Innovative. Entrepreneur. Designer. Sketchbook was ecstatic to interview the girl behind Fyunka, Alaa Balkhy.
Tell me about yourself.
I was born in Jeddah but grew up in Canada. I lived there for nine years. My father is a doctor and my mother is a multi-tasking housewife with an academic background in history. I have three younger brothers and one older sister.
What did you major in?
I studied graphic design in college. I believe that what you major in does not determine what you’ll do in life. There are many successful entrepreneurs today with projects that are outside their fields of study. I worked two jobs while attending college, one as a graphic designer at Sotra Boutique (a Jeddah-based boutique and brand) and the other a designer at a small design agency also in Jeddah. While at times it was difficult to manage my academics and my jobs, working while studying was the best thing I could’ve done at the time. Sotra Boutique introduced me to the fashion business and taught me how retail and production worked. My other job helped me practice my graphic design skills. Graduating with work experience and the lessons I learned helped me down the road with Fyunka.
Why did you decide to create an accessories line?
At the time, I noticed that many young designers were putting out t-shirts and other textile-based designs. I knew I wanted to design something but I was hesitant to design t-shirts. On one hand, the process seemed relatively straightforward, on the other hand, the t-shirt I design will only be worn a few times a month and have to be washed, and will eventually fade. I decided that I would design something durable that can be carried like a tote or a purse. I’d love to one day learn textile design and collaborate with a designer but let’s leave that to another year.
How did you come up with the Fyunka logo?
‘Fyunka’ is Arabic slang for a ribbon bow. I wanted the brand name to be in Arabic and I love how adding a bow to something can make it prettier. I relied on my graphic design skills to create the logo myself, relieved that I didn’t need to hire someone and could save a bit of money. With regard to my designs, in June 2011 I created an illustration that went viral on the internet. The illustration was of a Hermes Birkin bag with the caption “Baba Abgha Birkin” (Translation: Daddy I want a Birkin). The illustration was shared on social networking sites and featured in Khaleejesque, (a Kuwait-based magazine and blog).
What made you think of the “Baba Abgha Birkin” (Daddy, I want a Birkin) concept?
It’s a humorous insight to Khaleeji culture. Girls tend to ask their fathers for just about anything (regardless of whether or not they actually receive it), even if it is a $10,000 bag. It was a funny approach to this cultural trend since the Hermes Birkin is considered the “it” bag. I eventually decided to use this design for my first actual product, a tote bag. I started with a Look Book. I created my designs and sent my Look Book to buyers. Two days later, I received an order and that was my happiest moment ever!
What was that like?
It was amazing. At the time, I didn’t have anyone to make the bags, so my mom and I sewed the bags together ourselves. Even the tags were printed with my HP ink jet, it was really handmade when I first began and I loved that. I tried to keep my quantities limited. I now have a team that create my designs as I stock in twelve cities and tend to produce 100 to 200 bags of each design.
Where do you stock?
Cities/Countries: Jeddah, Riyadh, Khubar, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Amman, Muscat, Singapore, dia-boutique.com, fashlink.com, sadashop.com, and mayas-closet.com
It’s good that you know who you are and what you want. You have your strategy in the back of your head, which is more important. A lot of people don’t do that.
That’s because a lot of people are in it just for the money. They want to create a business that makes money and that’s it. For me personally, I wanted to do what I loved. The money (hopefully) comes around eventually but shouldn’t be the main driving force.
What is your illustration process?
Initially, I sketch my designs and scan them into my computer. I then add color and screen print. When it comes to my bags, I just do what I feel I need in a bag. I stick to basic structures. When my customers make suggestions, I listen to them. For example, some of my customers suggested that I add pockets and zippers and so I did.
Many of your bags have the same designs as luxury fashion labels such as Chanel and Celine. Does that make your bags a cheaper alternative to those pricey classic bags?
A lot of people were saying, “If you can’t afford the real Celine then buy a Fyunka bag.” I was thinking, “No. If you can afford the Celine then you do buy a Fyunka bag. It’s different. It’s not like shop for less. It’s a statement.” I remember when the Celine Phantom bag first came out; I was out and ran into three girls, two were carrying the Celine bag and then one of them said, “I really want to buy the Celine bag, but everyone has it now. I think I’d rather buy a Fyunka.” I was glad that the concept was understood. I was really happy because they comprehended the point I was trying to make.
