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Can Internet ‘It Girl’ Mia Khalifa Build a Lasting Business?

The online sensation is furthering her footprint in fashion with jewellery line Sheytan. While she has a knack for generating conversation, sustaining a brand represents a whole new challenge.
Mia Khalifa launched jewellery line Sheytan last week.
Mia Khalifa launched jewellery line Sheytan last week. (Courtesy)

Key insights

  • Mia Khalifa launched a jewellery line, "Sheytan," with former Ye and Virgil Abloh collaborator Sara Burn.
  • The star has been making moves in the fashion world, with a Heaven by Marc Jacobs campaign and conversation-generating fashion week attendance.
  • Many influencers launch brands; turning an audience into sustained sales and running an operationally savvy business is the real challenge.

Mia Khalifa, an adult film actress turned social media star, doesn’t care if people like her jewellery line, Sheytan, which is the Arabic word for “devil.”

“People are going to think it’s sacrilegious, they’re going to think it’s demonic, they’re going to think it’s evil and that’s perfectly fine,” said Khalifa. “Anyone who doesn’t understand it isn’t going to be my audience anyway.”

The self-assured knowledge of who she wants to speak to and how to do it has helped Khalifa, whose real name is Sarah Joe, build a combined audience of nearly 60 million on TikTok and Instagram. Well, that, plus a touch of scandal.

Khalifa’s tenure in the adult film industry was just a few months long but quickly turned her into a household name, with her videos collecting nearly a billion views and even death threats from ISIS after she was filmed wearing a hijab in an act. In 2020, she rose to new level of online notoriety when Gen-Z TikTok users started a #JusticeforMia campaign to advocate for Khalifa, who claimed she received just a small portion of the monster profit generated by her videos, which she filmed when she was only 21.

Around the same time, Khalifa’s following grew after she began sharing her personal life, posting videos of her puppies and political views, and online gossip sites like The Sun started reporting on her more inflammatory comments.

More recently, Khalifa has gone from internet fixation to front-row fixture, attending shows including Louis Vuitton and Bluemarble during Paris men’s fashion week in June. Influencer marketing firm Lefty found she generated $7.8 million in earned media value (a measure of conversation on social media) for brands including GCDS, Acne and Moschino in the Autumn/Winter 2023 season, beating out Kylie Jenner and Zendaya.

Sheytan is her most ambitious project yet, and the jewellery line — which features belly chains, necklaces and anklets priced from $80 to $600 — is meant to mark a shift for Khalifa, who wants to become a serious fashion player. Sara Burn, a consultant and designer who has worked with plenty of hyped fashion brands, including Off-White, Yeezy and Agent Provocateur, is Khalifa’s partner and Sheytan’s chief commercial officer. According to Burn, Sheytan’s unique, playful, East-meets-West point-of-view helps distinguish the label as more than just another celebrity or influencer brand at a time when that model’s ability to build sustainable businesses has been called into question.

“The idea of a celebrity brand has never appealed to me at all … You could have millions of followers but be dead behind the eyes,” said Burn. “[Khalifa] is not fake. She has a compelling vision of the world. She’s human.”

Sheytan’s Plans

Sheytan came to be after a mutual friend introduced Khalifa and Burn in early 2021, around the same time Khalifa’s public profile was rising. Khalifa had already been approached about launching a lingerie or loungewear label, but Burn suggested a line of body jewellery.

“I saw something I didn’t see on anyone else, and it was the way she dressed her body [with jewellery],” said Burn.

Jewellery plays an important role in Arab culture, said Khalifa, who is Lebanese. She couldn’t find what she wanted on the market, so Khalifa would get custom items or wear men’s bracelets as anklets.

Sheytan’s positioning, which looks to marry Khalifa’s Middle Eastern and Western roots on equal footing, is also rare, said Khalifa. As the business evolves, those ties between will be drawn out more.

“We wanted to set a base level, and as we start to move through the collection and product categories, you’re going to get a stronger sense of that cultural fusion,” said Burn.

The brand’s pieces, ranging from 18-karat plated gold vermeil to 9-karat solid gold, are made in factories in Florence, Italy, and Kent, England. The brand plans to eventually offer a bespoke business outside regular sizing and more expensive, limited-edition pieces featuring more precious gems, with a first drop planned for December.

In plotting Sheytan’s future, Khalifa isn’t looking to fellow it girl-owned brands for inspiration. Instead, she points to Ryanair — specifically, the way the budget airline is quick to use humour and be part of conversation on TikTok.

“They’re my favourite on social media,” said Khalifa. “They’re letting Gen-Z interns run off instinct.”

Instinct is the engine of the Sheytan business, said Burn. The brand will move at its own pace when it comes to drops and take cues from the collaborative spirit Burn saw while working with Virgil Abloh at Off-White. Sheytan plans to do various collaborations outside the bounds of jewellery in sectors including fashion, fragrances and homewares. Already this year there are plans for Sheytan to drop a co-designed collection with cult streetwear brand Aries.

“We are completely self-funded and we have no one to answer to and that’s how we’re operating. We’re doing whatever we want to do and whatever feels right,” said Khalifa.

The Making of an It Girl

The launch of Sheytan comes as Khalifa herself is increasingly in fashion.

In addition to her timely fashion week attendance, she starred in a campaign for Marc Jacobs’ Gen-Z-focussed sub-brand Heaven and became the face of Shoreditch Ski Club’s new swim line, which Burn helped design, in May. Khalifa also published an essay on reclaiming her image on British Vogue’s website in June.

At the centre of it all is the infectious fun Khalifa seems to be having. Khalifa talks giddily about Paris Fashion Week, where she says she felt like a princess. She fangirled over the seamstress who sewed her bra backstage at the Bluemarble show (and she posted it).

That Khalifa sees herself as a regular girl is part of what makes her appealing online — and what drove her desire to start her own brand, rather than just be an online personality.

“I need to be a functioning member of society, not just an internet thing,” said Khalifa. “I’m coming up on 30. I want a career. I want something tangible that I can pass on to my children.”

Still, Khalifa’s talent at being a so-called “internet thing” has helped drive earned media value so far for brands, including $4.7 million for GCDS, Diesel and Moschino during Autumn/Winter 2023, according to Lefty.

Her audience represents a ripe jumping off point for Sheytan, and jewellery is a logistically smart space to start, as it has minimal sizing complexity and wide appeal. Keeping the business operationally sound post-launch and translating followers to sustained sales, however, is the real challenge.

“This doesn’t need to be an overnight success. This needs to be something that has longevity in it, that can grow and has really strong foundations,” said Burn.

That foundation is built on Khalifa’s bold attitude. Case in point: After launch, some users replied to Khalifa’s announcement on Instagram, criticising Sheytan’s name and asking if she would change it. Her response was simple: The word “no” alongside a photo of her middle finger.

Further Reading

Recent controversies from Tarte, Shein and even Bud Light have demonstrated the risks that come with building marketing campaigns around social media stars — and provided learnings for how to operate in the sector today.

About the author
Joan Kennedy
Joan Kennedy

Joan Kennedy is Editorial Associate at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and covers beauty and marketing.

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