Interview


Katrina Yakusheva


Dubai - 4 February 2015

04

I met Katrina through LinkedIn as we are operating in the same field of business: the fashion industry. Katrina is a very dynamic woman, always open to new business ideas, currently moving between Dubai and Tbilisi, where she settled not so long ago. She gives us a comparative view on doing business in both Dubai and Tbilisi.

You are constantly travelling between you’re between Dubai and Tbilisi, in Georgia.

Yes. As you know I’ve been in Dubai for 12 and a half years. I’ve been living there full time – that was while travelling in other countries as well, mainly for business. Just to give you a brief background, I started working in Dubai as a business development manager and business consultant. I then switched to fashion events, which is completely different. And now it’s about eight/ nine years that I’ve actually been working in the fashion industry. I’m a certified image consultant as well, so I had my image consulting company and then I formed the FBCI[1] where we promote contemporary fashion brands. In a nutshell, the concept was basically to promote Middle Eastern brands abroad and facilitate the access of international brands to the Dubai market.

In that sense, we represent fashion brands.
Then, as you know, the film industry, fashion industry, events industry, entertainment, they all go hand in hand. So I enter the film industry, accidentally, through a friend of mine, Tony (Antoine) Fadel, who is a film director, asked me if I could help him out with a short film project called “Love & Hate”. So I did that, and the movie went to Cannes – it got accepted at Cannes and made it to the top ten!
It’s a story about the fact that Muslims can have multiple wives, and it’s basically the story of one of the wives.
Then last year, we also shot a couple of music videos in Dubai for Bollywood producers.
My installation in Tbilisi comes also through a friend who invited me to come and have a look at what was happening there. That’s how, early this year, we started a new chapter of FBCI in Georgia.
The films and the fashion industry were never things that I was considering as a career. I actually have a degree in psychology! But one thing led to another. A friend of mine says it’s just a matter of connecting the right dots – so I’m not sure where those came from.
And I think we will grow, maybe towards the Russian market and so on. At first, our aim was just to open it for the Caucasian region, because they do have – especially in Georgia – some really amazing designers. And the way women dress here is quite amazing. I have hardly seen a woman being so stylishly dressed, you know, casual, stylish way of dressing. But since there is a bit of a situation between Georgia and Russia, because they had a war in 2008, we are thinking that by end of this year, we should be opening a Russian chapter as well – a Russian chapter and a chapter in Central Asian Kazakhstan.

And the aim will be the same, representing designers?

Yes. Basically those will be just offices. It’s representation of designers; basically it’s a one-stop shop for everything that a brand needs when they want to enter a new market. We don’t provide production facilities or the actual design studios and workshops, but we do connect them with manufacturers from the countries or with the local manufactories.

So, say a Western brand wants to expand in Georgia or Dubai. Do they contact you and you can do everything for them? Like finding shops and distribution networks and everything?

Yes. But it’s not just about finding. We also organise pop-up stores. There are pop-up shops for a season, and there are also two shows for the buyers per season. So basically, there are four events where a designer’s collection can be displayed; buyers can do orders – normally that happens before the main four fashion weeks. Well, in Dubai it actually happens during the religious holidays as well because the fashion calendar shifts there a little bit; like before Ramadan or before Eid, because people buy a lot of things. And also for Indian designers, like the Asian designers, that would be before Muslim holidays and before Hindu holidays as well. So it’s slightly different.
Right now we’re discussing with the Ministry of Education in Georgia to start a fashion school: they don’t have anything here. In the whole Caucasian region people need to go to Russia to study fashion. They do have art here and design, but there’s nothing specific for fashion or couture, for fashion management, merchandising,..
And I really love Georgia!

Is it your country of origin?

No, I’m actually from Kazakhstan. I’m Russian but I’m from Kazakhstan – I was born and brought up there; my family still lives there. And yes, Georgia was always called the pearl of the Caucasian region; it’s always been beautiful. I’d never been here before, and as soon as I arrived here I just fell in love. It’s not cold in the winters; it’s maximum minus five, which is pretty good. And you can just drive to the other side of the country on the sea coast and the Black Sea, and it’s beautiful weather in the summers, and it’s always green; there’s good food, good wine, brilliant people – so what else do you need to be happy?! And they’re very helpful as well.

And how about business? Is it easy to do business over there?

Yes. The company set-up takes about two hours! In two hours you get your license, then you just go to the tax authority to get your taxation done, the tax number, and that’s it – you’re done. And you have 20% flat tax on personal income. That includes everything: your pension fund… not your medical insurance of course. And 15-18% tax on the business, which is great. Well, I’m still complaining that we need to pay taxes because in Dubai we don’t!
Moreover, the former government, three or four years ago, completely destroyed the whole corruption system, and right now it’s a corruption-free country. We can easily go into any government office, pick up the phone and call them and ask them questions, and they provide you with full information, full details; so if, for example, you want to invest in land or you want to invest in buildings or construction, they give you the complete plan of what they have with all of the statistic and everything. It’s a very user-friendly country; a very business-friendly country.

What kind of industries are there in Georgia?

