By Chere di Boscio
Numa is a luxury accessories brand based in Dubai whose purpose is to create beautiful items celebrating craftsmanship, while providing sustainable revenues to gifted artisans, most of whom are women.
The founder, Melika Dahlouk, is proud that as a result of working for Numa, many of her female artisans have become the chief breadwinners in their households.
We were curious as to why Melika started an ethical brand in a region not known for its green ethos, and which challenges she faced. She answered all our questions and more in this exclusive interview.
Why did you create Numa? Isn’t it easier to start an accessories line that’s not focused on ethics?
It is definitely easier and much cheaper to produce fashion accessories without specific ethics, without considering the origin of materials or production modes and conditions. I don’t abide by fashion diktats and fashion was never the primary goal; the brand creativity and production sustainability conditions (for the people and for the environment) are the priority. We also wish to give a new life to ancient savoir-faire, like traditional embroidery or hammering techniques that are disappearing.
Many countries are losing the tradition of their crafts, specifically because it is not attracting the new generation. Items are too costly for the population and the fast-fashion of western monoculture is dominant, and traditional crafts haven’t been adapted to modern economies.
What are some of the main challenges selling such a brand in Dubai and the Middle East?
Consumers in the region are becoming more conscious about environment and production conditions but this is a long process and education is key. Nevertheless, the beauty and attractiveness of the item remain the retail trigger, no matter how the item was produced. Numa combines attractiveness and ethics. Our customers in the Middle-East appreciate the originality and quality of Numa accessories, but the story behind the pieces is more important for European or American consumers than in this region.
You’ve tried to educate people in the region about the importance of being eco-friendly. What main issues do you usually point out, specifically?
The fashion industry is very polluting and most consumers are not aware of the environment disruption of materials such as leather or some fabrics or stones. Most materials are not sourced or produced ethically, and a T-shirt or a ring may have caused far more damage than good. For example, most consumers in the region love precious jewellery, but they are not aware of the provenance of precious metals and stones or their extraction conditions.
Instead of showcasing the negative effects of uncontrolled fashion production, which should be the role of specific institutions and media, when Numa established the Ethical Design Collective in Dubai, our role was to celebrate beauty and to showcase the fashionability and quality of ethically designed and produced items. The idea is to change the perception of “ethically produced” and “environmentally friendly” goods from low quality items to luxurious design accessories with a story.
What’s your background in general? How did that lead you to where you are today?
I graduated with a degree in International Trade and also studied Jewellery Making in Los Angeles. I worked for more that 20 years for humanitarian organisations with UN agencies and NGO’s. I worked on development programmes (mostly on education, child protection, and entrepreneurship) in 7 countries. I grew up in Paris and also lived for several years in cosmopolitan cities like NYC, Geneva and now Dubai and in fascinating countries like Thailand, Kenya or Tunisia. I like urban life but always need the Mediterranean “art de vivre”.
I was always interested in local traditional craft making and admire the artisans working endless hours on items of infinite value. Expert craft making has a very strong cultural and development potential, especially for women, but it is often too time consuming and costly–it is very difficult to compete with industrialisation and mass production.
It was my dream to create a collection that would combine creativity with economic development, and Numa was born in 2007.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a small brand?
The cycles of the fashion world and consignment. Being a brand of stylish accessories, Numa fell into the world of fashion and consequently has to produce collections by seasons for fast paced trade shows and hip shops. We are lucky to produce versatile items with luxurious materials and inimitable craftmaking that are timeless in style, so we remain on-trend, but the fashion system is too demanding for small brands like ours.
We do not have the marketing and PR budgets available to big fashion groups and yet, we have to produce several collections and participate to costly trade shows each year and produce high- end pictures, campaigns and marketing material. On the other hand, most shops, and often the most prestigious outlets, require us to collaborate on a consignment basis. This is very challenging and as opposed to most mainstream brands, our investment and revenue is used for the artisans and all our fees are paid upfront, including the sourcing of recycled and upcycled material which is often more costly than mainstream materials available on the market.
What are some of the proudest moments you’ve experienced for Numa?
We organise collaborations with visual artists regularly and this is always a wonderful experience.
Numa items have been selected by prestigious trade shows, trend agencies and were even showcased by one of the celebrities I admire the most, Ms Susan Sarandon.
We are expanding our production collaboration with artisans and NGOs in various countries, always with a focus on sustainability. We are now represented in the American market, and as a founding member of the Ethical Design Collective, we would also like to develop more projects with other similar brands.
Photography by Peter de Mulder