Bargain-seeking Russian tourists support a fur district in Dubai. Maya Khourchid checks out the thick skins. On a recent sweltering afternoon, most of Dubai was experiencing that pre-sunset slump in energy that hits the city every day during Ramadan. Dolce Moda, a fur coat store on the second floor of Deira Tower, seemed cheerfully exempt. The sound system pumped out catchy pop tunes, and a group of four middle-aged women with the demeanour of teenage girls excitedly tried on one thick mink coat after another. Eagerly searching for the perfect fit and fashion, they quickly cast off rejected coats keeping their four blonde sales assistants rushing to bring them new candidates: long, short, black, white, brown, with sequins, without.
"It's not that strange," said Dimitris Psimas, the store's 28-year-old owner, observing the scene. "This is one of the reasons they come here. They come for holiday and they pick up a fur coat." Dubai has long been a popular destination for Russian tourists, partially because of its warm weather, but also for more practical reasons. "Russians come here because it's very easy," explains Stelios Tsiolakis, the owner of President Furs, in the nearby Rivera Hotel. It's less hassle, visa-wise, than going to Europe. Flights are shorter and cheaper, and during the summer, hotel deals abound.
Then there's the shopping. Russians used to come mainly for gold and electronics, which are still cheaper in the UAE than in the former USSR. Now they also come for fur; thanks to relaxed tax rules, fur coats are about five per cent cheaper in the UAE than they are in Russia. Given that the average mink coat costs upwards of $2,000 (Dh7,345), this often translates into hundreds of dollars of savings.
Before the recent development boom, the Deira district was the centre of Dubai. When fur coat retailers arrived, they clustered around al Nasser square. Ten years ago, there were 18 fur coat stores there, give or take. Today, there are around 140. Concurrently, the area has acquired a bit of a Slavic accent. Local landmarks include the Moscow Hotel, Red Square Cafe and Bolshoi Restaurant. Signs guiding buyers to fur stores are printed in Cyrillic, as are most of the store managers' business cards. Almost all of the sales assistants are Russian. According to one sales assistant, you cannot be considered for the job unless you are fluent in the language.
The stores' managers, however, are mostly Greek, and mostly from the northern city of Kastoria, which has relied on the fur trade for centuries. Most of the coats sold in al Nasser square are made of fur imported from Scandinavian countries and finished into coats in Kastoria. Psimas is from Kastoria, where his father manages a fur-finishing factory, and another three Kastorians run shops on the same floor of Deira Tower as Dolce Moda. There are six or seven more a few buildings down the road, including Tsiolakis - Psimas estimates that only five per cent of Dubai's fur stores are owned by non-Kastorians.
"Right now, this is the only market for fur coats," says Psimas, who moved here four years ago after studying business management in England. "Europe is dead, America is dead. The Russian market is the only one existing right now." According to Psimas, Russians buy 300 coats per month at Dolce Moda alone, but concedes that this is an average: sales are seasonal, correlated not with the consistently fur-unfriendly Dubai weather, but rather with Russian holidays.
"Right now, because the Russians have some kind of holiday, it's the best month. And also the first days of January, because it's their Easter. They come in and buy one for themselves, one for their grandmothers, one for their daughter." Though significantly cheaper than they would be at home, Deira's furs are hardly cheap for most of the district's Russian customers. Much has been written about the extravagances of the embryonic Russian upper class, but the women trying on coats at al Nasser square are more likely to be members of the middle class looking for the pivotal Russian status symbol at a bargain basement price.
"A lot of people have saved up their whole lives for this coat," Psimas tells me. "It happens a lot that a coat is $2,000 and all they have is $1,800, and they cry and scream, 'I've saved up my whole life for this coat and you can't lower it?' "Russians, they love fur."