Who is your favorite local designer?
Razan Al Azzouni creates the most elegant and fabulous dresses and skirts. I also admire Sotra Boutique’s modern yet elegant thobes and kaftans and of course my favorite pop artist Layla Al Marashi and Zayan the magical brand that’s all about being girly!
You have a blog. What do you like about the blogosphere?
I love blogging because anyone can state their opinion. It’s not just magazines and newspapers that control the conversations about art and fashion. Everyone can provide input.
Have you thought of designing something that categorizes your work in a more organized way like a website?
I prefer blogs to websites. Blogs are easy, blogs are personal. I’m not a fan of blogs that look like websites. Websites are way too formal. I am, however, working on a website for Fyunka, but then again that’s for the brand.
When will the website launch?
Hopefully, this year. I’m still working on the content It can be hard at times because everything needs to be in both English and Arabic, which can be quite time consuming. However, a bilingual website is important for Fyunka so that we can better cater to our Arabic-speaking customers.
Tell me about your social media experience.
Of the different social media platforms, [Fyunka] is most popular on Instagram. On Twitter, my personal account has a larger following than Fyunka does. I believe that Fyunka’s Facebook page is the face of the brand and the Twitter is for communicating. My following increased rapidly when I joined Instagram and began posting photos. I think that Instagram is the successful because my customers’ like seeing the product lines visually. Social media really helped Fyunka and I’ve learned more about using it as a tool as time goes on. Simple tricks like not linking your Facebook to your Twitter but linking your instagram to your Facebook have come in handy.
What I discovered is that Instagram is huge in Kuwait. When I visited Kuwait eight months ago, I gained many followers in a 24 hour period because people were tagging the brand. When I went back in jnauary I started a new hashtag for different cities. In Kuwait, I created a cute invitation where people could cut out the Fyunka girl and instagram it. People posted 118 pictures in that hashtag . Someone cut out the Fyunka girl and put her with a man and wrote the caption “Fyunka ubooch edawer 3alaich” (Translation: Fyunka, your dad is looking for you.) People made up stories such as “Khateeb Fyunka” (Translation: Fyunka’s fiancé). It was interactive because people were taking pictures of the Fyunka cut-out around Kuwait. I got a total of 2,000 followers from that time in Kuwait.
Who or what inspires you?
The ladies behind Sotra Boutique inspire me in many ways, I really admire their work and the brand they’ve created.
I admire Razan Al Azzouni! I first met her at event I attended in Riyadh. Her designs are magical, I wore on of her skirts to fashion night out in New York and people kept asking me about the skirt and I couldn’t have been happier to say that she is a Saudi designer.
I like Rana Al Salam’s work. I like that she does small products that people wouldn’t think about. Like the paper cups, those are really cute.
Anoud Al Badr from Lady Fozaza is amazing at marketing herself. She made one blazer, one product. And now she is the blazer queen, she’s amazing.
What is your advice to young entrepreneurs or designers?
Get an internship. Work while you’re studying. It’s doable. I did it and I learned a lot. Sometimes it’s not just about grades, I wouldn’t give up my work experience for a better and higher grade. Work and ask people for advice. You have to reach out to people because they will not reach out to you. Don’t be afraid, people will always talk. Always put yourself out there.
If you had to choose one of your products as your favorite, what would it be? If you can’t choose a favorite, which one holds the biggest meaning to you?
I like the bag with the Burqa because people ask me ‘what is this?’ when I’m abroad, such as in the US. Here it’s interesting too because it’s just a burqa but she has a face. This is my favorite print. My favorite products in terms of usage are the Celine luggage totes. The handles are leather and they fit everything. I always take it along when I travel. It’s very functional. I like the smaller ones too for going out during the day for smaller items like my keys and wallet.
If you had to choose one of your products and name it the ‘biggest fail’ what would it be?
Every single one of my items sold. Thank God! The Gulf seems like one market but every city or country will sell differently. For example, if something doesn’t sell in Jeddah, it might sell out quickly in Bahrain. The tastes are very different within the Gulf and I’m lucky to have fans of Fyunka across the region.
WORDS: SARA ABDUL GHAFFAR
ILLUSTRATION: TULIP HAZBAR