LOS ANGELES: “Launching a brand is like putting together a 10,000-piece puzzle,” Nada Sawaya says from her headquarters in New York City. When the puzzle is complete, you have this beautiful, cohesive image that is both exciting and enticing to the client.
The same can be said for reinventing a brand, and in the “adapt-or-die” world of fashion, the need to stay relevant and ahead of the trends makes reinvention part of the job.
With a career in the fashion industry spanning 25 years and six continents, Lebanese designer and entrepreneur Sawaya has plenty of experience to be prepared for her most recent revamp — blending her handcrafted handbags with NFC (near field communication) tag technology.
The melding of classical inspiration and innovation is a running theme for Sawaya. She cultivated her early passion for creativity by studying at the Gemology Institute of America in Los Angeles and becoming a jewelry designer in Paris. However, as she studied and worked abroad, she never left behind her Lebanese roots.
“My Lebanese roots and my multicultural background come into play when it comes to my designs,” Sawaya told us. “The Lebanese in me loves playing with patterns and different materials to create unique combinations.”
In 1994, she returned to Lebanon to launch Chiktok, which became the go-to name for fashion accessories in the region. Chiktok grew to include a variety of other fashion products, including handbags.
“For me, handbags fully reflect a woman’s taste and personality. It is a symbol of the status of a woman. ‘“Tell me about the bag you’re carrying, and I’ll tell you who you are.’”
Her interest in handbags culminated in a 2006 move to New York and the 2010 launch of Sawaya’s self-titled handbag brand, a blend of her fashion forward designs and authentic craftsmanship done in Italian ateliers.
By this point in her career, Sawaya was practiced at managing the rigors of a new brand. But this launch gave her the chance to overcome the hurdles of entering a new market.
“In Lebanon, we tend to multitask whereas in the US people are much more specialized and the competition is fiercer,” Sawaya said.
“Looking back, I would say that being successful in Lebanon is more easily achievable, but the market is very small, whereas it is much more difficult to be successful in the US, but the sky is the limit.”
However, it was through living and working in multiple locations and cultures that Sawaya was able to hone her craft. She describes this skill as an open-mindedness born from her multicultural knowledge, allowing her to adapt to any problem.
Adaptations to two such problems can be seen in the DNA of the new NFC tag-integrated handbags of her “Je te Veux” line.
Sawaya recounted a situation in which one of her manufacturers was copying her designs and selling them under his own name with only minor changes. She also confided that as the business grew, connection with her consumers was being lost.
“I was missing the direct contact I used to have with my customers back in the old days of Chiktok. When you are selling wholesale, you only have the feedback of the buyers, you don’t hear the feedback of the consumer. I also realized that millennials were looking for more than just a product. They wanted an experience.”
The NFC tags address both problems. Authenticity is assured, protecting the brand and wary consumers form counterfeits. And with a scan of their phone, buyers are treated to a customer-facing “product experience,” offering the potential for product traceability, styling recommendations, care instructions, personalized promotions and more.
This newest reinvention has been slow-going, due to the global pandemic. But it has proved one more opportunity for Sawaya to learn and adapt to challenges.
“I reduced my costs and was closely monitoring digital experience trends and behaviors,” she said of her strategy for remaining afloat during the pandemic. “Between March and July, I mainly focused my efforts on Instagram. I even became my own influencer on social media. By July, I slowly started promoting the brand again and gave it another boost in September. Overall, my strategy worked well.”
Both Nada Sawaya the brand and Nada Sawaya the woman are proof of the power of drawing on the knowledge of multiple cultures while always keeping a hold on your roots.
She advises any young people in the Middle East with a passion for fashion to stay strong in the face of challenges, and develop a strong eye for design and a head for business.
“If you know your home is in the fashion industry, you owe it to yourself to do everything possible to make your own brand a reality.”