CeeCode designs a success story

- Hisham Wyne

Creative director of CeeCode Handbags Cynthia Pennikian appreciates new designers. After all, she is one of them. But according to her, one of the biggest dangers facing the local fashion industry is the dilution by hobby designers, who don't have a game plan past the first few successful months and their acceptance to the first department store.

“Hobbyists make it difficult for anyone to be taken seriously. Everywhere, an upcoming designer is popping up, which can be unhealthy. A lot of people get saturated,” said Pennikian. “After the first 15 minutes of fame, they don’t bother developing further. I know that for me, a business requires working on my vision and inspiration every day. It’s a daily process, not just a hobby.”

And she should know. Pennikian has taken what started as a hobby and turned it into a successful handbag brand. CeeCode is represented in six department stores, including Qatar’s Fifty One East, Galeries Lafayette, Salam Department Stores and House of Frazier. The new Harvey Nichols in Baku, Azerbaijan, is about to ink a deal. CeeCode bags have reached the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Singapore. Russia is around the corner.


The start of Pennikian’s foray into designing handbags was fairly conventional. The Lebanese-Armenian studied advertising and marketing in Lebanon before buttressing her interest in fashion by enrolling in ESMOD there.

“I was always interested in handbags – I think it’s something I got from my mom. She’s very passionate about them. A handbag can change an entire outfit. That’s the power of accessorizing.”

It was a night out in Lebanon, when inspiration struck and the famous taxi plate CeeCode bag was conceptualized. “I wanted to customize my own bag. My very first one was the taxi plate bag, and that started it all. I love street style and the inspiration hit on a night out – why not a plate on a handbag?”

The result was a rectangular bag with an ersatz New York cab plate bolted onto the front. Formally launched in 2011, it was an instant hit. For Pennikian, extending the line to include GCC VIP plates on bags was just business sense. “GCC and Middle Eastern consumers are really into their plates and VIP numbers. I thought it would be cool to have it on a clutch.”


Ceecode 3Pennikian’s CeeCode bags are still produced in Lebanon, with a few models in Florence, but her headquarters since 2012 has been Dubai. She says the city offers designers international legitimacy and a receptive audience.

“Dubai’s the fashion hub of the Middle East. It is the best place to meet a lot of international buyers and help me distribute my brand. It’s like a center of the Middle East. The stability in the country is excellent for business and the atmosphere encourages upcoming designers,” she added.

“If you’re creative, they’ll take on your brand without bothering about how many years you’ve been in the market. History isn’t as important as talent is.”

Dubai is also at the very frontline of GCC consumer largesse. Pennikian said sales jump every time there’s a holiday. “Whenever there’s a public holiday – e.g. a national day in Saudi or Qatar, you can see your sales go up in the UAE. Holidays in the GCC are good for Dubai’s fashion brands.”

But the city doesn’t give anyone a free ride – it’s still not easy to keep a business going. “Dubai’s not an easy market. It’s an expensive city. Some days you just want to close shop and leave. But then I give myself a talking to, and remind myself of my vision – to be an international label.”


Pennikian promotes her brand across the GCC but is also a regular fixture at European exhibitions. She says it can be quite disorienting dealing with both markets simultaneously due to their completely different nature.

“GCC markets are very into their labels. If your bag is shaped like a Louis Vuitton, they’ll buy it. But pop culture and pop art is slowly creeping in, and women are being a bit more daring with color. GCC customers like higher retail prices. They believe the higher the price, the better the quality,” she said.

Europe on the other hand wants value, history and provenance. Newcomers aren’t given as easy a time. “In Europe, it’s more about value – good quality with commensurate pricing. And the designer’s profile and previous work assumes more importance. Even in exhibitions, they want your history, previous designs and your provenance.”

For designers, an interesting difference between the two markets is also in the purchase model. Pennikian said that the GCC overwhelmingly relies on consignments; where the designer offers stock to a supermarket at her own cost and only gets paid when pieces sell. Unsold stock is returned. International markets, on the other hand, prefer outright purchases.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. “For buyers, wholesale buying has greater profit margins but the buyer has to be confident in the brand. With consignments, they are a bit more adventurous and have the heart to try new brands,” says Pennikian


Pennikian had the advantage of family financing when she started out, thereby overcoming a key hurdle in setting up a new fashion brand. But she’s made it work from thereon.

“I’m in my third year and very close to break-even. Now it’s time to grow. I had a bit of luck: because I was very protective of CeeCode, I was inadvertently able to position it well. I had been approached by offers from people to take my brand internationally via franchising, but I didn’t want to lose creative control. And that’s paying off now.”

Better days are ahead, says Pennikian. “There’s buzz around Dubai. You’ll have more visitors coming to the malls. And that translates into sales.”


Pennikian said there’s a fast way of doing things, and then there’s the right way of positioning and marketing one’s brand. She said patience works, given that it is guided by the right strategy. “It’ll take a new designer about three years to take the first steps properly and then build from there.”

She also has a checklist of advice for aspiring designers. “Get rid of your ego. Ego gets in the way of getting better. The minute you have your bags in a department store, ego stops you developing. You need to work hard, every single day. You need to travel, to open your mind to new influences. You need to educate yourself. And be careful of your brand – don’t spread it too thin.”

As seen on Zawya Business Pulse. To see more, please click here