It took Ayse Arel Kulahcioglu more than 14 years in the field of international fashion before deciding to swallow the proverbial red pill, leaving the corporate world behind and embarking on her passion project, Maison Orient. A fashion and lifestyle e-commerce site that serves discerning customers on the lookout for unique and original items from the world of Oriental fashion, jewelry, and lifestyle. After studying fashion in the USA, Ayse was fortunate enough to start her career in NYC, because you know what they say, ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.’ The infamously grueling workload and competitive environment that is New York instilled in Ayse a strong work discipline and perseverance which continues to serve her till this day.
In our exclusive interview with the founder of the prestigious e-commerce site, Ayse shared, “I am from Istanbul so I was always aware of the talent my country had to offer but I spent 10 years between the USA and Europe so naturally I worked for luxury fashion companies such as LVMH which is focused on Western designers. My husband and I moved to Dubai in 2015, and that’s when I realized all the talent the region has within… I started buying local brands and I was in awe of their designs and quality but I noticed that they were available regionally but not as much internationally in terms of exposure and sales.” Thus starting a journey that would propel her to another kind of international fashion, this time introducing the world to superb talent from the Orient.“ This is how Maison Orient was born, I wanted to create a platform where I could expose all these local talents and become their partner in expanding their businesses to other regions.”
Perhaps the word that struck me most was ‘partner’, she wanted to ‘partner with these local and regional brands and help expand their businesses to other regions.’ I see a lot of win-win attitudes in this vision. It takes professional maturity to understand that symbiotic business relations will always outrun personal gain in the long term. When you build a foundation of mutual trust and respect between vendors and the platform, the results are astounding. I am a firm believer in the
exchange of energy, in my mind this give and take can create a snowball of positivity or negativity depending on true intentions, the former fostering an environment of abundance and the latter one of scarcity.
“It is very challenging for designers to create a brand and make it internationally acknowledged and enter luxury multi-brand stores,” Ayse goes on to say. “Maison Orient becomes a partner for brands who want to reach international clients, we handle all marketing and logistics while the designers can focus on designing and production.” At this point you may be thinking, ‘and…..’ given that the world of emerging designer e-commerce sites are plenty and are often a hit or miss; some sites are fantastic and others less so. There is a very fine balance between quantity and quality that is imperative to the success of an e-commerce site. A talent that Ayse has honed over the past decade, in the field of e-commerce specifically. A quick scroll through Maison Orient’s website and Instagram page and it will become abundantly clear to you that this is a site that is a notch above the rest. There is a precision and almost painstaking attention to detail that creates a wonderland of products, so finely curated and merchandised that you will be inclined to visit the site time and time again. It’s kind of like looking at a beautifully handcrafted handbag, it looks great and feels great you just can’t quite nail how it was achieved unless you understand the trade itself.
I asked Ayse that question specifically, “Part of what I find extremely appealing about your site is how well-curated it is. With multi-brand concepts, it is so tricky to have enough products, yet still have them all in the same spirit, how do you achieve this?” To which she responded, “I think this is one of the trickiest parts of creating a platform like this. It is easy to create a marketplace and onboard all brands but then it becomes overcrowded and the level of exposure decreases, and their brand image goes all over the place.” When I scroll through the Maison Orient Instagram page there is a cohesion and consistency in brand identities that I find extremely impressive. The conundrum for most e-retailers is, “how do I get enough brands that are diverse enough yet all in the same spirit?” This is something that Ayse has nailed, there is little duplicity in the offering, yet everything you see feels the same which makes for a very smooth shopping experience. It also makes it more likely that you will buy more than one item as they are merchandised to match more seamlessly.
As I was e-shopping on Maison Orient the other day, another thought came to me, ‘Ayse makes sure that every item she is selling has the wow factor.” If you as a consumer feel that the item is truly unique, you will be more inclined to click ’buy now’. I can attest to the fact that each and every item on the site is unique which adds yet another layer of expertise to the site. Not only must the products be different from each other, but they need to be in the same spirit, AND they all need to be special in their own way. A tall order which Ayse has hammered out to perfection.
