Dubai Fashion Week - whither or wither?

Dubai Fashion Week is looking for a direction that will give it international credibility, while nurturing designers of the Middle East.

It became clear after last year's Dubai Fashion Week that the event was not developing as the company behind it hoped. After management changes,
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Dubai Fashion Week must nurture the designers of the Middle East rather than further its own international aspirations: that's the message that came over loud and clear from the small group of designers and other fashion-week participants invited to a round-table discussion on the future of the event two weeks ago. In a conference room at the Media City offices of Concept Group, the events company that created Dubai Fashion Week, the four-hour discussion took place among Emirati designers, including Amal Murad, Hind Beljafla and Mariam al Mazroua, other fashion industry professionals such as the designer and retailer Juhi Yasmeen Khan and the fabric supplier Rajesh Sajnani, and the man now running DFW, Saif Ali Khan, the executive vice president of Concept Group.

In place for just three months, Khan faces an uphill struggle to rehabilitate the reputation of the fashion week. Previously noted more for its socialite-filled parties and high levels of frankly unjustified hype than for attracting positive attention in the industry, Dubai Fashion Week has yet to be taken seriously by most fashion players. Khan hopes to change this in future seasons, though with such a short run-up to next week's shows the results are unlikely to show through just yet.

The change of management came, says Khan, because of the fashion week's failure to grow beyond the borders of the UAE scene. "We saw that, you know, Dubai Fashion Week had completed quite some seasons," says Khan. "Our chairman, Aldrin Fernandes, desired this event to be at the heart of the entire Middle East and reach international level. But unfortunately the event was not growing as much as he and I desired. So then of course after the last fashion week, we took a call and we terminated [the former DFW director] Rohit Sabhiki's services. I solely took over the operations, with a complete new perspective and, you know, fresh blood into the project."

The results are certainly showing in commercial terms. "I revamped the whole idea of how to sell sponsorships, how to make the event bigger," he says, "and proudly I can tell you this is the biggest ever season we are having with Dubai Fashion Week, with 35 shows, 48 designers, and we have got in excess of 40-plus sponsors, up from four last season. You will see a lot of interaction happening at the venue."

The sponsors are going to have a whale of a time this season. "I've changed the whole way things used to be, like the sponsors used to be just standing in the stands and doing nothing," he says. "So I've involved everybody in the whole event to make it more interactive." Khan explains the Evian is using Dubai Fashion Week as a tool to promote its charity, auctioning off T-shirts created by 16 of the participating designers.

The bottled water company has a show during fashion week at which it will display the T-shirts before auctioning them, he says. "Apart from this, Samsung is doing a campaign, Diva of the Week, and L'Oréal Paris is running a campaign, so they're being very aggressive." So the sponsors are doing well, but there remains a concern that, with fashion week being owned and run by a commercial events company, the good of the fashion industry comes second to the turning of a profit for the events company. (Not that fashion week has ever turned a profit in Dubai: this, Khan revealed at the meeting, is the first year that the event expects to break even.)

And that, of course, is one of the big debates surrounding DFW: who is it for and how will we know if it is working? Every season a flurry of press releases informs us that this is the biggest and best fashion week yet, putting Dubai on the fashion map, up there with the Big Four (Milan, Paris, New York and London). Khan's avowed plan is to take Dubai international in six seasons, to which end he has brought designers from America, Spain and Brazil to do shows in Dubai.

Whether Dubai Fashion Week needs designers from beyond the Middle East is up for debate, but he is palpably thrilled at the arrival of Andres Aquina, the designer who founded New York Couture Week, a consumer fashion event for which the guests buy tickets. (For clarity: this is not Paris Couture Week nor New York Fashion Week; it is a private enterprise, something it has in common with Dubai Fashion Week.)

"Dubai is at the centre of the globe," insists Khan. "Dubai is happening for everything, so Dubai is also happening for fashion. Because my aim is a little different, my vision is a little different, we are looking out for making Dubai an international event." Unfortunately, repeatedly saying it does not make it so. The sad fact is that right now Dubai doesn't make it into even the second tier of fashion weeks - the Sydneys, Delhis, Stockholms, Tokyos - partly because, until now, it has not been clear about what it wanted to achieve and how to measure its success. Is it the number of participants? The buyers attending? The sponsors? The sales made? The parties thrown? The press generated?

The fact that Khan uses size as a measure of success is telling: 35 shows and 48 designers, sure, but who are they and how good are the shows? And 40-plus sponsors is an impressive number, but what about the designers? We'll discover those answers this week. One thing is sure, Khan has done his homework and is keen to see progress. "I'm a quick learner. I have done my research, I've met a lot of people from the fashion industry, I've taken a lot feedback. I got in touch with all my designers, and told them, 'Please criticise Dubai Fashion Week,' and they started criticising Dubai Fashion Week. I worked on all the flaws that Dubai Fashion Week had. Nobody can guarantee that 100 per cent you can remove all flaws, but yes, to a very large extent, I have."

Certainly no one at the meeting at Concept was holding back on their criticism, and the complaints being aired were much the same as those that Khan encountered during his consultation period: "They felt it was not a good mix of designers, they never felt that the fashion week was really happening in terms of the buzz on the venue, and they complained about the buyers. So I've taken care of all these three complaints that they had in totality."

Indeed, the number of Dubai-based participants does seem to have increased, with day one dedicated almost entirely to Emirati designers. In terms of buzz, perhaps next season will have more to see: there is, after all, a difference between the hype of those talking up and taking part in an event and a wider buzz that reaches out in a positive way to the blogosphere and international press. As for buyers, DFW is, says Khan, bringing over people from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Harvey Nichols London and Debenhams, and taking care of their hospitality, a tactic successfully employed by an ailing London Fashion Week a couple of seasons back.

Will they have anything to see when they get here? Well, for all that Concept has a role here, that's ultimately down to just one group of people: the designers.