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Habibi: A Sweet Message to Change a Bitter Misconception

Creative founders of the fashion brand tell LBB’s Alex Reeves how they’re trying to destigmatise Arabic lettering

Habibi: A Sweet Message to Change a Bitter Misconception

‘Habibi’ is one of those words that no other language can fully encapsulate through translation. Often said to mean ‘sweetheart’ or ‘my beloved’, it’s a term of affection that can be used to address your husband, friend or your barber - a versatile way of letting someone know you care about them.

Imad El Rayess, who was raised in a small German town with Lebanese parents, always had a fondness for the word. Now he and his creative partner Jessica Rees run a fashion brand by that name, it’s taken on a greater meaning than he could have imagined.

Jessi and Imad

Habibi began in 2016, when the agency Imad worked at got a new embroidery machine. He loved playing around with these toys and having the chance to make his own clothing was exciting to him. 

Following the European migrant crisis of 2014-2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees had entered Germany to seek refugee status, leading to tensions and the worrying rise of the less-than-welcoming far right in the country. Imad had been thinking about the way prejudice against Arabic people even extended to the script of the region, no matter what message was written in it. His first idea was to stitch the Arabic word for Germany into a T-shirt, to demonstrate this interesting contrast. As a German of Arabic descent, the idea resonated with Imad. “Of course I’m German, but people always asked me where I come from. That was always a conflict,” he says.


Later that year Imad considered what to give a good friend of his for his birthday and he came back to the idea of Arabic script. He decided to make a sweet gesture. “Because he’s a habibi for me, I wrote habibi on a sweater.”

Although he can speak Arabic as a second language, he can’t read it, so to create the design for his friend Imad had to use Google Translate, zoom in, take a screenshot, and vectorise it in Illustrator. That means the typeface is the most common kind used in Arabic, “Like Times New Roman,” he says. 

The friend loved his gift, but a few weeks later he told Imad that it had been provocative. A lot of people had been asking him what had happened with him, whether he’d converted to Islam. “It was really shocking,” says Imad. “There was always a dialogue when he was wearing it.”

It sparked a powerful thought - that even something as beautiful as a word so full of love can be controversial when written in Arabic. This simple fact says a lot about people’s prejudices.

Next Imad started studying at the Miami Ad School Europe in Hamburg, wearing his own Habibi-branded clothes. He started getting requests from friends there. “The idea for Arabic type was there but there was not a business ambition there to do something big with it,” he said. That was until he met Jessi.

He started creating clothes with Habibi written on them, working with creative friends on shoots for Instagram. He asked Jessi to model for him. She came to one of the shoots and she instantly knew she wanted to get involved. “I saw so much potential in it,” she says.

That was when the two of them decided to turn Habibi into a serious brand. They began brainstorming ideas for promoting their garments on social media.

Imad’s experiences when wearing Habibi had confirmed the initial instinct about the power of its message. Walking through even liberal parts of Hamburg, he still had problematic experiences. One time he remembers going to specialist sneaker shop, where he was kept waiting for a long time to ask a question. The staff always chose someone else to serve. After a while he challenged the staff member. His response was, “oh, you can speak German!? But the logo on your shirt looks like you’re an extremist.” All of the Islamaphobic and bigoted language that’s so prevalent in the media came out of his mouth, Imad says.

More of these experiences added up while people were wearing Habibi. Eventually, while Jessi was on an internship at McCann London, she realised they needed the idea in words and for it to be short and simple. So she wrote the manifesto:

Arabic script grabs attention and sometimes even concerned stares by the public.
An Alphabet that carries a negative connotation caused by the media.

28 letters misread.
Countries mistreated.
A whole culture, misunderstood.

This is Habibi – a beautiful word in Arabic that means “sweety”.
And this is us taking a stand.
We stand straight and wear Habibi with pride close to our hearts.
The aim? Spread a sweet message to change a bitter misconception.

With the message clear, the pair began creating new collections and scaling the brand up into a legitimate business that could deliver on the orders that were starting to come in. All their products are embroidered on fair-trade garments, processed and shipped by the family business of Imad's parents by hand. Production is only made to order. Imad's father also supports Habibi through his artistic influence and is the one who checks that the Arabic is correct (neither Imad or Jessi can read Arabic perfectly just yet). 

Both were working creative jobs at agencies, shooting the clothes with friends and people they knew. 

One early marketing idea was to get the brand in front of one Hamburg influencer’s fans. Pascal Kerouche, who is also German with Arabic heritage and a photographer heavily involved in the hip hop scene, was their target. The plan was to print their logo onto stickers and slap them all over a street lamp that he often films in front of. In the end they did that but discovered that, like Imad, Pascal couldn’t read Arabic so he never commented.

Months later, Jessi messaged Pascal on her flight to New York on her way to start an internship at 360i. Within a minute he’d replied “I need one of your sweaters.” Imad met with him, bringing a box of Habibi items, and told him the whole story of the brand. The next day Habibi was all over Pascal’s Instagram Story.

“Suddenly everything exploded and we tripled our followers overnight,” says Jessi. They had 200 orders in 24 hours. That was the point when they realised the brand’s true potential and that they needed to create more. 

Their latest creative endeavour is turning that manifesto that Jessi wrote into a film. But there was a good degree of serendipity to this, like so much of the Habibi story. Someone had messaged them on Instagram saying they’d had their logo tattooed. Luckily, this person had just set up a production company - NO.ODDS - and needed work for their reel. 

They met, realised they were very much on the same page and went about devising a creative concept for the film, presenting an image of diversity and solidarity, celebrating what the beautiful word represents. Imad and Jessi loved being both client and creative directors but their urge to make the logo bigger made them laugh. “We still catch ourselves being the stereotypical client,” says Jessi.

The shoot itself reinforced the need for understanding of the Habibi concept. The police intervened at one point. Granted, the shoot wasn’t exactly compliant with all of the rules - the team were in a black Hummer with a flag flying out of it, making themselves quite conspicuous. Imad explained the story to the authorities, but says they had their hands on their guns, which is not a normal site in Germany. In fact, having heard the whole concept from Imad, they were a little embarrassed for jumping to conclusions - they’d called for more cars needlessly. It just goes to show what people think when they see white Arabic script on a black background.

Now the pair have the foundations of their brand laid down, they’re set to build something on this. This summer Jessi returned from her internship and Imad quit his job as an art director at a digital agency in Hamburg. “Everyone applauded the idea,” says Jessi. “I think every creative understands why it’s a must to follow your own baby.” So they became client and agency at the same time. Jessi graduated from Miami Ad School two months ago. They briefly considered looking for a job together as a creative team, but Habibi was too exciting to give up. “We decided that learning through having our own creative baby is the most efficient way,” says Jessi, “even if it means no sleep and lots of stress.”
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Category: Clothing and Fashion , Designer