'Recessionistas' and the rise of thrifty chic

Patrolling the UAE is a new breed of fashion-conscious women who love to be stylish, but want to indulge their passion on a budget. Plus, tips for the aspiring cash-strapped brand lovers.

Paula Horsfall, a self-professed "recessionista", shows off some of her clothes at her apartment on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National (w)
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The global economic downturn has pinched consumer spending across the board, but when it comes to finding great deals at cut-rate, second-hand or bargain-bin prices, a new breed of 'recessionista' has emerged in the Emirates. Alice Haine reports
When Paula Horsfall goes clothes shopping, she is always on the lookout for a killer bargain. Whether it's a second-hand Anya Hindmarch handbag she can buy for a sixth of the original value or a vintage Levi's denim jacket that costs a third of the price of a new one, Mrs Horsfall, from the UK, is eager to cash in on the nation's latest craze for cut-price fashion.
The 53-year-old is one of a new breed of UAE-based recessionistas - women who love to be stylish, but want to indulge their passion on a budget.
"I'm definitely a recessionista," says the fashion lover, who moved to Dubai six months ago with her husband, Ian, 44, an IT executive. "If you can buy a Christian Dior dress for £300 [Dh1,788] that has been worn once or twice instead of paying £1,500, you're going to do it."
Although Mrs Horsfall, a mother of one, has always enjoyed scouring for second-hand deals, she hasn't always monitored the amount she spends. During her days as a real estate executive for Morgan Stanley in London, she happily spent £1,000 a month. But Mrs Horsfall quickly dropped her frivolous ways - reducing her monthly spend to £200 - after losing her job in January 2009.
"Suddenly, the money wasn't coming into my bank account every month and Ian and I had to share," she says. "Even though he's never said anything, I can't fritter the money he works hard to earn. Instead, I think twice about it and ask myself do I really need this pair of shoes or new dress and, generally, the answer is no."
Mrs Horsfall's revised spending habits are not unusual in the current financial climate, where the onus is now on saving rather than spending. And the heightened enthusiasm for a stylish bargain is driving a new market in cut-price clothing options in the UAE. Budget-conscious shoppers can choose from second-hand designer boutiques, online private shopping clubs that deliver huge discounts on designer labels, clothes-hire businesses and swap-and-style events, where women can trade their clothes for other items of a similar standard. Those looking for even bigger savings can a visit their local flea market or browse through online market sites such as www.souq.com and www.dubizzle.com.
One of the newest concepts to hit the market is My Ex Wardrobe, an online company that launches today in Dubai. Set up by three sisters from the UK, the site operates as a platform for women to buy, sell and even swap their unwanted clothes.
"People here have high disposable incomes and tend to buy high-end brand names. But styles change and women end up with a massive proportion of their wardrobe that they don't use and sometimes it's disheartening to give something away that could be sold on for Dh200," says Bekky Britton, 31, the eldest of the three sisters behind the project. "We will have parameters on quality that members have to uphold and in today's times, to find a bargain is a nice thing, but to find a good-quality bargain is even better."
One measure of the rising demand for the nearly new is the phenomenal growth of the nation's second-hand markets. Melanie Beese, the founder of the outdoor events company Green Spot Entertainment, the company behind Dubai Flea Market and Abu Dhabi Flea Market, says the number of participants has soared since she first launched the monthly events in April 2008. "When I started, it was slow. I had maybe 60 tables and 500 visitors, but during the crisis in 2009, it doubled from 100 tables to 200. Now we have between 250 and 300 tables and 14,000 visitors every month and it just keeps on growing."
In fact, the concept has become so successful that Ms Beese has turned what was initially a hobby into a full-time job. The former events manager was laid off from her government job at the height of the crisis and rather than seek another position, she threw all her energy into her flea-market enterprise.
"I've been lucky because the crisis has actually helped my business grow," says Ms Beese, who charges vendors Dh230 to have a stand at her events, which run from 8am to 3pm. "Hundreds of people queue up before the market starts and then run in when the gate opens. By 11am, all the bargains have gone."
Ms Beese says she has picked up some great discounts at the flea markets, which run from October to May and mainly sell second-hand fashion and accessories as well as children's wear and homewares.
"This Russian lady was selling 10 designer dresses, including Dolce & Gabbana gowns, and three pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes and I bought the lot for Dh1,000," says Ms Beese, 33, who moved to Dubai from Germany in 2005. "When I went home and tried them all on, they fitted like a dream - I was very lucky."
The heightened demand for designer goods at affordable prices has also boosted the fortunes of Sukar.com, a GCC-wide online private shopping club that offers discounts of up to 90 per cent on leading fashion and lifestyle goods.
Since going live in April last year, the site - which offers its members heavily discounted luxury brands - has experienced a growth rate of 50 per cent month on month, while membership has swelled to more than 500,000 people.
