“I’m a Dubain” reads a sweater at the Satami stall; “Khalas” proclaims a T-shirt by Teesing that’s crafted from bamboo fibres; and a stunning print by Emaan Home draws on a surah from the Quran: “Don’t fear. I am with you.”
Not so long ago, if you wanted to do a spot of shopping in Dubai, you would have no choice but to head to a mall, where you would be greeted with the same bland, homogenous collection of brands found straddling high streets across the western hemisphere. You’d pick up your runway-inspired-but-still-reasonably-priced looks from Zara; your practical-alternatives-to-classic-Scandinavian home accessories from Ikea; and your on-trend-sandals-that-might-only-last-a-single-season from Aldo. And then you’d head home, feeling ever-so-slightly cheated by the lack of options on offer.
A quick disclaimer: there’s nothing wrong with any of those brands; I routinely invest in all three. But variety is the spice of life, as they say, and for a long time, Dubai’s retail scene was completely dominated by recognisable, predominantly western brands. As was its food scene. And its hotel scene. And so on. As a young city with an identity that was still in the process of being formed, it took its cues from other parts of the world, embracing formulas that had already proven successful elsewhere.
A quick stroll around Market OTB this week confirmed that those days are long gone. Now in its fifth year, the popular event in Burj Park offers homegrown brands a much-needed platform from which to sell their wares. Many of those present are tiny, fledgling concepts that operate almost exclusively online, as they cannot afford to rent premises of their own – which is why Market OTB is so valuable, to them and to consumers like me who believe that a city’s identity is shaped by its creative output.
The market crackles with that unique entrepreneurial spirit that is, essentially, Dubai’s lifeblood. There are stalls offering karak and specialty teas. Dresses, denim jackets and slogan T-shirts sit among decorative objects for the home – wooden wall hangings shaped like Arabic calligraphy from Ayah Home, or linen cushion covers emblazoned with pop art from Origins Collective. There are also niche vendors like Sam’s Secrets, a holistic lifestyle brand that offers such indulgences as silk pillows, jade facial rollers and rose quartz gua shas (if you are as perplexed as I was about the purpose of this handheld contraption, it is a traditional Chinese implement that you run along your face, neck and head to improve blood circulation and elasticity, promote lymphatic drainage and eliminate toxins. Not bad going for a barely-there sliver of stone that you can hold in the palm of your hand).
My mixed bag of purchases pays testament to the market’s breadth: a jade face roller from Sam’s Secrets; a desk planner from Emaan Home; and a baseball cap with the word Emirati emblazoned across the front that is intended as a gift.
The Burj Khalifa laser show begins just as we are leaving the park. This latest display of the city’s record-breaking ambitions is loud, colourful, in-your-face and undeniably impressive, in its own way. But for me, it is that little market at the base of the world’s tallest building, where industrious, innovative individuals are going out on a limb and showing off their creative prowess, that truly puts a spotlight on what is best about Dubai.
Market OTB is on at Burj Park until January 20 and runs from 4pm to 11pm Sunday to Thursday and 10am to midnight Friday and Saturday. More info on website.