They are rarely spotted in the front row of a fashion show and favour discretion when placing orders, yet women from the Middle East have become the world's biggest buyers of haute couture fashion. Their social calendars create much bigger demand for couture than the occasional charity ball and high society party in Europe and in North America. And wearing the same dress twice is not an option.
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Traditional buyers of exclusive designer clothes tend to include members of rich or royal families and expatriates.
"All the royal families of the Middle East are our customers," Catherine Riviere, head of haute couture at Christian Dior, told Reuters at the brand's show at Paris Fashion Week, which ended last Wednesday.
Fashion executives say the Middle East is likely to remain the top couture client for the foreseeable future if the economic environment deteriorates in Europe and North America.
"Women from the Middle East are our top buyers and they are likely to remain so," said Jeffry Aronsson, who became chief executive of Emanuel Ungaro three months ago. He was at the helm of Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs in the past.
Reem, the daughter of a major construction tycoon in the Middle East who asked to be identified only by her first name, spends much of her time travelling between Paris, London, Dubai and Beirut and is a regular buyer of couture. "What I want is unique pieces, extravagant and chic. I do not want to pay €5,000 (Dh24,560) or €6,000 for a dress, as it happened to me with a Pucci outfit recently, and see it on somebody else the same evening."
Valued at €700 million, and with women's designer dresses and skirts leading the way, designer clothing is by far the biggest segment of the luxury goods industry, representing 42 per cent of overall luxury goods sales in the UAE (which is the biggest buyer among Gulf states), according to a Euromonitor International report published in June.
"For us, with China, the Middle East is the market that is growing the fastest," said Hermès chief executive Patrick Thomas at Paris Fashion Week. Thomas said the Middle East only started to pick up strongly two to three years ago and now generates 30 to 35 per cent in annual sales growth a year.
For some Middle Eastern women, couture is a symbol of social status and success. At parties and weddings, they want to shine and impress.
"I had the opportunity to see a wedding that was recently held here in Dubai. Four thousand women were invited to the reception and everybody in the room was wearing haute couture," said Simon Lock, creative director of Dubai Fashion Week. "And there are lots and lots of weddings to attend. The wedding season is very expensive here.
"I have known of many occasions when a couturier will be invited to a private home for a showing. The hostess will buy maybe 20, 30 couture outfits for a season," says Lock, adding that prices start at US$3,000 and can reach $75,000. A Dior wedding dress can fetch $1 million.
Dior, Chanel and many other major luxury brands also stage private shows at hotels in the Middle East or in the homes of their most regular customers.
"Royal families are our buyers," said Dubai-based fashion designer Rabia Z. "They will call us for an appointment and we go as often as they ask us to come. They love the fact that we give them the option of changing the colour, or making it shorter or longer."
Qatar is organising its first fashion week with a target date of March 2012. One of the biggest supporters of the fashion event is Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of the emir of Qatar. Regarded as one of the world's biggest buyers of couture, according to fashion experts, Sheikha Mozah is also behind the creation of the Qatar Luxury Group in 2008. Based in Doha, it hired designer Stephane Rolland to create a fashion brand from scratch that it is aiming to unveil next spring.
The secretive group, financially supported by the Qatar Foundation, made its first acquisition this year when it snapped up the Paris-listed leather goods maker Le Tanneur for €26m, and is on the lookout for more European brands.
- Astrid Wendlandt and Martina Fuchs, Reuters, with additional reporting by Regan Doherty in Doha and Asma Alsharif in Jeddah
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