So Eid al Fitr, meaning "festival of breaking of the fast", is upon us. It marks the end of the month of Ramadan, when friends and family come together for a three-day celebration. In the morning, everyone celebrates at home, but over the course of the next few days, a run of social visits and parties will call for some intricate planning in the wardrobe department. In fact, tradition dictates that Muslim men, women and children buy new clothes for the occasion. And in a deeply style-conscious country such as the UAE, the result is akin to the greatest fashion show on Earth.
Malls, fabric shops and tailors have been bedlam for the past few weeks as women shop for their all-important outfits - a new one for each day of the festival. Budget permitting, this can also include shoes, bags and jewellery. Such is the demand on tailors that they will rarely accept orders without more than a month's warning. For women, the jalabiya, a form of kaftan embellished with beads and crystals, is the customary dress code for the first day, but several more outfits are required for what will be a jam-packed schedule. Some, particularly older women with a more traditional sense of style, choose to have them made by a tailor. But with an increasingly fashion-forward generation snapping at their heels, and the proliferation of designer labels in the region, many are instead choosing to scour the shops in search of this season's must-have pieces.
"When I was younger," says the 21-year-old Alia Rasid al Shamsi, a freelance designer from Dubai, "my mother would get creative and get my outfit for Eid done by a tailor. But now I'm older and with so many options on the market, I resort to buying clothes." This year, she has chosen a royal blue chiffon gown from Riva. "It has very minimalistic, Matthew Williamson-esque crystals and pearls on the neckline and a satin ribbon tied around the waist," she says. "It's the traditional Emirati jalabiya that women wear, but I make sure there's a twist to it."
Though al Shamsi chooses not to go to a tailor, neither will she always stick to what is in the shops. "I am in the process of designing a few dresses," she says, "and would love to start wearing custom, self-made gowns." Standing out from the crowd is, it seems, worth untold amounts of money. "Girls spend a lot for Eid," says the 26-year-old Roudha al Aslai from Dubai, "because they meet their parents and family and everyone sees them. They want to look different, special and unique on that day."
Al Aslai has had three abayas made at her cousin's shop in Deira. "I shop regularly," she says, "but for the first day of Eid, which is the most special, I prefer to wear something I have designed myself." Similarly, her sister, Sara, 27, has had three abayas and two dresses made. "Nowadays," she says, "we are into the stylish jalabiya, so we wear it with a belt and accessories, and special earrings that suit the design."
Although she has bought a further outfit from Cavalli - a long red and silver silk dress - she chose to have the others tailored to avoid the horror of duplication. "If I bought them all, I am 100 per cent sure that someone else would have the same thing," she says. With seven sisters, she is probably right not to risk it. "Once I bought a piece from a shop in Mercato Mall," she says, "and I was so happy wearing it, and then my cousin came and said: "Are we wearing the same thing?" It happens a lot, so to avoid it I go to the tailor."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Eid is the most profitable time of year for tailors. Art Fashion, a shop in Abu Dhabi with 70 tailors, makes around 600 jalabiyas in the lead-up to Eid. Prices start at around Dh400 and go up to Dh700, says the head tailor Mahmoud Mughal, who is painstakingly attaching hundreds of tiny crystals to a piece of delicate aubergine chiffon ("it's for one of the Sheikhas"). "We have a very good reputation here," he says. "People come to us from all over the UAE." The kinds of designs younger people are looking for these days are indeed changing, he says. "Older ladies tend to choose the khaleeji thobe, which is very loose and more traditional," he says, "while younger ladies want something shinier and more fitted." Bright colours, though, are a constant, in keeping with the celebratory mood of the holiday. Lined up behind his cutting desk in rows 10-thick are jalabiyas in a rainbow of sparkling, swirling hues. Customers choose the fabric from a shop before bringing it to him for tailoring. "We have some samples," he says, "and the customer chooses the cut."
At Adam & Eve tailors in Khalidiya, Abu Dhabi, customers are encouraged to look through magazines and catalogues (Ahlan, Emirates Woman and Harper's Bazaar are scattered on the counter) to find inspiration for their outfits. However, the fear of someone else ending up with something similar means that Mr Mohidin, the resident designer and cutter, always has to add a twist. "They all want to be different, you see," he says. Like Art Fashion, Adam & Eve's profits more than double during Ramadan, says Mohamed Latif, the shop's financial manager.
