The changing face of fashion in the UAE

A look at changing fashion trends in the UAE as Dubai Fashion Week kicks off.

A model wears a dress designed by Aly Fawaz.
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When the former owners of Dubai Fashion Week sold the rights to the event and suspended most of its operations in June, no one seemed very surprised. For seasons the fashion week had been struggling to be taken seriously, and however much its press releases claimed that it was up there among the big four (Paris, Milan, New York and London fashion weeks), it lacked credibility even at home.

To be fair to Dubai, other fashion events had achieved little more. Abu Dhabi's fashion week was impressive but short-lived, the Fashion Expo Arabia 2009 was a strong effort but has failed to appear again so far (though its website insists an event will happen this month).

And no one, visiting last year's glamorous but empty Who's Next & Premiere Classe, would have been shocked if the Paris-based trade show, too, had disappeared into the sunset. But it didn't: it came back last week, with a new venue, the Madinat Jumeirah, some new exhibitors and a new format that included a shopping day at which non-trade visitors could buy much-coveted samples direct from the designers.

In other words, it seems that some businesses do still have faith in Dubai's nascent fashion scene, albeit as a long-term project rather than a way of making a quick buck. And those businesses are serious, established fashion players who know the trade inside out.

Tagging along with the Who's Next team, for example, was the hugely successful British trade show Pure, as well as the global fashion forecasters WGSN, who were running seminars, and have been keeping an eye on Dubai for some time (they also went to Fashion Expo Arabia and have visited Dubai Fashion Week in the past). As for locally based enterprises, the always innovative UAE boutique S*uce has launched a distribution agency promoting and supporting local designers, the first in the UAE. And, most significantly, someone has bought Dubai Fashion Week, which kicks off at its new venue, Atlantis, today. The new owners, Capital Marketing, face an uphill struggle if they want to rehabilitate the event, but Manoj Bhojwani, the chairman, is keen to manage the public's expectations. "Let's take stock of the situation. Let's be realistic: going forward I would give it five to six seasons to be recognised by the big four. So let's say six seasons down I expect the brand to be taken seriously." Bhojwani is also willing to admit that, having bought the fashion week only a few months ago, this season's may not be quite up to scratch, even if the venue and production are better.

Dubai has also proven a learning experience for Boris Provost, the show manager for Who's Next & Premiere Classe. "The lesson we learned is that we have to adapt our event for each market," he said at the event last week. "Last year we took our French event and we put the same selection as we do in Paris - we did exactly the Parisian event. So this year we adapted the event, linked it to the taste of the market. We have the catwalk shows, every evening at 8pm we have parties to make people socialise, and we opened an office six months ago to call buyers and liaise with them. We sent so much information, we did big social networking. We found everybody here is looking for information from the net."

As for the designers showing here, Provost cites 35 that are returning after last year, saying, "People who came back did so because they believe in the company and they believe in the country. Some said we will see the second edition how it work, we will see the feedback, and then we will come back for the third."

For Pure, whose cool young British designers all have a turnover of less than GBP5million, the opportunity to take advantage of the Parisian trade show's experience is invaluable.

"We've always had aspirations to do something with Pure in the Middle East," says the managing director Steve Newbold. "If we're honest we hadn't quite got to the stage of deciding what that will be. Will it be a roadshow, or a party, is it catwalks, is it an exhibition? And we thought, ok, why don't we collaborate, with the same principle as Who's Next - let's test, let's probe. We're all investing in it, and actually it should be a good and prosperous market for everybody and it will evolve and change. The question is how long will it take to actually establish a market?"

Meanwhile, out at the Meydan Hotel, another trade show has been taking place. Fashion Times Dubai was launched by Tariq Shan, one of the founders of the cutting-edge Paris trade show Zip Zone, and had brought over one big name in particular, Bora Aksu, a friend of Shan's. Here, too, the talk was of testing the waters. "I have absolutely no experience in Dubai," admitted Shan last week, with a wry laugh. "I walked into Bloomingdale's today asking for the buyer and there are so many hurdles to get through. But I'm sure it's going to be very interesting."