This leads me to believe that under all of Ayse’s goodwill is an uncompromising vision and vetting process that is not for the faint-hearted vendor. Simply put, if you aren’t selling unique, well-made items with a very clear brand identity, chances of being picked up by Maison Orient are slim. When asked about her vetting process Ayse shared, “ I research a lot for the curation and look at many different components before I decide to approach a brand. Same thorough analysis goes when they approach me to join Maison Orient. Image is everything for a brand, from their designs to their photoshoots to their pricing, they create a
brand DNA and invest in it…They need to be exposed to the same level of brands. I try to create an offering with a variety, not to repeat the same styles, offer many different designers from different backgrounds that can co-exist, while keeping the authenticity and uniqueness.”
It is clear that Ayse has the designer’s back, in all her conversations with me, the designers have been front and center of her operation. There is in my opinion however a concern that I voiced, ‘it’s great to support small companies but oftentimes their production process is botchy which may affect the consumer experience.” To which Ayse responded, “This is a key point I review and discuss with the brands before I let them join the platform. As much as I want to support all brands, customers are very valuable, without them there would be no business so offering great customer service and an excellent experience is very important to me. Some brands already have. Proven track record but for the newer ones, I take a chance on them and guide them if necessary. There are conditions to adhere to, if those conditions are not met, the brand will no longer be able to stay on board. I have to say though, I had no problems until today, I believe due to the thorough process of the selection and the personal relations management of the brands and customers which I still manage daily myself.”
What started off as a site geared towards exposing brands from the Orient; be it Turkey, the Levant, and even North Africa has burgeoned into an international marketplace with products on offer from as far afield as Suzanna Vega jewelry from Venezuela and Lalo Cardigans from Georgia. A clear sign that Ayse is onto something brilliant with continuous expansion on the horizon. As a global platform, Maison Orient caters to a diverse customer base, with orders coming in from Brazil, Australia, Switzerland, USA, Qatar, and Korea all on the same day. Selling to the entire world creates a number of hurdles and considerations specific to e-commerce multi-brand websites. Ayse pointed out that with a brick and mortar store you understand your customer because they are invariably from a certain geographic radius, so collecting physical data is a given. With e-commerce, however, there is a versatility with your customer base which is a double-edged sword. At once allowing more people to access your products, yet requiring a great eye along with analytical skills, in addition to a bit of courage to find something new and unique to the client. These skills were acquired by Ayse during her many years in the fashion industry. Working with iconic companies and being exposed to a multitude of shopper profiles has taught Ayse how to read the consumers and their interests. In her words, “there are so many factors such as culture, habits, social norms, needs, interests; and all regions are different in these aspects, having been exposed to many different cultures has helped me acquire a lot of knowledge.”
This interview wouldn’t be complete without asking about the elephant in the room, COVID and its impact on Maison Orient’s business. Statistically e-commerce has boomed during COVID times which is good, it has however been challenging on two other fronts. Firstly the productions of many brands have been hampered due to covid, something that Ayse has been forced to attend to personally with her brands to ensure a good customer experience. Additionally, many of these unique brands are discovered through travel. I can imagine Ayse pottering around in some distant Moroccan showroom, identifying her next great
find. When asked, Ayse agrees, “Pre-covid travel was a great way of finding local brands, but since the beginning of COVID, I cannot travel so I rely on online research and magazines. I research a lot and read a lot to always stay updated.” Now that the site has become internationally acclaimed the process is also helped but brands contacted Ayse to be featured also. Again, Ayse’s keen eye guides her in her final choices. “I look at the DNA of the brand, the story, and the designs. Some brands are so new, they have very little to offer in terms of collections, but they have great vision and sense of quality, they just need a hand to start their growth so I try and include these brands a lot., to help them get their names out and makes sales enough to go to the next level.”
Often times an endeavor such as Maison Orient branches off into an eponymous product line, created by the founder, Ayse in this case. When I asked her about the prospect of creating her own product line, her answer reminded me of how balanced and smart she is and it is a great ending to this feature. “Not really, designing and producing is not my thing. Discovering talents and buying is my expertise and real passion. I think it is important to know oneself, we can’t do everything and be great at it, we need to know and focus on our strong points and talents, this is how we can uplift each other.” Food for thought!