The coronavirus has turned face coverings into an everyday necessity, but Muslim designers like Latiya Gholar of American Umma already have years of experience in creating what she calls “dope, covered apparel.”
“The biggest thing for us is to take advantage of this COVID atmosphere, since people are looking for their own personal protective equipment,” says Gholar, the brand’s founder and CEO who has recently brought in $40,000 in revenue selling fashion-forward masks. “Now, looks can move out of jeans and T-shirts and into this future we’ve been promised, which is covered and protected.”
That's what American Umma does best. With a degree from the International Academy of Design and Technology, Gholar, a Chicago native, conceived of American Umma in 2009. The e-commerce brand’s name adopts the Arabic word for “community” in a nod to the line’s Muslim roots. Offerings include head and arm coverings, jumpsuits, modest dresses, and men’s thobes for sale, all designed with a modern and futuristic look.
“American Umma was born out of my frustration with the lack of modest clothing in the market,” Gholar says. “I never understood the Muslim philosophy behind being more covered, but once I converted to Islam when I married a Muslim, I really took to it.”
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This unique background allowed Gholar to riff on Muslim traditions and create a look of her own: “I took all the rules, and pretended I had never known of the existing perceptions about Muslims, and made my own thing.”
After quietly working on the concept for more than five years, Gholar officially launched her company in 2015. “At first, I was scared of what people thought, and of Islamophobia,” she says. But after winning first place at the Hair & Fashion Battle and Beauty Expo in Sacramento, one show led to another.
Gholar was soon participating in San Francisco Fashion Week, Los Angeles Fashion Week, and even New York Fashion Week. This September, American Umma will open London Fashion Week with a digital fashion show. Although these events occasionally brought in some revenue, Gholar’s biggest takeaway was the relationships she built from them, like prestigious friends and contacts in the industry. “Never put a price on investing in shows,” she says.
Gholar's other advice is to always be active and stay relevant; don’t stop if you’re not initially making a ton of money. That zeal gave birth to what Gholar calls the “AU Nation.” Her marketing strategy is built on an underground, speakeasy culture, and the AU Nation — or customers who rep her brand — is growing steadily.
One of the best parts of Gholar’s business is meeting other people like her and normalizing modest fashion. “Even though I study Islam, I don’t want to walk around with a stamp on my head — I just want to be myself,” she says. “Now I get to go out and just be dope. And people just go, I want to look like that.”
Though Gholar’s business was initially bootstrapped, she’s now actively fundraising. “I learned to live off 10% of my income; all of my money I put into my business,” she says. “If you’re not willing to sacrifice your own money, how is anybody going to put money into your business?”
Gholar is set on revamping her business with help from the Founder Institute, where she graduated at the top of the class. This led to her relationship with the Founder Institute’s Founder Lab program, where she’s the only African American person in a group of 60.
Going forward, Gholar is set on meeting her fundraising goals and incorporating wearable technology into her clothing, such as NFC technology that allows customers to make contactless payments. She also wants to launch a website that sells digital fashion, which encompasses 3-D rendered clothing items that social media influencers can "wear" for Instagram posts.
“I really learned what I’m made of at Founders Institute,” says Gholar. "I would not be moving into this next level without their help.”
The Founder Institute is the world's largest pre-seed startup accelerator. Since 2009, the world's fastest-growing startups have used the Founder Institute to raise funding, get into seed accelerators, generate traction, and more.