Against a backdrop of chaos, the founders of Kenz hope to make the simple act of buying decent lingerie easier for the women of the West Bank.
Given the renewal of violence between Israel and Palestine, you would be forgiven for thinking that an emerging lingerie company would be trifling for a local population much more concerned with safety than the quality of their underwear. For the founders of the first-ever Palestinian women's lingerie company though, the battle to provide decent lingerie for the women of the West Bank is a mantle they are willing to bear.
Christina Ganim and Nicola Isabel launched Kenz last September after a year in the making. Following the journey of Kenz's underwear not only reveals the numerous hurdles facing Palestinian entrepreneurs, but the challenges facing Palestinian women especially. An elasticated waistband with a soft, satin lining can be one of the few good things a woman has going for her in a world of air strikes, electricity outages, and water shortages—and a powerful signifier of the comfort that those living the West Bank and Gaza are entitled to whether or not they are living under occupation. "It's still developing, but Kenz is a high-end online lingerie company which sells the sort of products which women won't find in the region," Isabel explains. Today the online store sells everything from leather bras to lace thongs.
"There's no one else doing what we're doing!" Ganim says excitedly. "We both wanted to start a business, and we had shared our mutual frustrations shopping for lingerie in the West Bank—because it is nearly impossible to go to a store and find something that fits you."
While lingerie chains like La Perla and Victoria's Secret may have reached Middle Eastern cities like Dubai and Beirut, in Palestine such businesses have not moved in. Instead, in a world of day-to-day restrictions on freedom of movement, crippling taxes on imports, and severe security inspections for mailed packages, Palestinians have to rely on local market sellers for their intimates.
Choices are reportedly limited to whatever smugglers can bring in under the radar, and Ganim attests to a remorselessly awkward buyer experience, that most women like her, living and growing up in the West Bank, would be subject to. Typically, young women must decide their measurements in full of view of prying eyes, and negotiate prices with the older men who run the stores or stalls -- who are just as keen to sell a bra to you as a packet of cigarettes.
In order to purchase a luxury brand, you would have to get the lingerie sent to a friend's house in Amman, Jordan, or Jerusalem, Israel and then sent to you separately -- but this involves expensive customs duties and months' long delay in warehouse holdings and package searches — at which point there is little joy your battered and misshapen lingerie could bring, and the trouble of securing a permit to cross the border.
Ganim and Isabel both believe what Kenz brings is not only a commercial business that is proudly Palestinian, but one that it is uniquely operating from within the West Bank itself -- and is ready to deliver there, too. It's an ambition that flies in the face of what they view as the disappointing status quo in the occupied territories.
"We could pick up and move to Dubai or Jordan, but that's not our aim," Ganim says firmly. "This is a Palestinian company. Our goal is to be based here and contribute to a Palestinian economy, hopefully creating jobs one day — being able to serve the entire Middle Eastern region from our computers."
"If we could just ship out of [Christina's] house that would be so much easier," Isabel says ruefully. "That's how a lot of start ups do it." Instead, they have had to rent a warehouse space in Dubai that they access remotely and from which they will distribute their goods to the entire Middle Eastern region — not just Palestine.
Aya is a 25 year-old customer of Kenz living in the West Bank. She stresses that Ramallah, the city where she lives and where Ganim and Isabel operate, is an exception to the rule in the West Bank. Beyond Ramallah, Ganim and Isabel's work would be even harder -- because of both the more conservative attitudes outside of the city, and the lack of economic development.
"It's more open minded than the rest of the West Bank -- we have bars and alcohol shops for example -- but you can still feel restricted. During the day I cannot go downtown wearing a dress, but I can wear what I want at night, even the shortest shorts!"
She had never seen or heard of a local company founded and run by Palestinian women, which catered to specifically to women in the Middle East, until Kenz.
"I hope women accept it here. You live your life in your own little bubble sometimes, but once you cross the checkpoints you hit reality and that's when you realize that these things do matter."
Aya expects Ganim and Isabel's approach to lingerie to clash with a prominent Arabic preconception she believes the majority of women in the country hold: that specialist lingerie is for impressing your husband on your wedding night, with push-up or padded bras, rather than for your own everyday comfort or pride.
"The first thing that caught my eye on Kenz, it was half bra and half corset, nude colored silk. People would ask me 'why are you buying that? You don't have a husband, who are going to wear that for?' They didn't understand it could be for myself."
Over the last few years, the boom in the Middle Eastern market for luxury lingerie could suggest that women are indeed keen to shop to their own tastes, and is what Ganim and Isabel hope to be a part of. Their biggest challenge of all, though, is specifically accommodating their Palestinian customers.
"We were thinking as a short term solution, we would deliver the products ourselves to women in the West Bank." Ganim explains. "But that's not a long-term strategy!"
The task of delivering to Gaza at the moment is regrettably out of the question.
The good news is that their launch has been a success, with website traffic at tens of thousands of sessions so far. Most of their purchases for now are coming from women in Saudi Arabia to whom distribution is easier, though a pop-up stall they ran in Ramallah last month will no doubt see local order numbers rise. The next step, if the business grows, is to begin designing own-brand lingerie.
"Did I ever tell you what Kenz means?" Ganim asks. "Treasure. It's about treasuring yourself and seeing each of these items as little treasures as well."
Text Roxy Rezvany