The homeless lone parent who built a top ‘slow fashion’ brand
As life lessons go it was a pretty tough one. Back in 2005 while still a teenager Rokeya Khanum was left homeless after having a baby, and was forced to move from hostel to hostel with her newborn. “It was traumatic,” the 35-year-old explains, “but I always knew it was just a stepping stone to where I would end up eventually. I didn’t have the finances or right circumstances, but I had grit and I refused to be yet another young, lone parent dependent on the Government. I had to pave my own way.”
Fast forward 18 years, and Khanum has come a long way since those traumatic days and now runs her own eponymous clothing brand. She says: “I always wanted luxury designs but couldn’t afford the price tags. So I wanted to specialise in hand-embellished garments, on a slower-pace production to reduce waste and dead stock.”
The entrepreneur launched Khanum’s in 2018, whilst working full time for a bank in organisational development. She saved up £2000 from her salary to use as start-up capital, which went on samples, photography, and a model for a portfolio to show off her wares.
“Initially I did most things myself, using free website builders, calling in favours for product shoots, and loaning samples to influencers for marketing. There was no huge launch, it was a business intended to act as an additional stream of income whilst I had the security from my 9-5 job. I wanted to test the product, steady and slowly with minimal costs.”
To start with Khanum had two designs: a blazer jacket and an embellished bomber jacket, both made in India, which she created and sold from her bedroom in Angel.
“It took off really fast, thanks to the domino effect of influencers. Back then the influencer game was still very young, I got in touch with three names and asked if they would want to borrow a sample jacket and return it to me.
“They did, uploaded mirror selfies and it went mad - influencers from Australia, New York, and all over the world got in touch with me, asking to collaborate. By then sales took off - I built up a six-figure turnover within seven months - and I was able to gift other influencers clothes in return for posts. It was all just from social media.”
Khanum quit her job 18 months after starting her fashion brand, and saw sales take off in the Middle East after she launched Facebook ads there. By January 2020, the entrepreneur had rented a studio and hired a team of staff - “and then we went into lockdown! As a niche business offering evening wear, the fact that everyone was at home and not going anywhere in the evening was a huge problem. Luckily the Middle East was still buying, and that kept us going.”
Khanum’s, its founder says, “is a proud slow luxury fashion brand, we only produce garments once an order has been placed. Now 80% of our dress orders are produced in-house at our office in Stratford - we have four people designing, sewing and fitting about 30 dresses a day here - we’re genuinely slow fashion.”
Each dress cost from £200-£400: “We are committed to ensur[ing] our garments are made in the best possible working conditions and that the materials we use will have the lowest possible impact on the environment,” Khanum says. Embellished jackets are still produced in India - “but we don’t have a warehouse full of stock, as people imagine with fast fashion, we produce everything in-house.”
Turnover hit £860,000 last year, and is on track to reach £1.2 million in 2023. It hasn’t always been easy: in 2019 Khanum sued a rival brand for infringing her design. “There’s an artwork I sketched on the back of an envelope and used the pattern on several designs because of its success. But another brand, which is now defunct, copied and pasted the exact artwork and silhouette and were marketing and selling as their own. I had to go through a gruelling seven-month legal case. We won, but it was a gentle reminder to myself how savage the fashion industry is. I learnt to always protect my designs [using] intellectual property law.”
Khanum’s future aspirations include building a factory in Bangladesh “to create training and job opportunities for those with no skills and struggling to make ends meet. And to be stocked in Harrods and Net A Porter and have Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez wear Khanum’s.”
She pauses, though, to appreciate her success so far too. “Having one of our jackets featured in Vogue Arabia was a moment - I’m a British Bangladeshi, lone parent who grew up in a working class family. Women like me never ever think moments like this are possible.”