Ottawa clothing startup tackling sport hijab and turban market

Thawrih's activewear is made from breathable materials and in a way that won’t collect sweat or fall off in action.

A new clothing company’s impact is already being felt by recently-arrived Syrian refugees in Ottawa, but the firm’s young founders have ambitions to tackle an enormous global market.

Thawrih, founded last year by University of Ottawa students Sarah Abood and Sami Dabliz, develops activewear aimed at Sikh and Muslim athletes. Specifically, this means crafting traditionally-heavy cloth hijabs and turbans from more breathable materials and in a way that won’t collect sweat or fall off in action.

Both Abood and Dabliz worked as personal trainers while attending university and heard common complaints from their clients about not feeling comfortable working out at the gym in religious garb. Abood tells OBJ that she and Dabliz saw an opportunity to help people around the world with the same problem.

“We wanted to help them on a bigger scale, so we started to make sports hijabs,” she says.

The global Muslim population is nearing two billion today and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world; Sikhs represent roughly 27 million people worldwide. They’re both enormous markets for clothing companies, with giants such as Nike releasing its own version of a sports hijab late last year.

Abood thinks these big companies are missing the mark. Nike’s offering, for example, is emblazoned with its signature swoosh on the side – adorning religious garments with a corporate logo can be a deal-breaker for Muslim athletes.

“They don’t understand the community,” Abood says. Conversely, she says Thawrih’s team of nine is made up of members of Sikh and Islamic communities who are passionate about creating a product that’s right for their peers.

Insta success

After less than a year in business, Thawrih has sold more than 600 products to customers across 18 countries. Beyond sport hijabs and turbans, the company has plans to create more modest activewear such as workout shirts and swim leggings.

Locally, the company has piloted a prototype tearaway hijab with the Ottawa Police Service to allow Muslim officers to work in suitable garb. One of the barriers to integrating hijabs into the OPS has been a potential choking hazard if any headpiece were grabbed during conflict.

The company has primarily been reaching its customers by sending its clothing out to brand ambassadors, who then post pictures of the gear in action on Instagram.

Thawrih will be among nine other companies presenting at the Startup Garage Rally on Aug. 30 at Bayview Yards. Abood says participating in the latest cohort of the University of Ottawa’s accelerator program gave the company access to knowledgeable professors and well-connected Startup Garage alumni.

“The best thing we got out of Startup Garage was our ability to network,” she says.

Community first

Making a difference in their local community has been a priority for Thawrih’s founders. To that end, the company’s clothing is entirely handmade in Ottawa by recently-arrived Syrian refugees.

Before Thawrih, Abood had launched a non-profit called Capital Welcomes to help with the integration efforts for Syrian newcomers to Ottawa. The organization solicited donations for a “free store” where families could come in to pick up food and household necessities.

“Outsourcing is just not something we’re looking to do."

Abood says a common problem she was hearing from these families was the difficulty in finding a job in an unfamiliar city where they didn’t speak the languages. She realized that by setting women up with a sewing machine, she could help them to support their families while getting settled.

Today, four Syrian newcomers work for Thawrih to make the company’s products. They’re paid on average between $25 and $30 an hour, depending on their output, and are often the sole source of income for their families.

As Thawrih grows, its production model is one Abood would like to see expanded globally. With the help of a regional coordinator on the ground, she says Thawrih could have newcomers in places such as Germany making hijabs and turbans for German customer orders.

“Outsourcing is just not something we’re looking to do,” she says.