Sawa: pre-Ramadan exhibition aims to support local designers affected by pandemic

The brainchild of The Modist founder Ghizlan Guenez and Emirati jewellery designer Salama Khalfan, the exhibition will include labels such as Dima Ayad, Bambah, Bleach and Le Pom Pom

Bambah will present cotton poplin and linen kaftans from the resort 2021 collection at Sawa 
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Two short weeks ago, Emirati fine jewellery designer Salama Khalfan picked up her phone to hear her friend, Ghizlan Guenez, utter some heartening words: “We got the location, we got the location!”

Fast-forward to now, and the duo from Dubai are ready to reinvigorate the emirate’s creative community by launching Sawa (which translates as “together”).

The pre-Ramadan exhibition will take place from Wednesday to Saturday at Warehouse 83, Alserkal Avenue, from 2pm to 10pm. Its overarching aim is to support local entrepreneurs who have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

Sawa co-founders Salama Khalfan, left, and Ghizlan Guenez

While Ramadan is one of the focal fashion seasons of the Middle East, Ramadan exhibitions and trade shows are usually costly investments for big brands and small businesses alike. Sawa aims to provide the latter with a platform for making sales at low cost and low risk.

"The idea was so organic – we were together one evening three weeks ago, thinking it would be amazing if someone could facilitate something where the barriers of entry are relatively low. After the bite of 2020, priorities have changed, especially for brands who've had to scale down or downsize, there's just a completely different meaning to the costs and figures before [the pandemic]," Khalfan tells The National.

I think everyone in the city craves a little bit of community magic during this time of year

“Ghizlan is one of my role models when I think of entrepreneurs. She jumped and said, ‘I’d love to do it with you’, and we sat together, her with a phone and me with a piece of paper, and started jotting down everything we needed to do.”

Guenez is the founder of The Modist, an acclaimed luxury modest fashion platform that closed because of the pandemic in 2020. She has remained a spokesperson for entrepreneurship and female empowerment, via panels and social media. Her experience with The Modist also gave her exposure to modest fashion labels worldwide – including the many that operate in the UAE.

Some long-time local favourites, including Das Collection and Bleach, will participate at Sawa, along with up-and-coming home-grown fashion, home decor and accessories brands.

In a matter of days, the duo secured a complimentary space, found a supplier to create the kiosks and complete the fit-outs, curated an assortment of 32 UAE brands, and started marketing through Instagram to help raise awareness for the community event – which they recognise is a privileged opportunity amid the global pandemic.

“We’re fortunate to be living in a city and country that has facilitated vaccinations – we’re in a good place where people have adopted health and safety measures,” says Guenez. “Everything that the government of Dubai has instructed in terms of Covid-19 measures is being implemented, from social distancing to wearing masks and sanitising. It’s a large warehouse, but the most painful thing about this has been saying ‘no’ to brands because of limited space.”

Reviving the Ramadan spirit   

Last Ramadan was spent in lockdown with curfews, and Khalfan explains that a pre-Ramadan event was optimal, timing-wise, for numerous reasons.

"It was important for us to do this right before Ramadan because we weren't sure how rigid the rules will be this year," she says.

The most important element is supporting and rebuilding designers' confidence as the pandemic has impacted our sales, creative process and inspiration

“This Ramadan, there’s a lot of hope that people carry in their hearts. Everyone is hoping that this year is going to be different and a lot of us miss everything about a real Ramadan, whether it’s the scent of oud, or dressing up at home with our families, and spending suhoors and iftars with them in the traditional ways.”

Late-night shopping trips to markets, bazaars and exhibitions are also woven into the cultural fabric of Ramadan in the Middle East.

“These traditions get everyone excited about the holy month. Sawa will do exactly what it means – bring people together,” says designer Dima Ayad, whose namesake label will be on display with classic favourites, along with her new collection of metallic panelled kaftans.

“I think everyone in the city craves a little bit of community magic during this time of year.”

“Celebrating a united spirit and supporting young creatives is what Ramadan is all about,” says Grana Khan, founder of handcrafted accessories brand Le Pom Pom, which will be exhibiting phone accessories, beaded clutches and hand-wrapped sandals.

“We’ve gotten so used to being socially distant now, Sawa will reignite some excitement about bringing people together over a shared love of shopping.”

Low cost, low risk

Sawa is also putting paid to exorbitant rental costs, as Khalfan and Guenez wanted to make sure Sawa was accessible and affordable for small businesses.

“The fees are nominal; we’re basically passing on the very little cost we had to incur,” says Guenez. “It’s a non-profit, if you will, and has no commercial returns for us; it’s more about the brands doing well.”

Participation fees, which, depending on space, range from Dh2,800 to Dh5,000, go towards the installation and fit-out of stalls, so all designers need to bring is their inventory to hang.

“Participating at a nominal amount allows us to charge less and sell more,” says Ayad.

"It is very lovely to see a platform with local designers' interest as a priority," says Maha Abdul Rasheed, who is participating with her brand Bambah, and will be displaying cotton poplin and linen kaftans from her resort 2021 collection.

She says: "Events like these help rebuild the community and support the local creative scene. From my personal experience, the most important element is supporting and rebuilding designers' confidence as the pandemic has impacted our sales, and our creative process and inspiration.

“Getting together and having this affordable platform to help and regain our community is something that I’m really looking forward to. It’s also an excellent opportunity for designers and brands to gain a return on their investment due to lost sales in the past year.”

Creatives and fashion enthusiasts are already buzzing about Sawa on Instagram, and the founders hint that this platform could be more than just a one-off event for Ramadan.

“We are entrepreneurs, and we’re also people who have come together with no other intention besides supporting our ecosystem. So, if the momentum continues and we find opportunities and this starts evolving, then we’re completely putting our entrepreneurial hats on and moving with it,” says Guenez.

"We would love to see Sawa in Abu Dhabi and other emirates and maybe in different parts of the GCC," says Khalfan. "There's something so magnificently powerful about people coming to help each other. When you're surrounded by that energy, it becomes very contagious and inspires you to create more."