BEIRUT: Lebanese fashion houses will host one-third of the shows at Dubai’s Fashion Forward in April, giving Lebanon the largest presence of any nation during the four days of runway events. In its push to be an international fashion destination, Dubai has started offering regional designers a wealth of resources they can’t find at home, such as clients, exposure and security. In only three seasons, Dubai’s Fashion Forward has become the most important event for regional fashion designers to reach the media and buyers, as the emirate attempts to lure designers to relocate. Lebanese designers insist that Beirut’s wealth of talent is safe, however.
“The Gulf area, especially Dubai, is the best place for fashion designers. It has everything that designers and artists want, and they’re improving. ... But honestly, I love Beirut,” said Lebanese designer Rami Kadi, one of the designers returning to Fashion Forward.
Kadi participated in Fashion Forward’s inaugural season in the spring of 2013. The event gave his work international exposure, with his public relations team tapping into media outlets and bloggers from around the world. Despite the boost he got in Dubai, where his work sells well, Kadi won’t consider moving, he said.
“I’m considering opening another branch. But my production will always stay in Beirut. After all, I’m a Lebanese designer,” he said.
The Gulf has always provided an important market for Lebanese couture. Notable designer Elie Saab started his ascent to international fame by finding a lucrative market there. And Basil Soda, a couture designer, may get great press from Hollywood celebrities, but he still relies on the regional market for most of his sales.
For Jean Louis Sabaji, a new designer at Fashion Forward season three, the Gulf is an essential market for his conceptual couture dresses, which feature quirky 3-D embellishments and futuristic structures.
“Gulf women love couture. They are very elegant and they appreciate edgy designs and they enjoy dressing up for their occasions,” he told The Daily Star. “I believe that Fashion Forward ... is the right exposure for up and coming Middle Eastern designers at the moment. That is the main reason I joined.”
Major world fashion houses are also giving Dubai’s design scene a boost. Chanel recently announced that Karl Lagerfeld will show the house’s cruise 2014-15 collection in Dubai in May. The fashion house described Dubai as a futuristic megalopolis and “a crossroads of civilizations between Europe and Asia” – a description once claimed by Beirut.
Some Lebanese have chosen to start their businesses in Dubai, drawn by its security and large expat community. Take Zayan Ghandour, for example. A regular at Fashion Forward, she will be presenting another season from Zayan the Label, which is based in Dubai. She refers to herself as a “Dubai-based Lebanese designer.” Or consider Aiisha Ramadan, another Lebanese designer with operations entirely in the UAE.
For all Dubai’s resources, however, Sabaji wouldn’t uproot his atelier from Lebanon: “It’s a bit hard for me to move my whole staff permanently there.”
Dubai has also begun to offer a market for more than brand names and ultra-expensive gowns. Platforms such as Fashion Forward are introducing shoppers to local ready-to-wear designers who have noticed a growing culture in the Gulf for discovering up-and-coming talent, said Anglo-Lebanese designer Ronald Abdala.
“I think the culture is changing. The younger generation are not as brand-conscious,” Abdala said.
Abdala has aimed his conceptual ready-to-wear designs at a European market, with a show in Paris in February and some success on American red carpets this year. But a growing taste for luxury ready-to-wear in Dubai moved Abdala to push into the market there. The first step will be showing at Fashion Forward season three.
“Even though I don’t really cater to the tastes in the Middle East, it’s the biggest, most accessible market,” he said.
Bashar Assaf is another designer in a growing cohort of Lebanese focused on ready-to-wear. One hundred percent of Assaf’s sales are made in Dubai’s Gallerie Lafayette, and he will be hosting his first solo runway show at Fashion Forward.
Dismal security and a stale economy back home in Lebanon make a permanent move of Assaf’s operations to Dubai pragmatic. Besides, the young designer has yet to staff a permanent atelier in Lebanon. But like his peers, he is not leaving Lebanon any time soon.
“I was considering taking [production] to Dubai,” Assaf said. “There’s a lot of government support for designers.
“But they don’t have what they have in Lebanon: a lot of tailors or pattern-makers”
The presence of these craftsmen is the thing he credits with keeping most of Lebanon’s designers grounded at home. Even Elie Saab’s fashion house makes its couture in a Beirut atelier. It is also the country’s wealth of celebrity designers like Saab that have boosted the renown of Lebanese names.
“For now, I’m keeping my production in Lebanon,” Assaf said, adding that it feels good to represent his own country. “You get happier when you’re doing something in the place you’re from, and being a Lebanese designer is like a brand of its own.”