Friday, November 24, 2017

How three university students started Palestine’s most popular streetwear brand


By The Palestine Monitor - October 22, 2017
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Interviews]
Tags: [culture] [BDS] [Birzeit University]

They’re still young but they have made a name for themselves, or rather, for their brand, Qubtan –captain in Arabic. The young students from Bir Zeit University who created the first streetwear brand 100% manufactured in Palestine, are now renowned all over the country.

In 2014, three friends - Jeries, Amer, and Bassam - started to sell t-shirts to football fans who followed the World Cup, and would otherwise have to buy imported merchandising items, including jerseys, to support their favourite team.

Today their brand's logo, a sailor, is hip to most Palestinian youth. One of their top-selling items is a t-shirt featuring the names of major Palestinian cities. Students wear them from campus to parties. They were made even more popular when popular singer Mohamed Assaf started wearing one.

Every year, the young businessmen - who never studied fashion - donate some of their products to people, so that their sweatshirts and t-shirts make their way into all sorts of homes.

Palestine Monitor met Jeries Shami, 24, one of the three founders of the youth brand, and a psychology student at Bir Zeit University.



PM: How did you come up with the idea for Qubtan?

Shami: We realized when we were students that there were a lot of things that were not available on the Palestinian market, and it was even more obvious when people would come to talk about boycotting Israeli goods for instance. Streetwear and clothing in general were among the things we missed. We named it Qubtan because we all love the sea. You can’t imagine how much! We only travel to see the sea, also because we miss it a lot. Here, the sea should be one hour away from us, but we don’t get to access it. We learned how to swim in swimming pools. It made sense to do something connected to this common love of the sea with this brand.
 
PM: How did you start your business?

Shami: We all invested from our own money. Until now, it’s scary. It was not much, but it’s a lot to us. We still don’t pay ourselves. Actually we don’t make money out of Qubtan. So far, what matters to us is to support the families of the manufacturers and all our partners.

PM: What were the main challenges you faced at the beginning?

Shami: We fully manufacture in Palestine, even our tags are made in Hebron. Only the fabric is imported from Turkey, and this is because we could not source good material from Palestine (yet!). This, itself, is a challenge. In general, a lot of Palestinians have had bad experiences with Palestinian products, so they tend not to trust them.

PM: Why can’t you find good fabric in Palestine?

Shami: Palestinians used to have a lot of factories for the clothing industry, and they would even manufacture for the Israeli market. Unfortunately, this industry completely vanished. There are many reasons why. Little by little, Palestinians started to buy fabric from China or Turkey. We realized that today this sector is even behind what it should be since manufacturers or business owners stopped investing in technologies for instance. We are trying to revive this industry.

PM: How did you manage to make such a big success out of an experiment?

Shami: We grew bigger as people followed our work and supported it, in every sense, be it by promoting it online, or by buying our pieces, or even just telling us they like what we do. All of this gave us the motivation to keep developing our brand. We also want Qubtan to be an opportunity for young people to find jobs and to get experience, so hopefully we will soon start to hire employees. We are thinking we may hire three people by the end of the year. Our priority is to get our brand known and respected, to provide people with really good quality products, and this is more important than money today. Simply, our goal is to do the best product. We see it as a starting point for everything else.

PM: What are the difficulties you face today in developing your company?

Shami: Because of the Israeli occupation, it’s hard to move around Palestine, and so it’s difficult for us to sell all over Palestine. We tried to go to Haifa [in present-day Israel] for instance to sell our products. And we simply could not. First, I was not able to go there to meet with the people organizing the sales, because you need a permit to do so, and in the end, they just decided on someone else… Also, reaching other markets can be a headache. If we want to sell to Jordan for instance, we have to pay the Palestinian customs, as well as the Israeli and the Jordanian ones. It implies extra costs all the time. When manufactured in Beit Jala, the wave of unrest in 2015 started and we were afraid of going there. We spent months to find a way to relocate to Ramallah. We wasted maybe three months in the process, just because we had to secure a whole new production line, from scratch, only because of the clashes.

PM: What are your dreams for Qubtan?

Shami: That everybody can afford a piece of our work would be great! Of course, we would really like to have a store for instance. Also, we would like to offer more products like shirts or dresses. All of us we are learning. None of us knew anything about making clothes, or selling them even. We did not know anything about fabric or designs, so we focus on being good at what we do. It’s like getting another BA; but we want to prove that even with little money, you can have your own business.

PM: Do you feel that what you do is political?

Shami: Boycotting Israeli goods is one of the best ideas to fight occupation because it's peaceful resistance and it has an actual impact. This is what we believe. But in order to do so, you need Palestinian products to reach a really good quality, for people to buy it, instead of the Israeli ones. So this is in a way political. But mostly, it’s our commitment.

PM: Do you have a message?

Shami: I feel we are somehow part of a larger movement of expressing oneself differently within Palestinian society. Our designs are a bit sarcastic sometimes, like the t-shirts we sell that read “Jericho Airport”, even though we don’t have one. Or even the concept of Qubtan, which relates to the sea, even though we don’t have access to the sea, or we don’t have a Palestinian navy that is actually monitoring our waters. Palestinian youth is full of talents and people who want to resist peacefully, to think out the box, to build a better future… Throwing the questions of travels and borders through these designs is a message.

PM: Do you think you can inspire other young entrepreneurs?

Shami: A lot of young Palestinians think about finding a job rather than starting a business. At first, when we started Qubtan, people around us were very surprised. But hopefully things will change for the better. Qubtan could be an example in the future and show that it’s possible to be a young successful entrepreneur in Palestine. 

All photos courtesy of Qubtan

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