Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
May Barber is an award winning Brand Management Consultant focused on building strategies for fashion startups and emerging brands. She has worked with a large portfolio of local, regional and international brands to develop creative brand content and balance creative and business strategies to refine their business model and help them reach global markets. May is also the Founder of The Cartel Fashion Platform and The Cartel Brand Management in Dubai. May holds several other positions including Patron at the Advisory Board of the Art Institutions of the 21st Century Foundation in London, Columnist at Hia Magazine and Member of the Advisory Board of Bunyan University Leadership Consortium Under the leadership of H.H. Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak. May holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture from the American University in Sharjah, a Fashion Buying Certificate from London College of Fashion and an Executive MBA at HEC Paris with a specialization in Luxury Brand Management.
May, how did you get into fashion tech?
I started my career in architecture then moved to art before ultimately landing into fashion. I wanted to disrupt the fashion scene in the Middle East by having a fashion platform focused on pushing the boundaries of fashion to go beyond typical retail. That’s why we focused on designing experiences and collaborations of fashion with other mediums: art, heritage, film and ultimately technology too. Our first statement of embracing wearable tech was us curating and hosting the first solo exhibition of the world’s first 3D printed haute couture designer Iris Van Herpen in our space, The Cartel, in Dubai in 2014. These types of experiences introduced a new dimension to our offer and positioned us as a platform of creativity embracing fashion and pushing it forward.
What is the idea behind Cartel and how did you come up with it? When did you start with that business, how did you start and do you have other members in your team?
The idea of the Cartel started in 2012 as a platform to support and launch emerging designers curated from Tokyo to Bogota. The offering itself, was and still is, quite unique as we have a good balance of established as well as up and coming cool designers reshaping the fashion scene globally. From 3D printing, bag engineering to glass blowing, these designers, commissioned and sourced by The Cartel, showcase beautiful creations often with an architectural statement and a contemporary aesthetics relevant to the audience of today. The challenge is to balance complexity in the making with relevance in the functionality, which is what set the Cartel apart from other platforms.
Initially the Cartel started as a retail and exhibition platform and developed into global retail via a partnership with the leading luxury e-commerce Farfetch in 2014. In 2015 we expanded to include another core business activity, which is The Cartel Brand Management, specializing in Brand Content and Brand Strategies, capitalizing on our expertise having launched more than 150 emerging brands into the market over the past 5 years of activity.
Today, The Cartel is composed of three main units: The Cartel Retail, Offline (via our showroom, partnerships and experiential pop ups) and Online (Own platform, Farfetch). The Cartel Brand Management (Brand DNA, Storytelling, Content and Distribution)
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
It took me just over 5 years now and the journey has not been smooth, but nevertheless it has been extremely rewarding. In a 5-year journey we started one of the first concept stores in the Middle East, introduce over 150 different brands to the market, hosted some of the region’s first wearable art exhibitions focused on different themes and featuring world players in art and fashion such as Iris Van Herpen, Chalayan, Rad Hourani, Una Burke and Patricia Millns, started our own annual publication narrating the stories of our designers and initiatives and remained active in spotting and celebrating talents globally.
What was the biggest obstacle?
We were ahead of the market so it took some time for people to relate and understand the nature of our activity and to identify with the brands and the offer. Today, we are happy that the market moved from typical fashion and luxury labels to embrace the cool unknown and to rebel against the norm.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
The challenges are quite common with entrepreneurship across various industries: how to balance long term vision with short term operations, how to attract and retain talents and make them buy into your vision, continuing to maintain your edge to stand out from rising competition and big corporate brands who can reach their goals faster. And most importantly, I’d add the constant need to innovate and lead in a fast changing economy. But without the challenges, there is no reward.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
My biggest achievement is that many of our brands that we discovered ended up winning major international awards in fashion after 1 or 2 years of working together. This includes Iris Van Herpen (Andam Award), Facetasm (LVMH Finalist), Eckhaus Latta (LVMH Award Finalist) which restores our confidence of spotting potential at an early stage.
What are your projects you are currently working on?
I have launched the first brands from Saudi Arabia to showcase and launch in Paris Fashion Week. The Cartel Brand Management worked with Saudi brand ‘Abadia’, which integrates Artisans work with contemporary aesthetics, on the overall brand strategy and the artification of Abadia all the way to its global launch in Paris, while engaging the right stakeholders from key buyers, media and fashion opinion leaders. We are also curating the content around a fashion/heritage exhibition that will be showing between Dubai, Riyadh and Paris.
Locally, we are working on developing a new brand in Athleisure, combining performance, functionality and sustainability
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Absolutely. I love the idea of #WomenInTech and share in common a lot of its values. Today, we need more and more platforms such as #WomenInTech to bring together different talents under one umbrella and help us get inspired by each other’s stories and accomplishments. I very much value these women and their amazing journeys; each one has a unique story.
What will be the key trends in the fashion tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I think one key trend we are living today is sustainability and I see technology and sustainability having the right marriage in the next couple of years to satisfy the expectations of today’s consumers, especially the Millennials and Generation Z who live and embrace technology and at the same time demand more transparency from brands.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
My advice would be to continue to invest in themselves as women and entrepreneurs before even investing in their business. The entrepreneur feeds the business more than it feeds them back. Investment is in the form of travel, constant research and exploration of ideas and who’d enrich and inspire them. This is crucial and as entrepreneurs we always tend to put the business first.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in fashion tech?
Zaha Hadid: who introduced tech and architecture to different mediums from furniture to buildings, shoes, jewelry and objects while remaining consistent and true to her identity.
Iris Van Herpen: for constantly pushing the boundaries of fashion tech by collaborations with artists, scientists and architects
Many of the #WOW women who I am discovering one by one ☺
Youtube: The Cartel
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.