Whether it is a weekend or a standard Sunday at the office, Coti Girls are always travelling the world for dresses and jewellery with the goal of finding just the right talent. They are a fashion-fuelled army, aiming to find just the perfect combination of quality and design.
A few years ago, entrepreneur Dana Khater took Egypt’s fashion scene into the cyber world through her high-end e-commerce website. Today, Coterique is Khater’s well-established start-up that has connected the world’s finest emerging designers with the right customers.
Daily News Egypt met with Khater to discuss e-commerce, her army of Coti Girls, and Coterique’s new website that is set to be launched next week.
How did you start Coterique?
Originally, I started a fashion magazine in the American University of Cairo (AUC), Vitrina. The idea behind the publication was to focus on the fashion industry in the Middle East. After three years, we had a photoshoot in Aswan that had to be done in 24 hours solely due to university policies.
Accordingly, I had to visit a few boutiques, pick the garments, go to a stylist, style the items at his house, go to the airport, reach Aswan at 3 am, scout locations, shoot all day, go back to Cairo before midnight, and, finally, return all the products the next morning.
On my way home, I told my fashion director at the time that we highly needed a website that could display the boutique stock online. In Egypt, if you want to get a high-end outfit, you have to visit Beymen in Garden City, then Villa Baboushka in Zamalek, just to try and create an outfit.
A few days later, I came across Flat6Labs and I just applied, even though I thought I would not be accepted. I thought it was too tech-savvy. And, yet, I got in and I ended up working on Coterique out of their funding.
Coterique had a different model for boutiques. We did not do an inventory; we just went to the boutiques, photographed their items, and uploaded them online. This was right after the revolution when there was no disposable income. Everything was left on the shelves. No one was buying anything.
At the time, Egypt was a terrible market for high-end boutiques and they were losing more money than they were making. It was the perfect timing to walk to these boutiques and tell them that we were going to take photos of their stock and sell it abroad without them worrying about their inventory cost.
How did Coterique evolve from an alternative platform for local boutiques to an international source of emerging designers?
After a year and a half, I went to Tokyo for a summer semester through the university. I went to South Korea for the weekend from there and stumbled upon a department store that is dedicated to buyers. You had to be accredited as a buyer to get in and you had to buy at least five pieces from each design. I found many great designers there and, yet, I had to buy five items at a time and none of them actually had a shop where I could buy the items at a retail price.
Their only alternative was either through emails or “WeChat”, a popular texting application in the Far East. Instead, I went through the store and collected the designers’ business cards and whenever I saw items that were absolutely amazing, I bought five of them.
Back in my apartment in Tokyo, I sorted out the items I bought, went to a studio for a professional photo shoot, and I put the items on Coterique. It was not long until we started getting orders for those particular products, so I contacted DHL to ask for help since I needed to deliver the items to London in only three days.
On the way back to Cairo, I knew for a fact that I needed to recreate this experience again. I needed to deal with more emerging designers and help sell their creations worldwide.
What sets Coterique apart from any other e-commerce website?
I met “Okhtien”, Aya and Mounaz Abdel Raouf, right after I came back from my semester in Tokyo. They were still starting their brand right before launching their very first collection. I instantly fell in love with the fact that they were inspired by one thing: domes. And yet, they were able to interpret it in several interrelated ways because that is the way designers should work, but it is not what normally happens.
We instantly signed with them and put their first collection on the website even though they were not a boutique. As Okhtein began to grow and we began to sell their products to 55 countries, I realised that I enjoyed that much more than selling for boutiques.
It was quite sometime after the revolution and the economy was rapidly healing, so the reason why I had started Coterique did not still exist for boutiques. At that moment, I decided to shift routes and help designers, help the Okhteins of the world.
What we currently do is: two of our team members scout for emerging international talents 24/7. Our new website is a platform to discover and shop for emerging designers from around the world.
Before establishing any e-commerce website, you have to have a sense for what the users are actually looking for on the website. For Coterique, I want the question to be about finding cool and unique items from a designer somewhere else in the world.
How has our local market interacted with the concept of e-commerce?
The local market equals the population of 90 million people. However, Coterique is mainly high-end fashion so I do not want to speak on behalf of the 90 million. I just want to say that, in terms of our target audience, they are very tech-savvy and they use their credit cards for the majority of their purchasing. They have shopped online before so they know everything about customer service standards. Our target market definitely understands e-commerce for sure.
How did the rise of Instagram shopping accounts affect your business?
Instagram accounts are huge, especially in Saudi Arabia, for example, where most of their online shopping is done through Instagram and WhatsApp. They have huge WhatsApp sales. Therefore, it would be stupid from me to belittle that existence, but I think that branding is a crucial factor for high-end fashion. Branding is the reason why people still like to go to Selfridges and Harrods, because they know how to properly treat their customers.
So when you take that online, you still need to give that superior and luxurious feel, and you do not get that through Instagram. Social-media is instantaneous; fast fashion can work really well with Instagram, unlike high-end fashion.
Fashion aesthetics highly differs from one country to another; what are your criteria when choosing designers?
Our number one criterion is always quality. We focus on emerging designers but we are also still all about high-end fashion. We currently mix brands that are well-established with new talents therefore I need to guarantee that my clients can visit my site and buy an MSGM or Maram dress and both will have the same standard and quality.
We have strict quality control guidelines, in terms of how the products were made. The second factor is about the designing process. For example, Maram and Okhtein truly have a design process, as opposed to someone who just goes to a seamstress. We are looking for labels with stories because it is high-end fashion and you are paying a high-priced ticket for a story, basically. You cannot just plaster a price on without a reason.
Over the years, we have also come to understand our clientele’s taste.A big chunk of our selections correspond to our style and what we think can sell, as well as the recent trends. However, we also choose some items based on knowing what worked best with our clientele.
Tell us more about the new website you are launching next week.
Aesthetically, it looks a lot better.However, feature-wise, it is even cooler.One of the main features basically allow the clients living outside Egypt to pay in dollars or any other currency so they will see the pricing in dollars or British pounds according to their IP address. They no longer need to Google Egyptian pounds and then see the word Egypt and freak out or call me to ask why they cannot pay in their own currency, saying that Egypt on the news does not seem to be doing so well.
The currency factor is a game changer for us, especially considering that we want to ensure a global selection of designers, experience and service. Egypt is part of the world but our market is the world. Our very first order actually came from New York, while the second was Los Angeles.
The second thing: we also wanted to narrate the designers’ stories better. Meanwhile, we wanted to easily tell the people where did these designers come from so we developed small flags all around the website to indicate the designers’ countries.
Finally, we have an international team of ambassadors based in many fashion capitals around the world: Coti Girls. Now we have a new section for the Coti Girls on the website. Each week, a different girl gets to have her favourite picks featured on the home page. Furthermore, they will also be interviewing the designers so you get to know more about them. I think story telling is a major factor for us.
What is next for Coterique?
We are looking at different things; first, we want to grow the Coti Girl network. The magic number is 75.There are 79 cities with fashion weeks, including Paris, New York, Milan, London. I do not particularly care about the last four, what I care about are the other 75 cities. I want designers and Coti Girls based in those cities in order to be present as a supporter of their local fashion and design scene.
I have decided to break down this major goal according to regions, so we will start with the Middle East, then Asia, Australia, South America and, finally, Europe, mostly because everyone is looking at Europe and the US. I want to look elsewhere.