Well, basically this country relies on agriculture – all sorts of fruits, vegetables and so on. Wine is a huge business here – HUGE. They have hundreds of wineries and vineyards.

And how is the quality?

It’s brilliant. It’s very different. It’s not like French wine. You can’t taste a wine like that anywhere else. Because what happens is that they have a different way of making it. The jars that they make the wine in are underground, and those are clay jars. They have over 500 different types of grapes, and considering the fact that in the world there are only about 3,000… And the types of grapes that they have here other countries don’t have. So if you ever have a chance you should definitely try it.

Do they export?

Yes they do but mainly to post-Soviet Union countries. In the European countries, it’s not easily available.
Most of the stock is actually going to Russia; Russia is the biggest buyer. That’s why, after the war with Russia, when the market was closed, they were really struggling. So from last year it actually started slowly moving towards new outlets.
There are so many things to do in Georgia. I compare this country to Dubai; when I came to Dubai 12 years ago, it was just like a playground – you could do whatever you want there. Everything was available; everyone was so welcoming and nice and the prices were so amazing, Basically there wasn’t that much competition. And you could build your business according to the pace the country grew.
So right now in Georgia, you name it and you can do it – within legal parameters, of course.

What languages do they speak?

They speak Georgian and they speak English. They also do speak Russian, because obviously it used to be part of Russia for so long.
Their English is good ad there are a lot of tourists here, a lot of Arab tourists coming here during the summer, mainly for the purpose of construction investments and so on. A lot of people from UAE last summer went to Batumi; Batumi is a city on the sea coast, and there are a lot of families from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, actually, there on holiday – we were quite surprised. They’ve got a lot of medical students from India too – about 7,000 Indian medical students. And in general, there are quite a lot of tourists.

How about the infrastructures in Georgia?

Well it’s a new country, it’s growing, but there are certain things that you lack, like hotels or some other services that you would have in Dubai.
However they’ve got high speed internet and the Wi-Fi is free around Tbilisi, called “Tbilisi Loves You”, and it allows you to use the internet for half an hour every hour for free, and that’s around the city. Wherever you go here they do have Wi-Fi, and it’s free Wi-Fi in most of the cases.

Going back to Dubai,  how is it to do business there, as a woman?

Really easy. Well, I’ve been doing business there for quite a while, and I never felt any different. I mean, there is no discrimination and… Well, at the beginning there were lines for men and women in government departments – that was awesome – banks as well. The women’s line was faster! We used to actually complain when they remove them! But no; unless you’re doing something that is illegal or you are not following the law and the rules and not respecting the culture, you know that’s when life gets difficult. But I have never faced any issues in terms of doing business there. I mean, it is a Muslim country, but you also have to see that there is a 93% population which are from different parts of the world. So it is, at times, frustrating when, for example, you have a company of 20 people and most probably all those 20 will be from different countries, and obviously each country’s nationality has got its own way of working, its own way of doing things. And if you are not flexible or adaptable, that might get on your nerves quite a lot. But if you take it easy and try to adapt to the environment, it’s not difficult at all. I did not see any difference between doing business as a women or doing business as a man. Sometimes it’s actually a privilege. You just smile and get things done!
In recent years, UAE actually has become a very woman-friendly country. I mean, they have a member of parliament who’s a woman, a recently appointed one; one of the ministers is a woman, and most of the governmental organisations are run by women, and there are a lot of women speakers… And one of them even climbed Mount Everest. So yes, you don’t need to wear a burka, you don’t need to cover up; it’s pretty free. Well, lately they have enforced some rules on the way of dressing, but they haven’t actually enforced them – those rules were there in the beginning, people just ignore them for whatever… and the Dubai Government didn’t really do anything about it. And then one day they woke up and said, “Hey, we’re a Muslim country. Why are people walking round half naked?”
You know at some point you’ve got to take a stand when women are wearing see-through tops and walking around with their bikinis showing and their butts falling out – excuse my French – around the malls; because that’s a bit too much. But obviously if you’re, for example, going to the marina side where most of the things happen – like the JBR region, JBR Walk and Marina Walk – you will still get people who live there and tourists just walking in shorts, tops because it’s beachside and there are a lot of cafes and everything. So that’s completely normal. So obviously, if you’re going in town where the offices are or you’re going to the mall or the movies or anywhere where there’s a closed environment or a public place, you don’t need to wear a burka, you don’t need to cover up up to here, but just wear something with sleeves, not too short, and it’s fine.

Yes, that’s common sense.

Yes. I wouldn’t say it’s a modest way of dressing, but… conservative, maybe slightly conservative.

And what do you need to do to succeed in Dubai or in Georgia?