"Unless you are a multimillionaire, you will always want a bargain and it's almost a challenge for people, especially in the Middle East," says Muhammad Chbib, the chief executive of Sukar.com. He attributes the company's high sales to the region's growing acceptance of e-commerce.
With between 1,000 and 3,000 products on sale at any one time, members can find huge discounts on brands such as Armani, Gucci, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
"Fashion and accessories make up two thirds of our sales," says Mr Chbib. "For the customers, it's a no-brainer because they get an excellent product at a cheaper price and they can find that what might be considered last year's season in the United States is the current season here. So it's exciting for them.
"And for our suppliers, this is an additional distribution centre - it does not cannibalise their existing channels. We are not competing with the brand, but we are an additional controlled way of getting rid of overstock, market testing or getting additional customers they might not get in a regular store."
And it's not just high-end merchandise that is flying off the shelves. Dubizzle, the UAE's leading online classifieds and community website, has seen a surge in demand for its fashion, accessories and designer listings.
"With new trading platforms available to consumers in the UAE, it is certainly easier to find second-hand items today than it was in previous years," says Faiyaz Chand, Dubizzle's UAE marketing manager.
The site is free and because the actual transaction takes place directly between the buyer and seller, shoppers can try before they buy.
"Women's handbags are one of the greatest traffic areas for clothing and accessories," says Mr Chand. "Jewellery is another category of goods where we consistently see hundreds of listings for things like brand-name watches and necklaces."
Dubizzle works because it not only helps consumers find bargains, but sellers make money out of clothes they no longer want, a concept Mrs Horsfall understands.
After losing her job, she set up a dress agency in her home called Frock Exchange, where women could sell unwanted designer clothes on commission, earning themselves 60 per cent of the sale price and Mrs Horsfall 40 per cent.
"I'd rather have a brand new Louis Vuitton bag than a new Marks & Spencer one because I know I can sell it on when I get bored with it," says Mrs Horsfall, who has put her business on hold since moving to Dubai's Palm Jumeirah.
While Mrs Horsfall says she is not considering launching a similar concept here, she often shops at Garderobe in Jumeirah, a boutique that sells vintage and pre-loved designer wear that opened in November. Micha Maatouk, the owner of Garderobe, sells the pieces on a 50:50 commission split with the owners of the items and says the biggest sellers are handbags, costume jewellery and evening bags.
"Customers spend anywhere from Dh200 to Dh10,000," says Ms Maatouk, adding that she sometimes takes advantage of the deals herself, once netting a Dh7,000 Prada handbag for Dh1,500. "Yes, the customers spending Dh10,000 could probably afford to shop in the actual designer store, but we have bags that look totally new and last season's dresses for half the original retail price, with some items arriving in the store with the label still on."
But for some, getting the best deal is not just about buying last season's cast-offs, but simply heading to the cheapest stores.
Maidy Cook, 31, a human resources adviser and mother of two children, aged six and one, regularly shops at Carrefour and spends less than Dh100 or even Dh50 on a dress, skirt or pair of shoes.
"Friends and colleagues are always dumbfounded," explains Mrs Cook, who moved to Dubai from the Philippines in June 2002. "This makes me feel good because it means I got myself an incredible deal. I've always been careful because when I purchase five or more items in one store, I don't want to feel I've been too carefree with my finances."
But while Mrs Cook also enjoys buying second-hand items online and from friends at private clothes- swapping events, she also recognises the value of spending on designer clothes.
"I do invest in designer pieces, but I make sure it's not something that will be passé when the fad is over. I go for classic items that will suit most of my other things and that will be appropriate for almost all seasons."
 
Shopping Tips
Marissa Woods, the principal consultant at Image Factor, a personal styling and shopping company, shows you how to be a savvy shopper
Never buy anything that doesn't fit perfectly, even if you think you will slim into it
Spend more on investment pieces such as jackets, trousers and skirts and leave the impulse buys for cheaper items such as T-shirts and socks
Know your fabrics. Silk, wool or natural-fibre items cost more than man-made fabrics such as polyester, Lycra and rayon, but they last the longest
Plan ahead. Identify the gaps in your wardrobe and write them down so that you shop for only what you need
Never buy because of price alone; always buy because you like the item first
Choose classics. Avoid the temptation to splurge on overly trendy pieces
If an item is damaged, has a missing button or a make-up mark, ask for a minimum of 30 per cent off the price
8 Check the return policy. Be extremely wary of a company that won't take exchanges or charges a fee
Never ignore the sales rack. Outlet stores and sales can be a dumping ground for a designers' slow sellers and with good judgement, a guarantee of a killer deal
1Sign up for the mailing lists of smaller boutique stores to receive invites to sales previews