DUBAI: By the 17th runway show at Dubai’s version of a fashion week, fatigued showgoers at Taller Marmo had begun to look a little like well-dressed zombies.
The audience, gathered at 4 p.m. on the last day of Fashion Forward, was silently pleading to be wowed – and a billowing, metallic abaya in crinkling aluminum silver did just the trick.
It offered the combination of contrasts that all good designers want in their creations, a single garment that took on an additional layer of meaning.
It was completely traditional and untraditional at the same time. It was provocative but perfectly conservative. And on top of all of that, it was also wearable – by edgy tastemakers, Hollywood stars and Gulf sheikhas alike.
Just as important as the dress is its origins: the atelier of non-Arab, non-Muslim European men. Taller Marmo is a design team comprising Italian Riccardo Audisio and Argentine Yago Goicoechea, both of whom studied fashion design in Milan.
Their spring-summer collection embodied the kind of cross-cultural diffusion that Dubai’s budding fashion scene is perfectly positioned to offer, and which is compelling European designers to create fashion inspired by conservative Arab dress and conservative Arab designers to create clothes for European tastes.
At the intersection of those two trends were some of Fashion Forward’s most memorable pieces.
Four of Fashion Forward’s 21 designers were not of Middle Eastern descent and moved their careers to the Gulf partly due to money reasons and partly due to regional interest in luxury clothing. Lebanese designers have long looked to the Gulf Cooperation Council to launch their careers or at least find the market to sustain their brand back home.
And the draw of incorporating abayas into collections is as much a creative one as a financial one. Cyrille Fabre, a Dubai-based research consultant for Bain & Company Middle East, estimated the world’s conservative luxury market – comprised of things like designer abayas – was worth 70 billion euros.
“This market is dedicated to conservative shoppers in Turkey, Paris, London and Dubai,” Fabre said at an industry lunch last week.
But after three days saturated with repetitive elements – A-frames, asymmetrical hemlines, and nipples peeking through appliqued mesh – Taller Marmo’s abayas were new and inspiring.
They were the kind of break from trend monotony that editors and trend setters look for, and that begged the question: Does the luxury abaya have a place in high fashion outside of its conservative market?
In part, that question was answered 60 years ago, when wealthy bohemians from Europe and the U.S. began traveling to North Africa and bringing home Moroccan caftans. But the caftan was largely loved for its hang-loose, androgynous appeal rather than its modest ideals.
Speaking to a conservative audience, Taller Marmo’s abayas and those of their fellow designers in Dubai are not the transparent, shortened or plunging-necklined frocks that can be seen on the beaches of St. Tropez – they are honest reflections of conservative dress that also happen to be intriguingly stylish.
It’s not just outsiders who tap into the market. The wealth that has pulled designers from Europe and Eastern Asia to Dubai is also creating a rising number of designers from the GCC itself. This is a very recent development – since long before the financial rise of Gulf cities like Dubai, Lebanon has been the Arab world’s fashion powerhouse.
Bahrain’s Noon by Noor was one of the first GCC fashion brands to start showing on the international runways. Noon by Noor is run by co-founders and Bahraini sheikhas Haya Mohammad al-Khalifa and Noor Rashid al-Khalifa, who showed for the first time in New York City in September 2012.
Fashion Forward also presented budding GCC designers: Reem al-Kanhal, a Saudi native, who made a humble appearance at the end of her show dressed in a traditional black abaya; Endemage, run by a pair of Omani sisters; Hema Kaul, the heiress to one of Dubai’s major business families; half-Kuwaiti, half-Indian Tahir Sultan; and Saudi designer Aziz Humaid.
One of the most-anticipated and well-attended shows was that of Sheikha Madiyah al-Sharqi – the daughter of Fujairah’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammad al-Sharqi.
Just as Europeans and Philipino designers have come to the Gulf to tailor collections for its conservative market, so too had local Arab designers created shifts, short skirts and plunging cuts aimed at Western women – and of course, themselves.
Taller Marmo’s co-designer Riccardo Audisio explained to The Daily Star that their target market was obviously conservative luxury, but that they hoped they were not limited in their appeal.