Mahdia is a small Tunisian coastal city about 250 kilometers from Tunis. This charming spot sits on a peninsula and relies on tourism, fishing, and the production of olive oil but also has a long tradition of silk weaving that dates back to the 11th century, explains Hassine Labaied.
In 2016, he and his wife, Malek Hamza, founded SKILA, a brand producing high-quality, handmade scarves and shawls in silk and cashmere.
“We started from scratch,” remembers Labaied, who put an end to a 12-year career in the banking industry that led him to Dubai before starting this new adventure. “Mahdia is our hometown, so we knew where we were heading. Now, we are one of the main private investors in handicraft in the area,” he states.
According to him, since its founding, SKILA’s turnover has been steadily growing at a yearly average rate of 50%, except for in COVID-19, 2020, when the brand was still able to break even. SKILA now operates three shops in Tunisia, plus an international distribution channel (SKILA International) that allows it to sell its products through third-party retailers in Belgium, France, and Switzerland.
A second brand of house linen made using the same manufacturing process, NSIJA, launched in 2020 and is already selling in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and in SKILA’s existing European markets. “We can’t wait to enter the Gulf. But in order to do that, we first have to become noticeable enough in Europe and the US. There’s no way around it, as Gulf markets are not really impressed by the “Made in Tunisia” label alone,” explains Labaied. In addition to the SKILA Lab, based in Mahdia Medina, where its designers craft their pieces and invent new tones, the brand recently inaugurated the Skila Gallery in the same area. “It’s a place dedicated to the millenary history of silk weaving in Mahdia and where we also invite artists, mostly painters and sculptors, to display their art,” notes Hamza.
SKILA’s steady success is built on two pillars: quality and sustainability. “We’re not into greenwashing; our business model is rooted in a circular economy,” Hamza insists.
First of all, the company buys near-exhausted silk and cashmere loom spools major brand factories throw away. “These spool leftovers can’t be used on industrial weaving looms but are perfectly suitable for traditional ones,” says Hamza. “This way, we can get excellent-quality silk and cashmere used by famous brands like Gucci or Hermes with a discount that can reach up to 60%,” says Labaied, who buys his supplies from factories based near Milan, Italy.
To craft its products, SKILA relies on a team of weavers with unique skills who have worked on local traditional wood looms for generations.
“Our first and main workshop is based in Sakiet el Khadem, a small village located 30 km from Mahdia, next to a forest of olive trees. Every piece is handmade, which means that every scarf, every shawl, is one of a kind,” says Labaied. He and his wife adapted how they manage the workshop to fit the lifestyle of this rural community, where people are free to organize their working hours as they see fit. All the workers, those of Sakiet el Khadem’s main workshop as well as those based in the smaller shop in Mahdia, are paid piece rates. “Their salaries are twice or three times the Tunisian minimum wage,” says Hamza. A third workshop is currently under development.
Although they acknowledge that switching to a more industrial business model would help the brand to raise its productivity and achieve scale economies, Labaied and Hamza are convinced that they would lose something important along the way. “We think it’s important to stick to our core concept, to maintain the uniqueness of our products. After all, we are one of the last representatives of handmade weaving in the modern world. Losing that will make us lose ourselves,” concludes Labaied.