Is fashion in the UAE missing a trick? Whether it's the world-class malls or the frequent catwalk events, there is no doubt that the country offers plenty to attract the Middle East's style cognoscenti. But while Dubai has an outlet for almost any brand you can think of (from everywhere but here), some of the best designers in the world, including Antonio Marras at Kenzo and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, are busy mining Arab cultures for shapes and motifs, from harem pants to geometric patterns.
It seems that as we scramble to buy European and American brands, the rest of the fashion industry wants a true, modern Arabian style. It has until recently been hard to find. "The distinctive features would have to be our culture, tradition, Islamic designs and minimalistic ways of generating comfort, such as through our traditional dress: the thobe, the khandoura, shayla and abaya," says the patron of this week's new Abu Dhabi trade show, Fashion Expo Arabia, Sheikha Shamma bint Zayed, the wife of Sheikh Suroor bin Mohammed, the chamberlain of the Presidential Court.
Sheikha Amal Mana Rashid, one half of the creative team behind the Sharjah-based Kanzi label, which was launched last year, agrees. "Jelabiyahs are a modern costume," she says. "It has our culture and style but put in a modern way, where anyone throughout the world can wear it. And the abaya recently has been making a very strong statement internationally, where now lots of international designers are seeking to design abayas for this region."
With Fashion Expo Arabia running from tomorrow until Wednesday and Dubai Fashion Week from yesterday until Thursday, it is hoped that, for the second time this month, international fashionistas will come rolling into town. Taking place at ADNEC in Abu Dhabi with more than 500 exhibitors from Europe and the Middle East, Fashion Expo Arabia (and the concurrent Shoe & Leather Fair) is a trade show, aimed at manufacturers and buyers and designed to help turn the capital into a regional centre for the fashion industry. And what will those international visitors be looking for? Arab fashion talent, if the visiting trend forecasters at Worth Global Style Network are to be believed.
Gemma Hare, a senior events editor at WGSN, says that although the company has visited the UAE many times and has a sales base here, it has been hard to pin down the heart of the industry. "Currently I think there is a big question mark over Abu Dhabi because Dubai has showcased Arabian fashion so far for the rest of the world. That's what's so exciting for Fashion Arabia Expo: we're going to see the Middle Eastern brands. In Dubai, we feel like we haven't really seen what Middle Eastern fashion brands have to offer - it tends to have a much more international flavour. I'm hoping that we'll see a modern take on the ethnicity; I'm hoping to see some fashion that could easily translate into other markets."
Sheikha Shamma is well aware of the benefits for Abu Dhabi should the fashion industry take off here - and not just in terms of being a well-dressed city. "It is important for Abu Dhabi to support the fashion industry as diversity will increase employment, trade and tourism and will ultimately boost its economy," she says. "Abu Dhabi is a city with an immense array of talent that is yet to be discovered. Fashion Expo Arabia will help with this by putting Abu Dhabi on the map as an aspiring international fashion destination, which offers a new perspective on what is fashion in the Emirates."
There are certainly plenty of excellent designers based in the UAE (the Lebanese Sohad Acouri and the Syrian Rami al Ali are both exhibiting at the Expo and have already built a following of local devotees) and no doubt global markets will be thrilled by their extravagant creations. Yet it seems that international style seekers are drawn to more obvious signifiers of "Arabness", and the nascent trend for adapting Gulf dress to modern fashion may be just the thing to catch their attention.
The designer Rabia Z, for example - whose conservative fashions have won her several awards, including the British Council's International Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2008 - will be one of the designers on the WGSN team's list of must-sees, together with established abaya makers such as the DAS collection and funkier designers such as Buffi Jashanmal, whose Quiet Riot collection was shown off-schedule in New York this season.
While the trend forecasters will provide daily seminars at the event and put their favourite pieces from the exhibitors on a daily catwalk show, those with a concern for the region's development as a fashion centre may be most interested to know that WGSN is not here on a sales trip: it is gathering information. The company uses 200 international experts to predict trends in fashion, interiors, colour and other areas up to three seasons ahead, and they are uncannily accurate.
"Two years ago we said it was harem pants and now it's harem pants," says Sally O'Rourke, WGSN's managing director. "The same with power shoulders. I'm always overwhelmed by the fact that I can walk down the corridors and see a mood board and I know that in two years' time it will be on the catwalk, and I find that completely inspiring." The subscription-only website (its 36,000 members hail from every corner of the fashion industry) features moodboards, downloadable computer-aided-design tools, daily reports on visual merchandising and in-depth guides to fashion cities across the planet. Local brands featured on the site will receive attention from some of the biggest fashion players in the world. It will also provide a door to the Middle East for international clothing businesses interested in exploring the area. As yet, there is no UAE report, but this may change if they like what they see.
