The word on the street and in many Dubai online fashion forums is that you can't get a Birkin for love nor money. "Two years, apparently," says Kelly Lundberg, the Dubai stylist and personal shopper, while musing over a picture of the ultra-luxe handbag, lovingly created by the artisans of Hermès and named after the actress Jane Birkin. This is nothing new. In fact, waiting lists for high-end brands have become a global phenomenon, even providing inspiration for the TV series Sex And The City and the book Bringing Home The Birkin by Michael Tonello, a memoir of one man's quest to find the world's most coveted handbag.
Big brands have always had an allure. "They are an elite status symbol especially here in the UAE where many people are quite brand-conscious," says Lundberg. Looking around shopping malls here, with their glittering array of big brand names, enticing luxury advertising and marketing savvy, even the most innocent shopper cannot help but be exposed to some of the world's most aspirational labels. Whether you want a Birkin or the latest designer abaya, the UAE has become known as the fashion capital of the Middle East.
So just what is it about the UAE consumer and brands? Recent trends show that shoppers here are ranked first globally as the biggest fans and purchasers of Gucci, second for Giorgio Armani and third for Chanel. Himanshu Vashishtha, regional managing director of The Nielsen Company, a global media and marketing research group, says: "The UAE is a famously image-conscious country and is considered as a one-stop shopping destination globally. With almost all large luxury brands owning boutiques in shopping malls in Dubai, the citizens of the UAE are among the biggest fans of luxury goods.
"Shopping is a way of life. The weather conditions often force consumers indoors to air-conditioned malls, increasing their awareness of designer brands and influencing buying behaviour. In addition, the UAE's geographical location means it benefits directly from 'shopping tourism', with Dubai attracting the wealthy shopping elite from neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar." Market research carried out in 2008 by Nielsen's Luxury Brand Survey concludes that 31 per cent of the UAE population buy designer labels, with 59 per cent of those interviewed believing that people who wear designer brands do so to project social status. Young women make up the majority of this luxury consumption.
"There isn't one reason alone why some people feel they have to wear designer brands," says Dr Andrea Tossato, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist. "It could be a matter of low self-esteem, or an addiction, or a distorted view on life built on superficiality. Some people believe that their status depends on how they look or what they wear. For maintaining self-esteem, you might wear designer brands, because you want people to look at you with feelings of aspiration. You are projecting that you have status and money.
"It might also be a lack of cultural interest. You cannot find pleasure in people or a good movie, theatre and so on. You only find pleasure in shopping. "This is exaggerated shopping. These are people who have extreme shopping habits. By this I mean an addiction to shopping, not just someone who takes pleasure in buying the odd designer dress or wallet." The sales speak for themselves. "Bags are the most wanted items and some of our waiting lists are long," says Khurram Gilliani, retail manager of Mulberry and Missoni in Dubai Mall. "Mulberry attracts a wide variety of customers across nationalities, ages, and sexes. Many of our customers have traditionally been European expats, but there is a growing appreciation for Mulberry among Arabs."
Being well positioned in Dubai Mall's Fashion Avenue, Mulberry, can make the most of the extravagant retailing that Dubai's landmark malls provide. A memorable shopping experience is key to building customer loyalty, believes Gilliani, especially in a region where there is a high level of fashion consciousness. "People in this region have the desire to own the best and many have the purchasing power to convert this desire into reality. In fact, we have seen well over 200 transactions in one month. People really look after themselves here and image is very important to them. Looking impeccable is a priority and there is a competition between people to look the best they can."
"It shows people are rich, mostly nouveau riche," adds Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, in Dubai. "It can also be a demonstration of self-confidence - what you wear is what you are." While Mulberry reports that demand for many of its items is across the board, regardless of gender, age or nationality, there are some differences in purchasing habits.
"For us, what differentiates people is their taste in styles, but women are definitely more adventurous than men," says Gilliani. "In terms of bags, local customers go for the more precious exotic skins as well as more colour; Europeans tend to stick to the more classic items. But out of the more recent lines, the Alexa range, inspired by the model and TV presenter Alexa Chung, has sold out all over the world and everybody wants one. We have a waiting list of more than 60 people for this bag."
Tossato says: "There is a difference in shopping habits between men and women. They can have the same desire, but the focus is on different things. A man might not wait two years for a handbag, but he might wait two years for the latest Ferrari." Waiting lists create their own hype, whetting the appetite of customers for what's new. For shoppers of either sex the hype can be "dangerous for bank accounts", says Rania El Sadek, managing director of the PR agency SeptPR.
