DUBAI: Men’s clothing took center stage in Dubai over the weekend, as designers showed everything from colorful Bermuda shorts to sober tweed suits and offered a break from the fancy evening gowns that have characterized fashion design in the Middle East for over half a century.
Women’s clothing, mostly high-end ready-to-wear, still made up the majority of the runway shows presented at the third season of Fashion Forward, the region’s pinnacle event for young designers seeking exposure. But in between draped cocktail dresses, crop tops and pleated skirts, several young designer labels showed off what appears to be a growing interest in menswear.
Jo Baaklini, one of two new designers to join Beirut-based design incubator The Starch Foundation, showed off a fruit basket of mens clothing: clean-cut cotton shorts, T-shirts and lightweight jackets patterned with hand-drawn lemons, watermelons and bananas.
Baaklini, a graduate of Central Saint Martins in London, debuted his cheeky illustrations in Beirut during 2013’s Beirut Design Week, back when his prints were only fabric samples. His style – something like Cape Cod prep infused with children’s book watercolors – was recognizable from the first melon-speckled button up.
Baaklini will start selling his pieces from the Starch boutique in Saifi Village in a few weeks as well as the handful of women’s looks he threw in: a few dresses and pairs of shorts. “It’s unisex. Like the T-shirts, for example, they’re not just for men.”
Baaklini told The Daily Star that starting with menswear felt natural to him, though he knows its a difficult market in the Middle East. “The Middle Eastern market is very couture-oriented. But I know I like it, and I know my friends like it.”
Luxury dresses have driven the region’s industry since before the world sat up and took notice of Middle Eastern designers such as Elie Saab, with his dazzling red carpet gowns, or Reem Acra, whose elegant wedding dresses were her claim to fame. But young designers seem to be if not foregoing womenswear outright, at least featuring more menswear where they can.
Lebanese designer Bashar Assaf held his first show Saturday centered on the theme of climax. A symbolic triangle motif, inverted and upright, was built into plunging backlines, geometric prints and hoodlike details.
His brand is new and still without an atelier of its own, but that didn’t stop Assaf from slipping a menswear teaser into his women’s fall 2014 collection. Just a handful of looks – burgundy trousers, graphic shirts and an overcoat – offered a taste of Assaf’s coming line of men’s clothing.
“This is something I’ve always been passionate about. Even when I was in uni’ I used to do projects focused on menswear,” Assaf said. “As a person who likes to go shopping, I always wondered why we don’t have any menswear designers. I think it’s the time. I think men nowadays are just as interested as women in fashion.
Of all the designers at Fashion Forward, The Emperor 1688 is the most established brand in men’s clothing and has had enormous success selling at major retailers such Saks Fifth Avenue in Dubai.
Returning to Fashion Forward this season, The Emperor 1688 held a show of tailored formal menswear. Suits, overcoats and capes were made out of hunting tweed and inspired by the designers’ imagined royal holiday in Scotland. Foxtails were thrown over shoulders and fur lined the collars of several jackets.
The Emperor 1688 is a design team made up of three London-educated brothers from Iran based in Dubai. The Golkar brothers, as they’re known, offered one of the most talked-about shows in October and impressed press and fans again this weekend with their show sponsored by Saks Fifth Avenue.
Menswear is a challenging market in general, not only in the Middle East, the eldest brother, Babak Golkar, said after the show Friday. “Menswear in any city, anywhere is a hard market to crack, let alone in the Middle East.”
“It was tough, but what we’ve come to prove is that generally keeping faithful to quality and keeping faithful to what you’re giving to the customer and people will really come forward,” Golkar said.
Their success has shown that its not just designers interested in making men’s clothing, but that the market also seems to be ready to receive them. “We sell at Saks Fifth Avenue. ... We sell alongside Dior and Alexander McQueen, and we’re moving just as much as they are. So it really just goes to show that there is legitimate business here.”