DUBAI: A fashion movement is sitting on the Gulf’s horizon, the first phase of which will be set in concrete by January 2015.
The recently announced creative and commercial hub, Dubai Design District, will house the bulk of the Gulf’s fashion activity: studios and ateliers for both established and emerging designers, retail outlets, institutes and incubators, residential space, hotels, a convention center, and a waterfront promenade. The district will also cater to related fields such as art, and product and graphic design.
The leadership behind Dubai Design District, shortened to d3, hosted a lunch Thursday, using the five-day Fashion Forward convention to rally excitement among industry leaders. The district will sit at the heart of downtown, just three minutes away from Dubai Mall, which attracts around 65 million visitors annually, presenters at Thursday’s lunch said.
It’s the first project of its scale to try to bring together the region’s fragmented fashion industry, which lacks an epicenter for launching local talent onto the international scene.
Among Arab countries, Lebanon churns out the greatest number of designers per capita, whether they are fashion and accessories or graphic and product designers. The creation of d3 promises those Lebanese fashion designers who can afford the opportunities in Dubai a center for collaboration and advancement.
Both industry leaders and young designers seem more excited for the long-term change the district might have on the entire region. Even the presence of such a district 2,100 kilometers away from Beirut will likely help alleviate some of the biggest obstacles facing the fashion and accessory design industry in the whole region.
Those obstacles have been the running theme in the d3 discussion panels this week at Dubai’s Fashion Forward event. Many presenters – from demi-couture maker Dina Jsr to American designer Nanette Lepore – have circled back on three missing links in the regional fashion industry: a lack of buyers willing to sell local talent; the limited public interest in pret-a-porter by local labels; and the absence of a physical place that brings the entire industry together.
In one discussion titled “Buyers Where Art Thou?” Lebanese designer Dina Jsr talked about the troubles she faced finding boutiques that would stock her clothing. She explained how necessary it was to show up at the shops and beg for a minute of their time – something both time consuming and costly for a designer based in Beirut but producing and selling in France.
“The first contact was the hardest part, I traveled to the shops myself,” Jsr said. “They’re skeptical because they don’t know you.”
What’s worse, locally owned boutiques throughout the Middle East are just as – if not more – skeptical of their local designers. In Beirut, very few boutiques will stock Lebanese clothing designers, while accessories – such as shoes and leather goods – have more options.
For Jsr, the irony was that it took going to an established design center like Paris to find clients from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.
“We don’t need acceptance, internationally,” said Rozan Ahmad, a speaker at “Buyers Where Art Thou?” and founder of Bougi.com.
“The need for Western acceptance needs to be addressed.”
In addition to a lack of wholesale buyers, the region has a minimal appetite for upmarket, readymade clothing – especially casual wear – that is made by Arab designers.
Cream boutique in Jeddah – an offshoot of the Beirut branch in Saifi Village – has been trying to promote middle-range ready-to-wear, particularly by regional designers, said Dana Malhas, head buyer at Cream Jeddah.
“There, there was nothing middle-of-the-road,” she said, describing how the market was split between international high-street outlets like Zara and high-end designer brands. The reception of a shop selling upmarket, rising designers was likewise split between the emphatic and the unconvinced.
“Either they come to the store and they love it or they hate it – some people just want to follow the trend. But in Saudi the mentality is changing. They don’t want to wear big brands anymore,” Malhas said, adding that she prefers wearing new designers.
Industry leaders at Fashion Forward have been musing that a centralized design center may hold the answer to the issue of few buyers and raise interest in locally made design in the process.
Nanette Lepore, creator of the international fashion brand by the same name, said in her Fashion Forward talk that she skirted the issue of buyers by opening her own shop and manufacturing small quantities in New York’s then-thriving garment district. A district without which, Lepore said, her entry into fashion design might have been impossible.
Her message to a room full of aspiring designers made the prospect of a centralized design scene in Dubai all the more enticing:
“Band together to be stronger.”