As I enter the packed car park of Dragon Mart in Dubai, I quickly regret choosing Friday evening to make this excursion – it's clearly peak time. But, I'm on the hunt for a full-length mirror and a few chairs for my home, and have heard that the prices here are unbeatable. After my husband gives up on finding a legal parking space, and instead parks his Toyota FJ Cruiser up on a curb, we enter the crowded market.
An hour later, it's evident that this household errands trip has turned into a clothes-shopping spree. Striped shirt-dresses embellished with pearls, bejewelled sandals and quirky jewellery finds fill my shopping bags, and I lose all interest in furniture-browsing.
But while the stores I find appealing sell cheap but un-branded garments, most fashion outlets sell blatant designer knock-offs – and these are the stores with the most customer traffic.
Being a fashion journalist, I can easily spot when a garment is "inspired by" a luxury fashion house, and the clothes I see here are clear-cut copies of runway pieces by Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana; the shoes are knock-offs of Balenciaga, Alexander Wang, Roger Vivier and even Fenty Puma designs.
Funnily enough, some of these Dragon Mart goods feature errors in these imitations. A pair of lace-less trainers for instance, read "Balencioga" instead of "Balenciaga", and a purse mimicking the Gucci Blooms print is stamped with "DD" instead of the double-G emblem. If an ill-informed customer's intent is to buy a fake branded bag to blend in with their wealthier peers, well then, they'll be aghast to learn the purchase is a knock-off laden with errors.
When I first moved to Dubai and visited Karama, I was in awe of the tucked out-of-sight stores, located on floors above mainstream stores and restaurants, filled from the ground to the ceiling with fake designer bags, wallets, belts and shoes.
But the fakes didn't come cheap – a low-tier item would start at Dh300, and a "good copy" at Dh500.
I admit, when I was 15, I got sucked in, amazed that I could afford a purse that had Prada's logo emblazoned on it. Back then, I hardly noticed the fact that the logo on my fake Prada was slightly crooked, and that upon closer inspection, you could see drops of hot glue and shoddy stitching inside.
But now, years later, the appeal of the knock-off is lost on me. In fact, I've become downright against it – and no, it's not just because, with a little bit of financial planning, I can now actually afford a genuine Prada. I simply don't understand the point – why pay for a fake designer item, when you could buy something on the high street for half the price? Is it because, in this city, your societal worth is measured by the brand of your handbag? Possibly. And if that's so, why succumb to the pressure?
It's a problem that plagues countries worldwide. Living among women born and bred in the UAE, it's easy to feel inferior if you're the only one without a token Chanel bag or Bottega Veneta clutch.
Fakes have been so readily available, it's easy to get tempted. I have taken friends and family who were visiting Dubai, to Karama or the nearby Meena Bazaar, which also has its fair share of designer fakes, promoted by sellers on sidewalks murmuring, "Maam, designer bags, shoes, watches, Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton?" as you pass by them.
My visitors were often times small-town Americans or Canadians, who had never before been attracted to designer splurges, let alone been exposed to the world of luxury brands. Some of them wouldn't even have been able to identify a leather sandal bearing an H-shaped strap as an Hermes design, even though in this region, they seem to be a dime a dozen. "We'll just look," my visitors would say to one another, and we would all convince ourselves as we rode the rickety elevator to a "secret room," that we were just in this for the experience. But all too often, an item would present itself as a convincing bargain, showing that even the least brand-conscious of us could easily fall for the allure of a designer copy.
Which is precisely why some shops in Dragon Mart and Karama continue to thrive, despite the fact that low-key luxury and "normcore" fashion (featured on page 8) – movements that eschew barefaced brand names are gaining momentum internationally.
[ Is normcore the new luxury? ]
[ Comfort or confidence: the heels versus flats debate ]
[ Men: here's how to look sharp in a suit ]