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Race to the top: Dubai’s fashion fervour

With its international profile as a leading tourist and shopping destination, as well as being a preferred base for many companies due to its business environment and strategic geographic location, Dubai has garnered a reputation as a trend-setter.

But how well is it doing in the industry which cares the most about setting trends: fashion?

According to the 11th annual survey of the Top Global Fashion Capitals lists, published in September by the Global Language Monitor, it’s doing pretty well.

Dubai’s ranking on the 2015 index is 17th, which, despite being some way of the ‘big four’ of Paris, New York, London and Los Angeles, represents a big jump from its 2014 position of 31st. Perhaps unsurprising given the emirate’s track record in making rapid and impressive developments.

The race to the top officially began in 2013 when His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, issued a decree to start turning a vision of the emirate as a regional and global destination for design and fashion into reality.

Not an easy task, but an important one knowing that fashion has become increasingly intertwined with a city’s status, triggering global competition among the most economically powerful centres.

Fashion plays a leading role in a city’s evolution by creating a unique and strong identity to add to its international profile. For example, consumers associate Paris with chic and haute couture, or São Paulo with tropical prints, beachwear, and Havaianas sandals.

“What Dubai is notoriously famous for is its energy. It manages to achieve things very fast,” says May Barber, co-founder of The Cartel, a cutting edge avant-grade fashion boutique set up in Dubai’s reinvented art scene in Al Qouz.

“If that is channelled into making good quality fashion, it can put Dubai on the map.

“I think Dubai is able in the future to produce something exciting and interesting, but it’s hard to define a character for it because it’s [still] not clear and Dubai is pretty eclectic.

“But we also have to understand that fashion requires history. We have to build it. It’s such an exciting phase for us to be those players who are shaping the fashion industry making history in Dubai.”

Spotting a gap in the market, The Cartel was established in 2013 to support fashion designers that cater to particular out-of-the-box aesthetics, but also to serve as an educational platform.

Despite starting as a solo player eager to help build the local fashion scene, it has already managed to showcase 60 designers and hold more than 20 events, including an exhibition of the world’s first 3D printed haute couture garments by a Belgian designer, Iris van Herpen.

Similarly, in April 2013 Bong Guerrero, the founder of Fashion Forward, launched his biannual fashion platform for couture and ready-to-wear designers based in the region or of Middle Eastern origin.

For the past five editions, it has attracted over 17,000 visitors from the region’s fashion community per season, including more than 50 key regional buyers, and has supported almost 50 regional designers.

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With a mission to elevate designers’ prospects, the event is as famous for its side events as for its catwalk shows. These include The Garden, a retail space for fashion accessory designers with a footfall of over 10,000 visitors per season, the audience-packed d3 Fashion Talks to address the industry’s pressing issues with around 100 representatives of reputable fashion institutions taking part so far, and numerous daily social events and after-parties.

Guerrero fell into a fashion career more by accident than design. Arriving in Dubai as a twentysomething in the early 1990s, he set up one of the first three fashion houses in the city – Ghanati boutique on Jumeirah Beach Road – to cater to the needs of local women.

A charity fashion show that he organised at Burj Al Arab in 2000, under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed’s wife HH Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum, signaled his move to the fashion events sector, which he considers his true calling. The rest is an important part of the region’s fashion history.

“We are very careful in trying to put out a stamp beforehand,” Guererro says when asked what could be the city’s fashion signature. “I think it needs to grow organically and it really has to come from designers.

“What I keep seeing here is that we have a natural penchant for luxury.”

Over the years, a large chunk of the region’s retail spend, which is traditionally high and expected to reach $41.1 billion in 2015, has been going on luxury goods. The Middle Eastern consumers favour leather goods, watches, cars and overseas holidays, according to the last year’s report from Bain & Company.

Although the number of luxury consumers has more than tripled worldwide over the past 20 years, from roughly 90 million in 1995 to 330 million at the end of 2013, the report further stated that regional consumers led with the highest per capita spending on luxury goods in the world at about $1,900 per year.

“But I also want to use the word innovation,” Guerrero continues.

“I think because of technology quickly, sort of, creeping into our system, and how the city is being designed and being built, I think innovation will play a very strong role. Design is not autonomous on its own, it is a reflection of what is going on around.

“So luxury and innovation are what, I’m hoping, will be our pillars.”

