In just five years, sisters Huda and Mona Kattan have revolutionized the world’s perception of Middle Eastern beauty. Quintessentially Arab, their thick black hair and prominent features are emphasized by daring makeup looks favored by modern women of the region. These are looks that are now being imitated by women across the world. The Kattans have created a billion-dollar empire – Huda Beauty – with their makeup line stocked in more than 1500 stores worldwide and a reality series on Facebook Watch that garnered 6.1 million views for its debut episode. Now, the Dubai-based, American-Iraqi sisters are expanding into fragrance. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” says Mona, a self-confessed perfume connoisseur, about Kayali, their debut fragrance line of four perfumes. “Kayali is the Arabic word for ‘my imagination.’ “We wanted an Arabic name because the concept itself is very much about the Middle East.”
Originally printed in the December 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
“I didn’t feel like fragrance was something we should do,” interjects Huda. “Then Mona introduced me to the art of layering scent. It is such an interesting concept.” The perfumes include Elixir 11, Vanilla 28, Citrus 08, and Musk 12, which have all been created to blend seamlessly with one another. “Working with this tradition makes our concept unique. We want to bring the idea of layering to the Western world,” Huda furthers. The main fragrance of the collection, Elixir 11, focuses on rose. “People can use that as the base and then top with citrus, vanilla, or musk. They all work perfectly with rose,” offers Mona. Women in the Middle East are not afraid of fragrance; it’s something they grow up with, the sisters share. “We want women to feel inspired by the fact that they can create their own identity through fragrance,” Mona says, with Huda adding, “They can use their imagination.”
The Kattans looked to France to handcraft the perfume line, teaming up with fragrance company Firmenich. “We worked with the best. We chose the best ingredients and the highest oil concentrations,” states Huda. Presented in an emerald-cut box, the packaging is sleek, with minimal writing in different shades of metal. The glass bottle is luxurious with its diamond-shaped cap. The sisters hope Kayali will follow the success of their debut beauty lines – when they launched their business with fake eyelashes in 2013, the first collection sold out at Sephora stores across the region, generating US $1.5 million in sales. The following year, Huda Beauty eyelashes launched in the US, with sales reportedly jumping to US $10 million. Today, the brand sells millions of products a month, from eyeshadow and highlighter palettes to liquid lipsticks, a collaboration with Tweezerman, beauty accessories, foundation, and concealers. “We don’t sell products, we sell emotions,” says Huda.
The real secret to the brand’s success is family. While the sisters have legions of fans – Huda has 29 million on Instagram alone – they didn’t always fit in. “I always felt different because I was Middle Eastern,” says Huda of her childhood growing up in Tennessee. “Where most people were very fair, light-skinned, and had blue eyes, I was hairy with dark hair and dark skin.” Many of her schoolmates weren’t aware of where she was from. “At the time, there weren’t a lot of nationalities circulating. People would assume I was Indian or African-American. People didn’t even really know about the Middle East.”
Although they had a strict upbringing, Mona was encouraged to partake in beauty contests. “She was always in pageants, always in a Corvette somewhere,” reminisces Huda. “She was this prized doll, always in the newspaper. She won the Little Miss Tennessee pageant, and I wanted to show her off.” Mona became Huda’s muse. “I would try to do her hair and makeup and make her look even cuter and more doll-like. That’s when my interest in beauty really took off,” Huda says. Her sister Alya, who is 11 older than Huda, also encouraged Huda’s love for beauty. At 14, Huda was shaping Alya and her friends’ eyebrows.
Huda met her husband, Christopher Goncalo, while studying finance at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The couple moved to Dubai in 2008, following her parents’ move to the UAE in 2003. Mona encouraged Huda to consider makeup artistry as a profession and after training at the Joe Blasco Makeup Academy in Los Angeles, she launched her blog, Huda Beauty, in 2010. Injecting a sense of frivolous fun into the beauty industry, she shared honest reviews of products and uploaded humorous makeup tutorials. From discussing body hair to faking a nose job, Huda discussed topics that had previously been perceived as taboo.
At the same time, Mona launched a PR agency and opened The Dollhouse beauty salon with Abu Dhabi-based entrepreneur Bama Al Fahim in 2012. The following year, Mona focused her efforts on building Huda’s empire and encouraged her to begin her own lash line. With a US $6000 investment from Alya, they launched the first collection of Huda Beauty synthetic and faux mink lashes. The brand’s triumphs have since escalated at a remarkable rate. “It’s a part of Arab culture and history, it’s as though it’s in their blood to love beauty,” concludes Huda. A love that she now shares with women across the world.