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The Three Childhood Friends Behind Kuwaiti Label Ecru Celebrate a Decade of Design

Hussah Al Tamimi, Nur Kaoukji, and Noor Al Sabah

Placed on a table is a Jaisalmer marble pillared bukhoor burner, Jaipuri hand-block printed placemats featuring dhows, and hand-painted glazed ceramic plates with palm trees and falcons. They all beckon the eye. In 2013, three childhood friends – Nur Kaoukji, Noor Al Sabah, and Hussah Al Tamimi – embarked on a creative journey and launched their lifestyle brand, Ecru. Inspired by their love for traditional Arab hospitality and the rituals they grew up with in Kuwait, the Ecru universe fuses quintessential elements from the region with artisanal craftsmanship to create unique homeware objects and clothing. From the get-go, the brand’s vision was about celebrating craftspeople from various regions, including India, Morocco, and Lebanon.

As Ecru turns 10, the trio is exceptionally proud of what they’ve achieved. In 2021, they opened a brick-and-mortar store in Jaipur – a significant milestone for the brand. And last month, they released their collection Retrospect, which reflects the past decade. “When we started Ecru, the love for arti sanal craft was not as mainstream as today, especially in the Middle East. But we stuck to our narrative – we decided our story would be about teaching people the beauty of craft because we genuinely believe in it. And now, we’re being applauded for it,” says Al Sabah.

Ecru integrates elements from the region into both homeware and clothing

Ecru, which translates to fabric in its raw state, first started as an online platform for artisanal clothing before quickly expanding into handcrafted homeware. “I was initially working in fashion in Kuwait, but my role quickly became very retail-oriented, and there was a lack of creativity,” recalls Al Sabah. Meanwhile, Kaoukji had been living in Jaipur since 2006 and was working with jewelry designer Munnu Kasliwal of Gem Palace. Through her work, she had already built a network of local artisans. “One day, we had an honest chat about everything possible from where she is, and thought, maybe that’s something we can merge and create together,” says Al Sabah. They then roped in Al Tamimi, who had a full-time job at The National Council of Culture, Arts and Letters in Kuwait at the time but was also interested in starting a company from scratch. Soon after, the brand was born – with each friend playing a distinct role. Al Tamimi handles the operations, Al Sabah manages social media, styling for shoots, and other creative content, while Jaipur-based Kaoukji spearheads design. However, Kaoukji adds that all three are involved in their own way creatively. “For example,” says Al Tamimi, “when I look at daily sales, and the others like a specific color, I tell them that while it’s a great shade, it’s not going to sell. So, I provide creative input too, but more on the technical side.”

Photo: Courtesy of Ecru

People often say that business with friends is never a good idea; the trio, however, found a way to make it work. “When I told my father about the endeavor, he discouraged it, saying, ‘You and Nur have a friendship far beyond sisterhood – you’re going to ruin it.’ So Nur and I decided we had to come to an understanding that this won’t take over our friendship, and put it in writing. It was nothing legal but binding for us,” explains Al Sabah. Meanwhile, Al Tamimi prefers to have everything work-related on paper to avoid conflict. The three are very vocal and express themselves immediately when something bothers them, while trying to keep egos and emotions out of the equation. Additionally, since they’re an odd-numbered team, they vote for the majority when they can’t agree on something. Ten years into the venture, their friendship is stronger than ever. Ecru’s eclectic offering is about pieces narrating their own story: Azizal rugs handmade by women in Morocco, ornamental glass bottles crafted out of hand-blown recycled glass in Lebanon, or brass sand-casted candlestick holders with Arabic letters. While trends never drove their business, their designs resonate well with the evolving landscape of homeware in the Middle East. Kaoukji believes that people are now keen on finding more unique pieces, especially those that embody their own culture. She also thinks there’s a shift in attitude on how people use particular objects in their homes. “For instance, when we first started making tablecloths, they wouldn’t move so fast because previously, fancy tablecloths were used only for special occasions. Whereas now, you can have a block-printed one for daily use.” Additionally, Al Sabah thinks home decor is getting more playful and colorful and isn’t being taken too seriously. “It’s no longer about using pieces occasionally – people are mixing things up and getting creative with homeware. None of our pieces would ever be encouraged to purchase for one tablescape. We want our designs to be used repeatedly and in different ways.”

Originally published in the July/August 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Photos: Huda Amin, Prarthna Singh

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