Gathering the stakeholders of a still nascent and fragmented industry under one umbrella, the Dubai Design and Fashion Council (DDFC), a governmental body established by the Sheikh Mohammed’s 2013 decree, was conceived out of the need for a concerted effort to invigorate regional talent and make Dubai the emerging design capital in the world.

A home-grown talent that will become the next global brand is the main goal.

“We don’t want to become the capital of consumerism. We are great consumers, we’ve always been, but that’s not all. We want to be great exporters, producers,” explains Barber.

That’s not to say the emirate hasn’t benefited from importing fashion – 53.8 percent (174 out of 323) of the world’s major international fashion retailers have outlets in Dubai, a figure presented in a survey by CB Richard Ellis, a market research specialist.

The retail sector has been one of the key drivers of the city’s economic growth not only due to the habits of well-heeled residents, but also its success in turning tourists into buyers. The Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF), an annual month-long retail event has grown from a sales turnover of $20 million in 1983 to $1.92 billion in 2014.

With the building of the forthcoming 48 million sq ft Mall of the World, expect to be the most lavish shopping centre ever built, the city plans to keep up with the rising demand. Not that farther afield, last year’s opening of the Yas Mall on Yas Islands has already added value to Abu Dhabi’s retail supply.

“Dubai has, historically, always been a port, where things are imported,” Guerrero says.

“But as a city matures and emerges, the society has a tendency to look from within to see what the things they can do themselves are.

“I think that’s a natural progression that is happening right now. So naturally talent is going to abound and it’s only inevitable that brands will start coming out from here, from within.”

One designer already making waves is Furne One, a regional success story who counts the likes of Heidi Klum, Jennifer Lopez, and Nicki Minaj among his clients. He explains that he decided to set up Amato boutique in Dubai back in 2002 because the region’s affinity for luxury sparked his creativity.

“In the Philippines, we are very American; less is more, very functional,” he says. “But here it is more creative because the locals here want to be different, they want to explore. For me it was like ‘I love this place.’ Every day is a learning process.”

Despite his talent causing double-digit business growth rates, Furne One is quick to point out that becoming an internationally recognised designer has been due to putting in hard work and commitment. “You need to be consistent in this business,” he explains.

Barber says that she didn’t hesitate to reject many designers’ applications to The Cartel, adding that the current market conditions can be too friendly for designers which might not necessarily be in their best interest.

“The problem with some designers here is that they are doing it out of a hobby or a prestige, but with design you want commitment,” she says.

“As a buyer, what I want is commitment. If I expose this product to my consumer and they expect it next season, I have to be able to fulfil that request. It cannot be a simple, one-time thing.

“There is a lack of critique in this part of the world. That is what we [buyers] give because we both [designers and buyers] want to sell. That’s the reality, our common interest, whereas now designers can make it regardless of the buyers because they sell on their own, they’ve got the press backing them.

“So we have to be careful. If you want to cultivate a generation of designers, this is amazing, but that doesn’t mean that we should uphold any designer who just gets a fabric and sells a dress.

“The DDFC initiatives starting from fashion education all the way to having facilities to improve production will help establish serious designers and filter the scene for the ones who are committed to doing this as a career from the hobby lovers, dress makers.”

The DDFC initiated the Style.com/Arabia – DDFC Fashion Prize, launched in partnership with Farfetch, to provide a global platform for regional designers, but also establish the quality control and standards.

The inaugural winner will be announced later this year and will receive a financial grant, the opportunity to produce a capsule collection, a year of mentorship and an advertising campaign. For less successful candidates, a series of monthly educational events, DDFC Talks, started in December 2014 to facilitate a platform for knowledge sharing on business and design related topics.

The formal fashion education space is currently occupied by a three-year programme offered by ESMOD Dubai, a part of the ESMOD International Fashion Institutes and University group network present in 16 countries, and periodically held short courses of the University of the Arts London’s College of Fashion.

A strong educational system and internship opportunities are the necessary foundations for the city’s future fashion capital status, says Salma Awwad, a Dubai-based fashion designer and graduate of Parsons the New School for Design, which is ranked as the second fashion school in the world.

Awwad believes that the emirate’s fashion education system is in the need of improvement, including a focus on the local dynamics of the market.

Guerrero adds that a strong educational infrastructure could add more value to Dubai’s offering. “They [the DDFC] are looking at setting up an educational system that will foster talent growth, and I think Dubai will be a natural destination for education as well, servicing the entire region,” he says.