The quest for individuality will ensure a steady trade for the cities' tailors, but with young women in the region becoming increasingly fashion-savvy, a little customisation to a shop-bought outfit is all it takes to achieve the same effect, says Zayan Ghandour, the co-owner, creative director and head buyer at S*uce. "People like having something exclusive," she says, "but women here now customise their clothes so well, like throwing a denim jacket or a crocheted cape over a dress so that it looks different."
The boutique, which has three stores in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, recently held a Ramadan shopathon catering specifically to women shopping for Eid, with labels such as Ora by Rimalya, Essa and Mimi Fashions, who make jersey kaftans, allowing women to wear the traditional jalabiya in a modern way. "It's not the case any more that people have to wear jalabiyas," says Ghandour. "Over the past four seasons, the maxi dress has been very popular and the locals have really embraced this trend. We do cater for ladies who are looking for Eid dresses, but at the same time, we have shorter kaftan tops which younger girls could wear with leggings."
While Ghandour doesn't see the growing variety of shops as a threat to the traditional tailoring shops, younger women are, she says, increasingly looking to the boutiques for outfits. "Older women will continue to use tailors," she says, "but with the boom in designer stores and contemporary fashion here, they're so fashion conscious, and the current trend for long dresses has allowed them to experiment more. You can find anything in Dubai now, and with the prices comparable to tailors, and the effort you have to put into getting something made, shopping is an easy solution. And it's definitely more fun - the shopping experience with friends and family. It's not so much of a chore as it used to be."
That western designers' styles lend themselves increasingly well to local tastes has also helped, says Nameera Khan, a personal stylist at Boutique 1 in Dubai. "Here, we do very well with designers like Collette Dinnigan, Oscar de la Renta and Temperley," she says, "who have pieces that work like a jalabiya." Younger girls in their 20s tend to go to labels like Zac Posen, she adds, "because it's got an edge to it". The shop even offers a service that designs and dyes shawls and cover-ups to match their more revealing dresses, allowing women to access ever more experimental styles. "I believe clients' taste for what they want for Eid has moved away from going to the tailor and having things made," she says. "The culture of gowns has changed - they're not all voluminous, but more composed, detailed and cut on the bias."
Though Eid is a time for showing oneself to one's best advantage, making too bold a fashion statement may not always be wise, says al Shamsi. "We visit elderly family on the first day," she says. "Last time I wore leggings and my grandmother was appalled. Now I stick to more formal wear on the first day, and leave the second day of Eid and parties with friends for making fashion statements." There is, however, plenty of healthy competition when it comes to comparing outfits. "I love shopping all year round," says Sara al Aslai, "but I focus more during Eid because I know people will be looking at me and thinking: 'What is she wearing?'."
Men are not exempt from scrutiny, and must wear a new khandoura, ghutra and agal, as well as new shoes. They must also be shaved, and some may choose to buy a new watch, pen and cufflinks. "They look different during Eid," says al Aslai. "They look clean. Now we joke when we see a guy wearing nice clothes - 'is it Eid or what?'" While young people may be moving more towards shop-bought styles, the flexibility provided by a tailor means having outfits custom made will never lose its appeal, says Afra al Abdulla, a designer who owns Gathercole Atelier in Deira (where Sara and Roudha al Aslai had their outfits made). "People still get things tailored because you can get whatever you want," she says. "It's a higher quality of fabric and you can choose your own."
Tasneem al Yousefi, a 30-year-old architect from Al Ain, has had an outfit made (in pink and gold silk and chiffon) at a tailor in Al Ain because she has recently had a baby, "so it's difficult to find something in the right size", she says. "Also, the amount of work involved, the tones and the fabric - they don't really sell those sorts of things ready-made." Either way, business for both the shops and tailors is booming. And with Eid al Adha only a couple of months away, the whole business is about to start again, with yet more outfits, handbags, shoes and cufflinks required for what is an even longer holiday. As if we needed another excuse to go shopping.