Ahead of Fashion Forward, designers tell us about their labels and the challenges they face

As organisers prepare for the ninth Fashion Forward Dubai this month, we speak to local designers who were part of an exclusive showcase for big retailers on the sidelines of Paris Fashion Week.

Designer Hessa Al Falasi, who owns the HF Boutique in Dubai, had her collections displayed at Fashion Forward’s showroom during Paris Fashion Week. Photo by Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane
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Middle Eastern fashion was brought to the attention of influential western buyers during the ready-to-wear fall season of Paris Fashion Week, which concludes on March 7.

As part of Fashion Forward Dubai, 14 UAE-based apparel and accessory designers presented their collections to representatives from Bloomingdales and Harvey Nichols to Galeries Lafayette.

The four-day event marked the second edition of the programme, which was launched last year by the region’s leading industry platform, Fashion Forward. The Paris showcase was a prelude to the ninth season of FFWD – comprising catwalk shows, presentations and sector talks – to take place at Dubai Design District (d3) from March 23 to 25.

“We realised that the relationship with our designers was only twice a year during Fashion Forward,” says Ramzi Nakad, co-founder and chief operating officer at FFWD.

“When we spoke to them, we realised that year-long support was very much needed, especially from a business development standpoint. That’s why we established the showroom.”

The Paris showroom was part of FFWD’s designer acceleration scheme with Samsung called EPIC, which stands for Empowerment Programme through Industry Collaboration. Endorsed by the Dubai Design & Fashion Council, and supported by d3, its aim was to create a high-powered networking opportunity for burgeoning regional talent and maximise the potential growth of their labels abroad.

Select strategic partners and brands to have participated in Fashion Forward’s twice-yearly Dubai shows of recent years made the cut for Paris this month.

Among the designers on the ground, deemed ready for a global debut, was Emirati Hessa Al Falasi, Dubai-based Amira Haroon, Lebanon’s Rula Galayini and Mariam bint Mahfooz from Saudi Arabia.

The key objective was to secure orders for their collections ahead of sending the pieces down the ramp at Fashion Forward in the coming weeks.

Fashion Forward’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Ramzi Nakad, was a creative driving force of the fashion platform’s Paris showroom. Courtesy Fashion Forward

“For Dubai, from a buying point of view, by the time FFWD happens the end of the buying season has passed,” adds Nakad.

“There’s a definite buying cycle and most of the buyers have already spent their budget by then. After New York, Milan and London, the buying happens in Paris after all the shows have been seen. This is where the transactions take place.”

Buyers in Paris mingled with homegrown talent in the showroom, asking questions about the fall/winter collections as they assessed the cut, quality and uniqueness of the pieces. Any resulting orders have yet to be confirmed.

“I want my brand to be international and I’m happy for buyers to take care of things,” says Al Falasi, who owns the HF Boutique in Jumeirah. “You have to be the trendsetter, and quick to react to the market, because you won’t survive if you don’t. People are always looking for new statement pieces and I was one of the first to introduce pockets, colours, belts and full prints onto abayas.”

Al Falasi’s portfolio includes couture, bridal and jalabiyas, in addition to prêt-a-porter pieces. Catching the eye of buyers were her softly tailored linen smocks, velvet jackets and hand-beaded separates.

“Pleats are on trend and they’re in my collection too,” says Al Falasi.

“I feel so proud when I see women wearing my designs on the street, in airports, and when I was in London last summer. I allow them to look stylish without overdressing.”

Al Falasi’s clients hail from the Middle East as well as Russia and the United States. While buyers are key to ensuring her label is stocked in leading department stores in Europe, visibility is given an extra boost by more modern means at home.

“Social-media celebrities are very important,” admits Al Falasi. “It’s our strongest marketing for the business. Whenever we invest with the right influencers, we get the exposure and returns really fast. In the right season we’ll receive 1,000 e-mails in a day following an Instagram post and the pieces will sell like crazy. During Ramadan, if one influencer with 2 million followers wears my dress, I’ll be sold out in a day.”

Another Dubai-based entrepreneur drawing a crowd in FFWD’s showroom was Rula Galayini with her collection of distinctive cuff clutches. Highlights of this season’s offerings are calf leather and water snake bags, accented with gold foil, subtle exotic skin prints and asymmetric metalwork.

“You have to stand out, have a story that resonates and quality that’s impeccable,” says Galayini, who has been designing for more than a decade. “So I put all my time and resources into product development, which allows me to create something new every season and continue to grow.”

Dubai-based designer Rula Galayini, who presented her collection of cuff clutches during Paris Fashion Week. Courtesy Fashion Forward

While Galayini’s one-off creations are available in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, she has ambitions to sell beyond the Middle East.

“My pieces are very much inspired by women in the region and all production takes place there, too,” she says.

“I’d love people abroad to recognise that our region has so much more to offer than just the stereotype. The more people I can share that with the better. That’s my calling and why I started this.” Also drawing inspiration for her fall range from the heritage, history and progress of the GCC was the Saudi-raised, UAE-based designer Amira Haroon. “The collection is about women and their evolving role in the Middle East,” says Haroon. “I feel they are evolving, multitasking and juggling so many responsibilities today.

“These pieces are statement-making separates, a symbol of our pride and style. I’ve also used wire-mesh ants as embellishments. They represent worker ants, working for my women.”

Having established her label in 2010, Haroon has a significant global footprint with stockists from Dubai and Lebanon to Russia and the United Kingdom.

“I think markets to drive growth in the next couple of years will be the Middle East and East Asia,” she adds. “I’d like to have a presence in Bahrain and Qatar one day, and we’ve had great meeting with buyers from Beijing and Shanghai here in Paris, which is very exciting. I think Fashion Forward’s initiative is just right. Retail is suffering right now, and I’m adapting by offering a larger amount of pieces at a good selection of prices. Consumers are also becoming more demanding and are frustrated, having to wait four to six months to buy collections after they’ve seen them on the runway. The route to market has to be shorter.”

Keenly aware of shifting sands in the local and international retail sector, Nakad and the collaborative team at Fashion Forward have set up a series of workshops to help designers navigate the existing challenges.

“From manufacturing to price points to styling and social media, it is all about growing demand and utilising platforms to increase sales,” he says.

“And I know there’s a lot of talk about retail slowing down, but from a Middle East perspective, I believe it is on the rise. There’s a newly generated interest in regional products and we’re heightening awareness through initiatives such as the Paris showroom. Our end goal is not just to sell clothes, but also to promote creative brands which are made in the Middle East and UAE that are universal. There’s a big responsibility to present the region in the right way. And the feedback so far has been positive. We’re still finding our place in Paris, but the turnout has been very promising and most of the designers are closing deals, which is great.”