"I live right next to Dubai Mall, so I'm always popping in - at least once a week - and I'll probably make a purchase every time. What I buy depends on what I need, but I love shoes. It's an obsession. I love Gucci, Christian Louboutin, Fendi, as these high-end designers make the most exceptional and special shoes. "Working in PR you are constantly going out to events and you need to be well dressed. In Dubai you get the chance to dress up, whereas in European cities you might have to tone it down. Shopping has become an integral part of life here."
Integral indeed. After all, Dubai has the largest Harvey Nichols store outside Britain and the first Bloomingdale's outside the United States. High-end brand names are now sitting shoulder to shoulder with mid-range and high street designs, and shoppers have a world of choice. "Even though I love the big-name brands, I also like shops such as Zara and Reiss," says Sadek. "I wear something because I like it and it looks good on me, not necessarily because it's a particular designer label. There's been an educational shift here, and it isn't all about what name you are wearing, it's how you wear the style. Nowadays, if you like fashion you are more likely to mix and match labels and you won't be tied to a brand for the brand's sake."
This trend of teaming up well-known brands with other labels is nothing new to Lundberg. "I'm really an ambassador of mixing and matching brands as the higher end of the high street has a lot to offer. I like being able to say that the dress I'm wearing is from Primark and my shoes are Jimmy Choo. But I do find that there is a difference between expats and Emiratis. Locals are a little bit more brand conscious, probably because they have a higher budget. They can afford to splurge. On average my high-end clients can spend between Dh30,000 and Dh50,000 a month - sometimes Dh80,000 in a big shopping spree."
As a personal shopper and stylist, Lundberg visits up to three malls a day and spends around 35 hours in stores and boutiques each week. She has made it her business to know brands and the varying needs of her customers. "My clients mainly want my help with event dressing and work clothes. There are so many social events here - lunches, evening dos, weddings, the World Cup Horse Race, the Grand Prix, Dubai Fashion week. I often get a call from clients saying they are off to St Tropez for a week, or they are attending a big media event and they need something special. Social activities here lend themselves to a higher-end wardrobe."
According to buyers in the region, there is an increasing insatiable hunger, not just for high-end labels, but for any designer who is on trend. "Fashion, pure and simple, that's what people want," says Nicole Robertson, fashion and buying director for Boutique 1, in Dubai. "Our customers really know a lot about the latest trends - they probably know more than we do. The UAE has become an extremely fashion-conscious place and people here want to know what's going on. They are all online, chatting over dinner, reading style magazines, following fashion blogs. Some of our customers come to us and buy four to five times a week, so we have to keep things moving. We change 60 mannequins a week."
Boutique 1 has helped bridge a gap in the market, offering more niche, up-and-coming designer brands. With three branches in Dubai, plus a store in Beirut, the boutique boasts more than 150 fashion labels under one roof. "When we opened in Dubai in 2004, there were already the big names such as Gucci, Dior and Chanel, but we saw a hunger for something else. We brought in brands that you could buy in other fashion capitals, such as New York, London and Paris, and the increase in demand here has been phenomenal. The UAE has a fashion appetite - people want to be wearing the latest thing. People's tastes have become more sophisticated and it's now not all about being dressed head to toe in one high-end brand."
Crucial to Robertson's buying strategy is discovering brands with a difference. "It's not just about the big global luxury brands any more," she says. "Our customers are very demanding and they want choice, they want the latest trends regardless of the season - that's why we stock 150 brands. Right now, labels such as Alexander Wang, Chloé and Elie Saab are in huge demand, and if our customers like it, they buy it."
No one can deny, however, that the global economic crisis has led to a significant change in spending habits. "The UAE saw a steep drop in consumer confidence last year, with the retail sector seeing a 45 per cent fall in sales," says Vashishtha. Lundberg concurs: "My clients are definitely more money-conscious since the recession, and they want a better buy for their dirham. They make more conscious choices. Instead of buying one designer bag, they go for two mid-range items. But things are getting better."
According to the latest Nielsen consumer confidence survey conducted in March, 64 per cent of UAE shoppers say the state of their personal finances is good, although their spending habits have changed since last year. But it is not just about the money. "There can be many psychological issues behind buying brands - compensation of love for one," says Tossato. "Your life might be empty so you want to fill this emptiness with buyable items.
"Or perhaps it could be a lack of satisfaction with yourself or someone else. People who feel they have to have a bag for whatever reason, aren't just buying any old bag. The desire for a Birkin bag, with its famous long waiting list, has many hidden meanings behind it. For example, other women know that a woman wearing one has probably had to wait a long time for this bag. So the proud owner knows that other women might be looking at her with admiration or jealousy. The owner of the Birkin thinks that she can receive social approval by wearing this bag." It would appear the Birkin waiting list will not be getting any shorter any time soon.