A top priority on the DDFC’s agenda is reportedly setting up the Dubai School of Design. Earlier this year, Nez Gebreel, the council’s chief executive, was also quoted as stating that a plan to develop a fashion incubator was also in the pipeline.

Another government project has already made a glamorous entry on that scene in an attempt to house the growing ecosystem for fashion designers.

The Dubai Design District (d3), the latest purpose-built business park developed by TECOM Investments, a business park operator owned by HH Sheikh Mohammed, will span a total area of 2 million square metres when completed, encompassing hotel and residential areas, retail and office space, as well as studios, museums, galleries, and more.

Having previously worked as a designer for Ralph Lauren and Armani Exchange in New York, Awwad decided to set up her Sawwad fashion label in Dubai, and doing it in d3 is still on her wish list.

“Setting up in d3 has a great deal of advantages, with the main one being part of the community and a budding collective effort to support home-grown talent,” she says.

“But for a brand new start-up, the numbers simply don’t add up, or should I say they add up quite quickly.

“For now, I chose to set-up in another emirate, but I’m hoping to move into d3 once Phase 2 is complete in 2018, which promises more affordable spaces for emerging local designers.”

Others, however, have already taken the plunge. A d3 representative confirmed to StartUp in a phone conversation that 220 companies to date have already either moved to the district or agreed to take part.

With support for local and regional fashion designers blossoming, the question arises whether it will be able to improve the current lack of demand from the buyers’ side.

Barber explains that as an independent concept store they take in new designers on a consignment basis, with average markups of between 2 and 2.2, during a testing period which lasts for a season or two.

Awwad agrees that the idea of consignment is a necessary approach to guarantee consistency and to monitor sell-out of a designer’s first or second collection, but beyond that identifies it as the biggest hurdle fashion start-ups face.

“Consignment dictates that the clothes will be displayed at the outlet, but without any commitment to the purchasing,” she says.

“When and if a garment is sold, then it would be retailed at 250 percent of the wholesale price, otherwise, the clothes return to the designer at the end of the season.

“In the rest of the world, consignment is used as a last resort. Here, it is considered as a rite of passage and standard practice.”

Another hurdle for young designers is establishing cooperation with department stores.

“That’s the feedback we get from designers,” Barber says.

”Sometimes they just want to hear feedback, sit down with the buyer. I’ve heard several cases when that wasn’t possible even.

“But lately department stores have learnt from the smaller fish. So the big sharks learn from the smaller fish that people actually want new designers, they want the unknown. The unknown has become the cool.

“They’ve started collaborating.”

David Dessureault, merchandise division manager at Saks Fifth Avenue, says that only few boutiques carry local designers and that they are the only department store that has the biggest range of local brands.

“There is no set formula how we deal with the brands, it all depends on each brands popularity and production capability of the brands,” he says.

Guerrero confirms that it’s difficult for young fashion designers to fight for shelf space in the city, but says: “There’s a trend to support regional talent, but it hasn’t reached mass proportions because their price points are not for mass proportions as yet, it’s still very niche.

“It’s up to the designers themselves because if you don’t want to be treated as a trend then make sure you are an affordable brand.”

Easier said than done, many would say. Awwad shares an insight on how the manufacturing process can be challenging for a young designer.

“If you want your product to be 100 percent UAE-made then be prepared to delve into exhaustive research of where you could buy your fabrics and who are the most reliable - not to mention consistent – vendors,” she says.

“A lot of compromises need to be made in order to match the market’s supply of resources and sometimes you’ll have no choice, but to outsource essential items for quality purposes.”

In Dessureault’s opinion local brands face challenges in three particular areas – production, quality and delivery timings. “Because they don’t find resources or manufactures in Dubai that can work on all aspect of fashion production, they end up outsourcing the production from other countries, like India for example,” he says.

“All these three elements effect the store offering and the business opportunity and development.

“Having manufactures in Dubai will boost the production and timing of the local brands, and also aligning on season delivery dates will set expectation in the market when will stock be ready.”

Although a burden for many fashion stars in the making, these issues are minor problems for Dubai: the rising star among global fashion capitals.

And with the sixth season of Fashion Forward taking place at the end of October, the solutions might be found quicker than expected because, as Guerrero says: “The fashion consumerism here is very high, so it’s here for the taking.”

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