Pioneering Luxury Fashion E-Commerce in the Middle East

Fashion entrepreneur Rasha Khouri spent her formative years traveling between New York, Paris, Beirut and London.

Discerning a niche in the digital e-commerce space for a luxury e-tailer with a product mix aimed at modern nomad such as herself, Khouri launched DIA-BOUTIQUE.com in 2010. The site delivers fresh fashion from independent luxury designers around the world to audiences across the globe.

2012 marked the launch of DIA-style.com, a new e-commerce site for the Middle East in English and Arabic selling luxury ready-to-wear and accessories by global brands.

Rasha is the Founder & CEO of DIA-style.com and DIA-BOUTIQUE.com and is based in London, where both brands are headquartered.

Educated at Brown University, Sciences Po and INSEAD, Rasha launched her career as an investment banker at JP Morgan in New York. From there, she merged her interest in fashion with finance as a luxury goods analyst with Merrill Lynch and UBS, in London.

Rasha frequently appears as a speaker on fashion, technology and business at leading educational establishments such as Harvard and INSEAD as well industry conferences.

We spoke to Rasha about taking the leap from corporate life to found DIA-Style; about why she chose to focus her business on the Middle Eastern Market; and how her background in banking has helped her as an entrepreneur.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for DIA-style.com and then arrive at the decision to turn your back on corporate life and turn your idea into a reality?

RK: I have always had an interest in fashion and started my career as a luxury goods research analyst at UBS and Merrill Lynch in London. I am passionate about all things digital. Given these factors, and my being of Arabic origin, it was a natural progression that led me to set up my own business focusing on online shopping in the region. Having seen, as well as researched, what was going on in the Middle East online space and realising the opportunity, I knew I needed to act fast and join at the beginning of the growth phase.

I set up our first site DIA-BOUTIQUE.COM in 2010 which has a global audience (as well as one from the region) and saw a greater frequency of orders were coming through from the Middle East. I knew it was the right time to go to market with DIA-style.com a social commerce aggregator selling women’s luxury ready-to-wear and accessories.

TNW: In a saturated online fashion market, how does DIA differentiate itself?

RK: With DIA-style.com we’re targeting a region that is in its nascent phase of e-commerce growth.

We are the first to put over 50,000 products online of on-season and on-trend from global luxury brands and designers in both Arabic and English. 

In terms of DIA-BOUTIQUE.COM, our complementary sister site, a marketplace for independent designers from around the world including many from the Middle East, we concentrate on partnering with designers who offer a unique design perspective to distinguish our product offering.

Arabic is a technically difficult language to translate and to make web friendly. Highly developed luxury brands and e-tailers do not have e-commerce capabilities in Arabic yet despite the importance of the market and have centred their e-commerce activities in English/European/Asian languages. This gives our sites a distinct advantage as we are able to target this key market.

Our dual English/Arabic language capabilities give us a USP and allow our brands, designers and retail partners access to a market that they would not otherwise be able to reach. 

TNW: What did you most enjoy about the transition from corporate employee to entrepreneur, and what were the biggest challenges?

RK: There are many advantages to being an entrepreneur over a corporate employee.

It’s never boring; it is highly motivating shaping a business and knowing that everything you are doing contributes to the development of the business.

I have also enjoyed bringing together the right people for the team to construct a friendly and dynamic working environment.

Also, you have time to think within a corporate. In a start-up, it can often feel that you fit a lifetime into a single day! Large companies do not move at such headlong speed and you have time to learn and reflect, but I enjoy a fast pace.

TNW: What role does technology play in the success of your business?

RK: Technology plays a crucial role for our business and is at the very foundation of DIA. It has allowed us to speed up translation processes and create features and games to engage with our audience. 

TNW: Why did you decide to focus DIA-style.com on the Middle Eastern market?

RK: I could see that the region was reaching a ‘tipping point’ for e-commerce and has tremendous potential. 

We launched the site in 2012 to position ourselves in the market right at the start of the growth. By 2015 the GCC market alone is expected to grow to $15 billion, in 2010 it stood at $3.3 billion.

TNW: What lessons did you learn from your time as an Investment banker and goods analyst and go on to apply to launching and running DIA-style.com?

RK:

There are many positives about having worked in banking which have been of benefit to me as an entrepreneur - understanding financials and knowledge of building a business plan together with analytical skills.

My roles also gave me an in depth knowledge of the luxury goods sector which has proved invaluable. Another thing that it taught me was to always be prepared to travel on business at the drop of a hat, and be organized and ready to hit the ground running upon arrival.

TNW: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered with DIA-style so far and how are you tackling it?

The DIA-Style website is in English and ArabicRK: A new technology hurdle to overcome when launching DIA-style.com was dealing with the volume of products available (more than 50,000 items) and being able to translate them in Arabic in a timely manner and also taking into consideration what was relevant and appealing for the customer in the Middle East. We developed our own translation application from English to Arabic to translate in a more efficient way. This enabled us to transform the translation process for websites. 

Creating a bilingual platform requires a cultural perspective as well as technological one, trying to reflect local sensibilities.

Whilst there is a single perceived Arabic audience with a single uniform language, there are, in fact, multiple region/country specific audiences with differing tastes/lifestyles as well as vocabulary.

TNW: Are you a tech enthusiast? If so, what kind of tech do you get most excited about?

RK: Absolutely, there are so many exciting developments in the fashion tech field - from virtual fitting rooms, to smart screens to generation of products using 3D printing technology.  These will revolutionize the way we shop, whether online, or in a brick and mortar store.

TNW: What are the particular challenges faced by female entrepreneurs in the Middle East?

RK:

I think they are the same as being an entrepreneur anywhere - building the right team and raising funds.

Rasha Khouri speaking to female college students in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2012I am passionate about the development of e-commerce and entrepreneurship for women in the Middle East and feel a duty to share any knowledge and experience.

I always try to integrate mentoring activities into my schedule and have been fortunate to meet some highly engaged future entrepreneurs over the last month at a women’s Design and Business University in the The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and in Lebanon at the New Arab Women Forum.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

RK: In the future we are looking towards growing the site and adding further product categories like children’s wear and menswear as well as expanding into new languages.

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