to Bangladesh and introduce a silk line - beautifully woven crafts!

TNW: Any fashion gurus you like to connect with?

Donna Karan is an ABURY customerAK: YES :) - Donna Karan. She is a wonderful and inspiring designer and has a great foundation: Urban Zen. She was in Berlin in August and bought two Berberbags in our boutique there!

Also we are looking for designers who would like to design a new bag with us for next year’s collection. Our last designer was from France - he did the ipadbags and the clutches.

TNW: Any top tips for other entrepreneurs starting out in Fashion?

AK: Well - I wasn't in fashion before at all. So everything was new to me and I realized quickly that you need a good networker from inside the scene on your side. We invited Anita Tillmann, Founder of the Premium Fashion Fairs, to become a member of the advisory board -  she accepted :)! With her I learned a lot about the fashion market and she also introduced me to her network, which helped a lot, as the fashion business - like any businesses - is all about the right network!

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

ABURY ipad bagAK: As our budgets for marketing are quite small we have to be creative!

We don't do classical advertising, so the main pillars of our marketing strategy are PR, EVENT and SOCIAL MEDIA and overall we integrate our AMBASSADORS - famous actors, models, multiplicators - so far we only have German ambassadors such as Benno Fürmann, Jana Pallaske, Ursula Karven, Bettina Zimmermann...

PR: We create (regularly) different stories for different target group media. From personality stories to product placements for photo shoots.

EVENT: We partner with events like the VICTRESS AWARD (award for women in Germany) and others, we donate a bag for the raffle, we give bags to the VIPs who attend (see photo), we create special edition items or the goody bags for sponsors, etc.

SOCIAL MEDIA: Facebook, Twitter, fashion blogs

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

AK: Well each phase has its challenge and it is always the challenge you are currently facing which looks like the biggest one ;)!

At the beginning the biggest challenge was to win the trust of the people and to put a great team together - in Berlin, Marrakesh and the Berber Villages; an intercultural mix of people! We believe in the power of people.

Some journalists ask questions like: "What is your motivation to do so much for the people?", and I always answer that we are NOT working FOR people, we are working WITH people; people from different countries, different backgrounds.We can all learn something from one another and this is a unique experience!

So my recommendation would always be - be involved with your people - give them positive motivation - have fun and work hard!

At the moment - and I am a little impatient here as we only launched in June ;) - a big challenge is to activate the internet and to make people BUY on the internet. The conversion is not good enough yet and we are working on social media concepts etc. to raise the impact of our website!

Image of Donna Karan courtesy of David Shankbone.

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