The Dubai fashion revival

The newly appointed creative director for Dubai Fashion Week has big plans to revive the ailing event — but can he pull it off?

A design by Mariam Al Mazro.
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Simon Lock has been handed the somewhat auspicious task of remodelling the biannual Dubai Fashion Week. Fashionistas won't have long to wait because the new creative director will raise the curtain on his master plan at the 2012 spring/summer show this October.

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"I'm redesigning the venue; I'm bringing in international directors and producers. I'm going to be casting internationally and bringing in a lot more international models and I'm going to give the designers a fashion theatre to play in," he says of the new 100,000-square foot space at the World Trade Centre.

Aesthetics aside, Lock is acutely aware of the colossal task ahead of him, not least positioning Dubai Fashion Week firmly on the international circuit and silencing the detractors of an event that has yielded little for designers or buyers in recent years.

"I think globally it doesn't have much of a reputation," says Lock. "But criticism also means there's passion there and people actually care. The thing is, the industry is saying 'we want this to work' and thanks to the Capital Group, which purchased the event, they've given Dubai Fashion Week a great financial footing."

So what's at the top of Lock's towering to-do list? Well, bringing the right people together, meaning the best international buyers and regional designers. Lock admits he's not afraid to open his little black book and beckon the biggest names in the business to inspect Dubai's wares. But he's also in no hurry to press speed dial. He's doing things methodically and implementing a radical two-pronged strategy, which might just work.

"For ready-to-wear buyers there's not a lot here to buy, so the buyers we're going to target in the first instance will be those interested in demi-couture. Initially, it will be those buyers from around the region and South Asia, India etc," he says. "And I would like to think there's a number of department stores around the world that have incredible evening floors such as Bendel's and Liberty's - I would love to target them and get buyers here.

"For me to bring the ready-to-wear buyer from Lane Crawford from Hong Kong - they are not going to find what they want as a resource," he adds. "Over time, as we move the event more into the ready-to-wear event, more of those buyers can come."

Zayan Ghandour is the head buyer, creative director and cofounder of the Dubai-based boutique S*uce. Though her buying expeditions involve regular travel to New York, Paris and Milan, she believes Dubai may also one day become a first-class fashion hub.

"There is immense potential: if done well, DFW could be the one-stop shop for the entire Middle East. But there needs to be a framework in place for fresh and contemporary brands in addition to the big catwalk shows, and that is best achieved through trade shows, etc. Simon Lock certainly has the right experience for the job, and we very much look forward to seeing what he will do next."

When it comes to naming the designers Lock will not be drawn, but he's keen to extend the invitation to Arab countries near and far.

"I think this is going to become a regional fashion week. It's not going to be just the UAE. We want to embrace designers from other Arab countries - Lebanon, Syria, et cetera. That's really how it becomes powerful, if it becomes a regional centre to show," Lock says.

The Dubai-based designer and owner of Warda Haute Couture, Rahil Hessan, showcased a collection at Dubai Fashion Week last year and her glamorous gowns have been worn by international stars such as Sofia Milos and Gemma White. The time and financial investment of participating in a fashion week are considerable, so for this to be justified, says Hessan, the following factors should be in place.

"Brand reputation tops the criteria for me. It's important to be associated with events that have credibility and recognition across the board. An access to fashion buyers as well as final presentation on the catwalk including selection of models, creative choreography and production are also factors when considering participation as well as being able to showcase alongside established designers."

Lock has held meetings with more than 30 regional designers so far, the Dubai-based Essa among them. With more meetings pencilled for the coming months, his pitch and the patter have to be perfect as some popular, high-profile designers, such as Ayesha Depala, have chosen not to show at Dubai Fashion Week in the past.

"It's not going to happen overnight and there will be many people who will be sceptical. Not every designer will want to show every year and that's OK - that's just the way it is. My appointment here is long-term so we'll take some good steps forward and the industry will get excited and the momentum will build and build," he says.

Building and bolstering major fashion events is what Lock does best, having founded (Rosemount) Australia Fashion Week 16 years ago and established it as a credentialed stop on the international fashion week circuit.

He spearheaded a multimillion-dollar business developing fashion events in Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan and became involved with India and Pakistan's fashion weeks. In 2005 he sold the company to the industry heavyweight IMG Fashion, but stayed on as the managing director for the Asia Pacific region until his recent appointment in Dubai.

"I think my proudest achievement was taking a number of Australian fashion designers and really growing them into or being involved in helping them create businesses that are now worth 20, 50 million dollars." he says. "Australia Fashion Week also turned Australian consumers on to Australian brands and now department stores fight over local designers. That's so exciting, and if that could be achieved here in Dubai it would be phenomenal."

If Lock can do for Dubai what he did for Australia and other second-tier markets, it would indeed be phenomenal, not least because some 285 global fashion weeks have emerged since 1996 and competition for buyers and media coverage has never been tougher.

"Our challenge is to create a fashion week that's unlike any of those others. One that plays a role locally, regionally and internationally." he says. "There's some nuances here with this fashion week which make it very different, which I think makes it exciting. It's not about trying to make this Paris or New York Fashion Week - this needs to be Dubai Fashion Week. Culturally, it's different and the designers are great and unique and the event needs to celebrate that."

Cultural awareness is something Lock appears to have in spades and he wasted no time in acquainting himself with the UAE's home-grown emerging fashion scene. A guest lecturer himself at respected global universities, Lock was heartened to see academics from the Dubai fashion school Esmod attend his designer workshops.

"I always try to embrace the local educational institutions. I want them within their curriculum to be encouraging designers to know how to use a fashion week," he says. "We'll have an emerging designers show at Dubai Fashion Week…and hopefully we'll discover some new talent we can mentor. Because they are going to be the future Elie Saab's of this world and if we could discover two or three over the next few years and help them develop, then that's a very important part of our job."

A big job undoubtedly, but one that Rohit Sabikhi, the event director of DFW, is convinced Lock is more than capable of handling given his "decades of experience". He says that all parties involved - the Capital Group & his company Cranberry Middle East - are on the same page, with Lock, too, keeping the "business of fashion" at the forefront of his mind.

"Dubai Fashion Week has the opportunity to add value to Brand Dubai - saying that Dubai is at the centre of fashion and creative excellence." says Lock "I'd really like to be able to go back and tell the government the improvements we're making on behalf of the industry and seek their support. Because over time, it's our intention to attract attention to this event and there will be a lot of people travelling to Dubai and everyone benefits from that." Lock exudes an air of cool-calm confidence. He talks fast but never raises his voice, using words such as "exciting", "opportunity" and "growth". But possibly his favourite word when it comes to Dubai Fashion Week is "yes". Yes, the shows will start on time; yes, the media will be well briefed; yes, it's important to engage and value partners.

"I'm going to encourage the designers to be more individual and creative. My role here is to say 'yes' to them. I'll do everything in my power to make their ideas happen, so if they say 'I want the catwalk to look a certain way and be filled with a hundred girls', yes, it's my job to make it happen," he smiles.

All eyes will fall upon Lock again in three months' time. Hopes are high that he'll finally legitimise Dubai Fashion Week and, possibly for the first time in the event's history, deliver style and substance in equal measure.