I think like in any other country in any part of the world you need willpower, and actually you need to know what you want to do. It’s common sense – a lot of people say that. But a lot of people also open companies and they think things are going to be rosy and it’s all going to be a lot of straight lines to have that; but that doesn’t happen.
At first, I think it doesn’t matter where you do business; you have to understand the culture, you have to understand how people work. Because people are your main resource. It doesn’t matter how much product you have or what kind of services you provide; if you can’t find the right people, if you can’t manage your people or you can’t communicate in the right way and your people are not happy, that’s where you fail as a business. So whether it’s your staff, your partners, your suppliers, manufacturers, shop owners or the media – if you don’t maintain a good, friendly environment in your business then you are heading for a failure.
Then, you have to be determined and abide by the local rules. In Dubai, I was very fortunate when I started in the fashion business because the industry was just picking up – the industry didn’t actually exist. When we started, it was the first of its kind, one of the first fashion weeks. So Dubai is promoted like a new American dream. And well, it used to be and it still is for a lot of people – you go there, you do business, you come back home with the money that you made, or you just stay there like a lot of people do because you just can’t leave. But what happens is that a lot of people who leave their home countries and come there, they expect everything to be so easy; like it’s a happy, bubbly place and a great place to do business. And then like in any country, like in any business, there are challenges. There will always be challenges. You can’t expect things just to be delivered to you on a silver platter – it just doesn’t work that way. And then people start complaining, “My salary isn’t that good,” and, “I agreed on something and now it’s something else,” and people are like, “This accommodation, that accommodation, that business didn’t work, that contract didn’t sign.” For me, it’s common sense that before you go somewhere you have to do research, or you have to have people who live in that country or visit that country at least once and get the feel of it. Because there have been a lot of people who’ve come and gone from Dubai; they just hated it. They loved it when they heard about it, and it was so happy and bubbly; but once they arrived they just hated it and they shut down the business. And a lot of people have actually left during the Crisis, and they were complaining about Dubai and about the whole cheque system, that if you don’t have the balances you go to jail and so on. And on one hand it’s a little bit inhuman, but this is the rules of the country and you can’t come to a place and make your own rules. Whether it’s business rules or governmental, it functions in a certain way.
Life isn’t one big playground!! It’s a common mistake of people who come to Dubai and do business there, because they think it will be so easy. It is easy to start a business, and the government gives you full support for everything, but at the end of the day, like anywhere else you have to work to make it work.
And you have to listen. For instance, “inshallah”. People who’ve been there for a long time, they actually know the way they say inshallah, and that actually… if it’s said one way that never happens; if it’s said in another way then there might be a chance; and if it’s said in a third way, I think we’re getting somewhere there. So you listen to those words. But of course, it takes time: you might end up spending a lot of time with conversations.

How big is your team in Dubai?

Right now I would save five and a half people. But we will be expanding. We are currently joining hands with another company that has a global reach. It’s a design consulting company and we’re going to be 50% shareholders in their stock. So the team will be expanding and we’re getting a new, bigger office space too. Our plan is to cover the whole Middle East and Africa region.
I do have very close contacts with Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa too. Uganda and Nigeria are the two places we’re looking at right now, we’re discussing.

What’s your vision about Dubai willing to compete with the Big Four in fashion? Dubai has got lots of ambitions in design and fashion.

Let’s say that, as competitor of the Big Four, Tokyo would have a lot more chance than Dubai would – but that’s my personal opinion. Dubai is obviously a great place and they do pump a lot of money into development. But if you look at it from, for example, the D3 project[2], it only started recently and there have been a lot of finances pumped into it. I would never think of Dubai as competition for the Big Four because the Big Four will always be the Big Four. There were times when one of the four were folding down, then they were shaking it up and restructuring the whole system and getting back on track. So Dubai has got a long way to go, quite a long way to go. Dubai is an ideal place because it always has been a port for centuries. It’s the ideal place between the West and the East, and it’s a place where it’s good to be; it’s a place where it’s good to have your head office. But I wouldn’t look at Dubai as competition for the Big Four.
I think Dubai will grow, they will have some great, great, great events, and it could be a ‘number five’ in some way in terms of Middle Eastern talent, or Asia because they do have a lot of good designers. Their couture work is amazing, and I think that’s the infrastructure that they need to focus on. And, it was the third season of Fashion Forward[3], and I think that’s an amazing event. More events like that should be happening because it’s encouraging, and they are working with the regional talents… For Dubai, the best way to do it is to take those people, provide a platform for those people. They are actually people who need the support. They need to take care of their own people. Because if you look, whether London or Paris, they all have design councils and they all help designers; there are different types of programmes that they provide and there’s assistance. In Dubai, the Dubai Design Council just started and… How do I say it? It’s different! Everything in Dubai is different! But obviously we have a lot of ex-pats that come with their experience, and I think it will grow. But they shouldn’t be focusing and competing with the international big things, but should be focusing on becoming big on its own with the resources that they have – and the resources that they have are massive!

Talents in fashion and design Katrina recommends:

A lot of designers mainly do couture and eveningwear in Dubai, because people do like that there. And obviously there are abaya designers, like the traditional wear designers.”

  • Amato Couture
  • Rami al-Ali; he’s been showing in Paris Fashion Week, I think, for two or three seasons now, and it’s couture. www.ramialali.com
  • DAS Collection. – they do eveningwear, prêt and abaya designs as well. www.dascollection.com

[1]Fashion Business Club International
[2]D3 stands for Dubai Design District – see website
[3] Fashion Forward