That might seem perilously blasé, but like the Who's Next, Pure and WGSN teams, Shan believes it's one worth taking. "You know, there is a risk, but it's calculated and we think now's the right time. Of course I don't expect it to take off straight away. We're going to have to be marketed in the right way and we want the message to get across that we're here to stay. We'll see how it goes."

That's a very different approach from, say, that of Pure, who are working with facts that Who's Next learned the hard way last year. "I think by their own admission what they learned from that was you can't just rock in, put on a big exhibition and expect it to work in the same way as Paris," says Newbold.

Of course, the big difference between the likes of Who's Next & Premiere Classe and Dubai Fashion Week is that the fashion week is supposed to be promoting local designers, while the trade shows are bringing international labels to the buyers of the region. But with only five or six Emirati designers showing at fashion week, and the "client servicing" liaison between buyers and designers only being implemented next season, according to Bhojwani, there is a clear gap that Two Scoops, the distribution agency established by S*uce, is aiming to fill.

"We started working with local designers from day one at S*uce," says its co-founder Zayan Ghandour, "and our first designer, Essa, is now a very big star. S*uce was in the right time and the right place with the right designers. But now it comes to a time when people have much more choice, people have maybe less money or a projection of less money in the future and they are a lot more selective, so that fact means one needs the choices to be more edited, better quality, on trend and delivered on time."

In encouraging this move towards a genuine professionalism among local designers, S*uce may have once more found themselves in the right time and place: as Ghandour says, the Arab customer is at the top of every high-end retailer's wanted list. "They still have that spending power," she says. "And it even translates in our stores in terms of trends. Currently the trend is very simple, very minimal, but Arab customers are still not looking for that. The money's still coming from the Gulf customer, and the Gulf customer is looking for colour, she's looking for details and she wants that unique piece. I think the retailers in the region and everywhere else will find that this is what they are looking for."

It seems, then, that the impetus of these sort of enterprises may eventually achieve what Dubai Fashion Week has failed so far to do: creating a genuine Middle East fashion hub in Dubai. Which makes you wonder: do we really need Dubai Fashion Week?

Lorna Hall, senior retail editor at WGSN, asked just that question at Who's Next.

"I always think people are very harsh on fashion weeks, because it's all comparative. Everyone always says they want to be the next Paris or Milan or whatever; they almost have to say it in marketing terms. But we all know that there isn't actually room for that anyway, and what you need to do is build a really credible region that makes sense, so people who come in from outside can really understand the market and people from inside the market can get a much better sense of where they are placed in the world.

Hall travels the world examining the retail and fashion markets and analysing them for what is one of the fashion industry's most respected tools, and she points out that spreading out events over several weeks (as we do in Dubai) can be a mistake.

"When you go around and look at fashion events, what slightly frustrates everyone is that slight disconnect between the various fashion organisations, and the ones that get it right are the ones that manage to work together and see it as a common purpose, and build slowly and understand what's right for the region rather than replicating something that just doesn't work for the region."

Few people would disagree. Provost points out that this year and last he tried to establish a link with Dubai Fashion Week, to no avail. "I'm not a competitor," he insists. "But the more we are, the stronger we are." Ghandour, meanwhile, straddles the two events, launching Two Scoops at Who's Next and sitting as an advisory board member on Dubai Fashion Week. She says: "I have been saying it over and over again. You see, Who's Next is a very professional set-up and this we haven't seen in Dubai for the past goodness knows how long, so it is a great opportunity for Dubai Fashion Week to tie up with someone who's been doing it for a long time. Imagine, if it comes under the fashion week label what that means. They have a huge database, it's a great platform for local designers eventually to go to Paris. It only serves everyone in this industry that they tie up."

Even Bhojwani is cautiously optimistic. "If we find synergies, if we find we have common objectives, why not? There's always a possibility. But at this point in time I don't think we are going to look at any associations. We have our plans already laid out."

That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but the fact that these discussions are even taking place offers a real glimmer of hope for Dubai's fashion future.

"You do need to be working with companies that actually have a common philosophy," says Newbold, a canny businessman as much as a fashion player. "Obviously we believe that in the long run it will pay off. It has to be more than a wild speculative punt."