How Covid changed our wardrobes: basics are booming in the UAE and abroad

We meet three UAE designers who are shifting the focus from frivolous fashion excessiveness to sustainable style staples

Dhara Bhatia proffers some style advice, and it’s refreshingly straightforward. “Basics are the cornerstones of a chic wardrobe,” says the founder of the newly launched UAE fashion label Baesic by DB. Her debut collection features key classics: button-down blouses, cropped tops, tailored shorts, mini-skirts, slip dresses, camisoles, linen trousers and blazers, each in three colours – black, white and millennial pink.

Fashionistas the world over are increasingly recognising the appeal of classics made up of minimalist separates, eschewing over-the-top and excessive consumerism in favour of scaled-back style staples. The trend is gaining momentum in the UAE, where numerous new brands are concentrating on the concept of capsule wardrobe-building.

Treasuring timelessness over trends

“I believe timeless staples never go out of trend; they make up some of the most significant pieces in the wardrobe,” says Sabrina Mouhiedine, founder of Lili Blanc Boutique. Aiming to create “accessible and comfortable day-to-night staples”, Mouhiedine designs with the needs of the modern, multitasking woman in mind – think shift dresses and tailored separates that exude effortless romance with a utilitarian touch.

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Versatility, practicality and wearability are the new trends in the Covid age
Sabrina Mouhiedine, founder of Lili Blanc Boutique

Classics may forever be in fashion, but the trend’s uptake in 2021 is no coincidence. As we gradually return to offices and physical meetings (where the video call style protocol of polished shirts paired with pyjama pants simply won’t do) after months of working remotely, many of us are looking for ways to refresh our wardrobes with clothing that’s at once corporate, comfortable and chic. Simultaneously, more time spent at home caused many of us to come face to face with our overflowing closets, inspiring us to spring clean, declutter and minimise our fashion possessions.

A February Forbes article shed light on this shift in retail, citing the example of Classic Six, a new label born mid-pandemic and centred on a capsule collection of only six pieces.

“Versatility, practicality and wearability are the new trends in the Covid age,” says Mouhiedine, who also conceptualised Lili Blanc Boutique at the height of the pandemic in 2020. “Women like me want to enjoy our fast-paced days with clothes that are stylish yet simple … my understanding of the necessity of staples in every woman’s wardrobe inspires every piece in my collection.”

When it comes to style quotient, the Middle East is often known for its penchant for glamour, grandeur and drama, yet collections centred on basics are booming, too. “Capsule wardrobes are becoming popular in the Middle East because there’s such a diverse population,” says Bhatia. “Fashion fads are not for everyone. On the other hand, a capsule wardrobe is all about choosing pieces that work for you, rather than chasing after trends that may not suit your body shape, colouring or lifestyle.”

Bhatia’s elevated basics are inspired by all-time fashion favourites. “There’s a reason why women purchase more little black dresses than any other garment, which they would probably end up repeating only one or two times,” she explains. Building a capsule wardrobe, meanwhile, celebrates the versatility of a single staple – such as the LBD – and encourages women to experiment with styling and layering to dress it up or down for different occasions.

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People tend to pivot more towards comfort and convenience, and basics fit these criteria perfectly
Dominic Nowell-Barnes, founder of The Giving Movement

There’s also the classic white shirt, which Bhatia offers in a luxe, creamy satin. “This gem strikes a balance between being refined and a reliable go-to. Every designer has their interpretation of the classic white shirt, from oversized and relaxed, to preppy with a lavaliere necktie. Wear it open, tie it at the waist, tuck it into a pencil skirt or jeans – the options are endless,” she says.

Comfort and convenience are fashion’s new criteria

Rather than feeling restricted, proponents of capsule wardrobes celebrate this spirit of ceaseless styling opportunities through a condensed edit of clothing. “We believe that fewer, better options that are designed with quality and versatility can create more looks with an effortless style,” says Dominic Nowell-Barnes, founder of The Giving Movement. “People tend to pivot more towards comfort and convenience, and basics fit these criteria perfectly as they also make the shopping experience less overwhelming in an age where options are endless and choices can be exhausting.”

The movement towards minimalist staples isn’t limited to feminine silhouettes or corporate-chic aesthetics, either. Loungewear and streetwear have dramatically increased in popularity during the pandemic, and are proving their resilience in retail, even among the swish set. According to market research and consumer trends group NPD, activewear accounted for 40 per cent of all online sales in 2020.

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Women are thinking more carefully before they buy, and considering what a garment is made of and how many times it can be worn
Dhara Bhatia, founder of Baesics by DB

The Giving Movement, which was launched last year, has quickly gained popularity as a regional athleisure label, selling styles such as leggings, joggers, T-shirts, hoodies, jackets, cycling shorts and sports bras, all in solid shades. “I think now more than ever the focus is on athleisure for the simple reason that we are spending more time at home or exercising. We’ve reached a point of no return, we want our clothes to be multifunctional, comfortable and durable,” says Nowell-Barnes, who believes that evolving consumer preferences have had an impact on wider societal views on the industry.

“It’s more accepted and appreciated,” he says. “The global athleisure market is accelerating and for a good reason; it’s about time we bridged [the gap] between comfort-orientated silhouettes and innovative-functional designs.”

Rooted in the Middle East, The Giving Movement also has a dedicated modestwear line with higher necklines, longer tops and tunics, and longline jackets to cater to its modesty-conscious demographic. Lili Blanc Boutique also creates fashion for the local woman in mind, and during Ramadan, released a capsule collection of abaya-inspired kimonos in a range of summer shades. Colour is a critical element of the design process when creating classic staples, as many brands will cement their chosen silhouettes and then simply tweak the hues for seasonal collections.

Sticking to style staples is more sustainable

Fabric choices and production processes aside, these designers believe the ideology behind creating “basics”, as opposed to superfluous assortments of seasonal designs, promotes a sense of sustainability.

“Capsule wardrobes are primarily driven by conscious shopping,” says Bhatia. “There’s less of a guilt factor when you’re spending on a versatile piece that’s well-tailored, and you can see it blending into different outfits for years to come. I think we can safely say Friday-brunch-and-fling shopping is a thing of the past.”

With its fabrics formulated with recyclable and biodegradable materials, The Giving Movement also champions sustainability, and donates proceeds from every item to charity. “Sustainability is without doubt one of the driving factors as people are becoming more self-aware of what they consume every day,” Nowell-Barnes says. “They are realising that by being mindful, they can make not just a lifestyle fix, but a planet fix, too. So, people are more inspired and aware of their fashion purchases and how that can improve their daily lives to foster an emphasis on quality over quantity, reducing waste and saving money in the long run.”

The pandemic has undoubtedly shaped and inspired these brands. All three launched after Covid-19 reached the UAE’s shores, and while their aesthetics vary, each caters to conscious consumers who are demanding more wear out of fewer items of clothing.

“Fashion often reflects societal shifts, and change is definitely in the air,” says Bhatia. “Women are thinking more carefully before they buy, and considering what a garment is made of and how many times it can be worn. Sustainability is a focus, there’s the slow fashion movement, and Gen Z has come in and shaken things up. Through all of this, basics have come out on top as we look for simpler, more satisfying things.”

Updated: July 29th 2021, 4:26 AM
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