Building a Modest Empire in the Middle East

A self-taught designer made swimwear for women to keep cool and covered in the sun. Now her business is taking off.

When Maureen Hall moved from Ottawa, Canada, to Dubai in 2000, she went from bundling up in cold weather to covering up in the scorching sun. She and her family needed to protect their fair skin from powerful UV rays.

They also needed modestly designed swimwear in line with the religious and cultural norms of Dubai. Dissatisfied with swimwear options on the market, Maureen, who had made her own clothes since childhood, created pool shoes and swimsuits for coverage and comfort.

Women swarmed to Maureen to ask where she got her swimwear, and soon COÉGA Sunwear was born. The global company now manufactures thousands of items daily in Dubai and is the licensed swimwear provider for Expo 2020 Dubai.

The entrepreneur, designer and former Canadian Air Force aircraft technician sat down with Longitudes to share her story.

Longitudes: How did you know that modest swimwear would sell in Dubai?

Maureen: I made my own swimwear because I couldn’t find any in Dubai that provided the coverage I needed and the culture called for, and I knew that other women struggled to find garments that were both modest and functional.

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For five years, I was a one-woman show.

I saw women wearing jeans in the pool at water parks — that can be pretty uncomfortable. While some women want to cover from head to toe, others want three-quarter sleeves or longer shorts.

There weren’t any retailers providing a variety of appropriate options.

Longitudes: What is your design background?

Maureen: My mother taught me and my eight brothers and sisters to sew. Eight out of the nine of us own and use sewing machines today.

I’ve always made many of my own clothes, including military uniforms and swimsuits. In my 20s, I even took a short course on working with Lycra (which paid off).

 Longitudes: COÉGA is now available from 75 leading retailers and in eight waterparks and 13 e-commerce platforms across the Middle East, including your own e-commerce site. How did you scale your business?

Maureen: For five years, I was a one-woman show. I designed the pieces, sourced materials from Italy and went on sales calls. I found a contract manufacturer who would work in small quantities in the Jebel Ali Free Zone.

I picked up the boxes of garments from the manufacturer myself and made deliveries in my car. While I would hang pieces in the stores, I would chat with the owners and get as much feedback as possible.

I’m proud of our growth: We now manufacture more than 3,350 pieces per week and have been appointed as the licensed swimwear provider for Expo 2020 Dubai.

Longitudes: How has UPS helped you grow?

Maureen: UPS has helped us expand beyond the Middle East, optimize our supply chain and launch our own e-commerce site. It is introducing us to key distribution partners in our target regions.

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Of course, like any global business, there are customs clearance and hidden charges to deal with.

As part of the UPS Mentoring Program for women-owned business (WOB), our partners at UPS can guide us to establish profitable channels in these new regions.

Longitudes: What was your biggest challenge in those first few years?

Maureen: I knew immediately that I didn’t want to do the accounting and bookkeeping myself. Finding the right support is key. I have someone very good who helps me with that and manages finances. I contract out the warehousing and logistics and have 13 people on staff, including our finance and marketing teams.

Of course, like any global business, there are customs clearance and hidden charges to deal with. I’ve been asked why we don’t manufacture in India, which would be cheaper. But I want to be able to drive to the manufacturing facility to check for quality myself. This is a UAE-homegrown operation.

One challenge we took upon ourselves: COÉGA Sunwear is dedicated to sustainability, donating older stock to local charities, going paperless and using recycled fabrics and materials whenever possible.

Longitudes: Where do you envision future growth?

Maureen: Saudi Arabia and Singapore, as our gateway to South Asia. Europe, India and North America are also showing increased demand for our products.

We are also collaborating with Disney to create exclusive designs featuring Disney prints. To stay in line with our customers’ desire for modesty, we will manipulate the Disney designs as needed. For example, we will add little flowers to The Little Mermaid’s not-so-modest bikini top.

We’re excited for our international growth. The biggest growth niche in swimwear is offering varying degrees of modesty. We make swimwear for everybody and every body.

Maureen Hall is founder, designer and CEO of COÉGA Sunwear.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.