"Hopefully I'd like to do a trend analysis and file news stories, but we're going to wait and see what the findings are from the show," says Hare. Similarly, O'Rourke is holding off on promises until she can assess how seriously the country takes its fashion industry: "It will partly depend on what happens this week, and it is also partly to do with the patronage in terms of the show and whether it is something the country wants to do, moving forward with WGSN. In order for us to be able to do a really detailed report, the more ingrained we are into that region, obviously, the easier it is for us."
One indication of just how seriously Abu Dhabi is taking this show is the fact that it has support not only from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and Sheikha Shamma, but also that Adach is funding the show's emerging talent competition. Young Emirati designers will compete to win the Dh10,000 prize and, more importantly, enjoy the industry attention that will come with it. "I believe that supporting young Emirati designers will help to bring forth their flair in fashion and allow them to thrive, which in turn will bring Abu Dhabi up to international standards in the fashion industry," says Sheikha Shamma. "Emirati designers have a lot to offer and I hope that Fashion Expo Arabia will be a platform for them to showcase that talent."
It is, perhaps, in the untainted enthusiasm of the country's youth that those in search of a coherent Arabian style will find some green shoots. After all, Rabia Z's big break came from a young talent contest, and most of the major fashion weeks around the world have schemes for encouraging the next generation and incubating their businesses. The designers taking part range from year 12 students and graduates from the fashion class at Sheikh Zayed Private Academy to fashion students at Preston University Ajman and recently launched businesses that are looking for a boost in the early stages of their careers.
The changing focus of UAE fashion year by year is most evident in the schoolgirls, still young enough to be uninfluenced by commerce. "The graduates had a very different approach to the year 12 students," says Mary Graham, who teaches the class. "Last year they very much drew on the traditional attire of the UAE and the Arab world, taking items that were used for something else and making a new use for them - for example, taking the ghutra and turning it into women's attire. But the girls that are now in grade 12 wanted to go with the theme of Fast & Furious, that whole car and street theme. They're definitely more modern. There are going to be more street looks with leather, lace and stuff."
Perhaps a more real-world view on design students comes from Saqib Sohail, the head of the fashion department at Preston University Ajman. Some of his students and graduates have to combine less glamorous jobs and duties as wives and mothers with their studies, so the possibility of some help into their chosen careers is appealing. "It's very hard for people who are working and being housewives to go out there and do something independently, to invest that much money on something," says Sohail. "But this gives them a good opportunity to know how good they are."
After teaching the class for five years, Sohail also has some insight into the characteristics of design here: "What I have seen over the years is that designers have a keen sense of colour; they are more interested in the darker shades of colours that are adopted from the environment, green and beige. Then, with the environment they've been living in, they are attracted to gold and metallic colours. One of the designers is fusing the traditional Arab cuts and colours with Indian and subcontinental fabrics. They are very big on embroideries and crystals."
For designers who already have a fully fledged business, the contest has a different purpose - one that chimes more with, say, London's NewGen contest (previous winners have included House of Holland, Louise Goldin and Nicholas Kirkwood): to develop international business from the exposure of winning. Sheikha Amal and her partner, Raghda Taryam, the creative team behind Kanzi, are both from solid business backgrounds and appreciate just how much this sort of event can help both their brand and the country's international standing. They have taken advantage of help on offer from the Sharjah Government's Ruwad Establishment scheme for fostering young businesses, and have a design team and a thriving local business designing abayas, jelabiyahs, evening gowns and wedding dresses to show for it, but they are already looking beyond the Emirates.
"This is one of the reasons we're participating in DFW and Fashion Expo Arabia: to build relationships with buyers," says Raghda Taryam. "We would like to be stocked not only in top boutiques in the Emirates but the GCC and internationally. It's all about building a brand. It's all about expanding our customer base, so we're not only looking for a local market, we're looking for an international market."
With increasingly outward-looking attitudes like this - not to mention more fashion courses than ever in the UAE and international Arabian fashion role models from Qasimi to Elie Saab - the Emirates' clothing industry has the opportunity to make a virtue of its youth, to cast off the baggage of Europe and America's weighty heritage and come up with something genuinely new. If the talent does indeed emerge, it will be an exciting few years in Arabian fashion.
The Emirati fashion label Kanzi has five pairs of tickets to its Dubai Fashion Week spring/summer 2010 show tomorrow, for the first 10 readers to email email@example.com with their name and phone number.