Saudi princess gives humble handbag the royal treatment

RoyalA Saudi princess couldn't find a handbag to suit her lifestyle so she designed her own collection and it's winning fans around the world, writesDivia Harilela

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:49pm

As chief executive of Harvey Nichols Riyadh, Princess Reema Bandar al-Saud might be expected to have all her fashion needs covered. It turns out this wasn't the case when it came to finding the perfect handbag.

"When I started looking at the market, bags were either beautiful, or practical and ugly. I needed one that could help me balance my professional, personal and social life but all I could find was men's or camping products which were not appealing in style.

"I'm not a fashionista, but I work in an industry that puts a high value on aesthetics. There was nothing out there that represented the lifestyle that I lead," says the 30-something founder and creative director of accessories line, Baraboux.

Bandar al-Saud's lifestyle is not one you would expect from a Saudi princess. A working mother, she spent most of her adult life in Washington DC, where she studied at George Washington University and raised her two children.

At 30, she returned to her native Riyadh where she embarked on a career as a successful entrepreneur, becoming the first female chief executive at her family's retail company Alfa International (which operates Harvey Nichols Riyadh) She began thinking about Baraboux when she joined Harvey Nichols.

"The idea of organising a bag and compartmentalising it has been in my head for a while, but acquiring a team to do this with me and refine the concept took a good eight years," she says.

"At Harvey, I started meeting people who could actually make it happen. They loved the idea and were very supportive. I realised we were on to an idea that was different and that could be an incredible business. If this was a hobby, I would make five or six styles and sell it to my friends, but I wanted to apply business principals to the creative industry while making women's lives easier."

Last year she unveiled the fruits of her labour when she officially launched Baraboux at Paris Fashion Week. Designed for modern nomads, the collection of supple leather handbags or "toolkits" as Bandar al-Saud calls them, aren't just easy on the eye with their bold colour palette, elegant shapes and exotic skin accents.

Each design offers practical solutions for women on the go, and is fitted with extra pockets for multiple mobile devices, dedicated compartments for tablets, adjustable handles and removable pochettes to name a few.

Interestingly, the concept wasn't just inspired by Bandar al-Saud's practical needs, but by her Middle Eastern heritage.

"We were really thinking about how you carry your day and what you want to take with you. This is how the Bedouin tribes live. They never travel with something they can't carry or that doesn't work for where they are going. They carry things in an efficient, streamlined and practical way. Why can't we do the same?" she says.

One of her first and best-selling designs, the Reema, sums up Baraboux's philosophy. A long rectangular clutch, it features two separate compartments that are secured by a simple cuff. The cuff slides across the bag easily so you can open each side separately and is interchangeable with other designs.

"Functionality is the basis of Baraboux, so we design inside out," she says.

"We take a bag and come up with benchmarks of what needs to be in there. As a minimum we have space for two phones, two wallets and extra pockets. Some of our bags have an external pochette or clutch attached while others are transferable so we can cater to two lifestyles - the fashion girl has the pochette attached while the mobile girl has the transfer so she can leave her bag in the car but take the clutch with her. At the same time we are not dictating the functionality - we are offering our customers the space, and they can use it as they will."

Quality was also high on Bandar al-Saud's list - "we go wherever we find the best quality," she says - so all the bags are handcrafted using Italian leather in Florence, while the hardware is bespoke. The line also appeals with an affordable price point - it's positioned between the contemporary and luxury designer segments and ranges from €395 (HK$4,200) to €1,150.

"Baraboux is an inclusive collection - it goes back to my Middle Eastern heritage of being part of the tribe. Everyone is welcome. If you don't want to carry our bag we offer a solution [such as the pochettes] that you can use with your current bag. We can meet you in any way to match your own personal style dialogue," she says.

It seems that Bandar al-Saud's idea is resonating with women everywhere. The brand is now stocked at specialist boutiques and retailers around the world, including Browns in London, Saks Fifth Avenue in the Middle East, By Marie in Paris and Apparenza in Russia. Its online store, offers international shipping.

This season also marks a new chapter as Bandar al-Saud has brought in London-based magazine editor and style icon Caroline Issa as a creative consultant for the autumn-winter 2014 collection.

"It's been a year since we launched and we have refined materials, shapes and stories. With Caroline's help we have pooled families together so we can now play with sizes. So, for example, we have four tote bags in different sizes, but they all share the same size pochette so they are interchangeable. We are diversifying the ability to personalise a bag while also making it more accessible. We also offer crocodile in some styles while keeping a less expensive option in calf leather so we can broaden our audience," she says.

The collection also includes new shapes, including the Caroline, named after Issa, which is a classic shoulder bag with exotic skin detailing. Designed for the more organised, it features separate compartments, a pocket on the front and an edgy chain handle featuring a leather top section so it sits comfortably on the shoulder.

Also for women on the go is the Sharifa, a relaxed shape that can be worn across the body. It comes with folded sections at each end so that it expands into a good-sized tote along with a removable clutch integrated into the outside pocket.

Each shape features new materials, including an understated yet luxe laser-cut kurung and crackled gilded leather. The palette features vibrant shades of red and yellow which are contrasted with neutrals like grey.

"What we do doesn't fit into the trends world - it's not what we are competing against. Someone who isn't a fashionista can be intimidated by new shapes so we have styles that are understandable. We choose to play with new materials to tell the story each season," says Bandar al-Saud.

Looking ahead, Bandar al-Saud plans to get Baraboux products into even more markets while expanding its travel offerings. Her ultimate dream is to open stand-alone stores featuring a curated selection of products alongside Baraboux, which cater to various lifestyles.

In the long run, her mission for women is simple. "I hope I leave them slightly more organised and less frazzled. I don't want women to think of our bags as a Baraboux bag - I want them to own it and think of it as their bag. It should be the go-to bag for women everywhere - it's like your security blanket, or your favourite pair of shoes. I want it to be a no-brainer for our customers."