The ancient Egyptians had a keen eye for fashion. Make-up was ubiquitous. Jewellery was magical (literally, they thought). And the Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn lines all featured numerous variations in the key of linen. Children, however, didn't much participate in Egypt's fashion scene. They wore just a girdle, maybe, and a long, single lock of hair.
Ancient Egypt is the inspiration for Wafi City in Dubai, a "luxurious leisure complex" with an upscale mall. Hieroglyphics adorn the walls, a giant flaming torch sits in a garden pool, and the Raffles hotel rises above the whole complex in the form of a giant pyramid. But Wafi does take a few liberties with its theme. This week Wafi hosted a "children's fashion extravaganza" in its main atrium, underneath one of the complex's lesser glass pyramids. The show was meant to showcase the summer lines of the mall's merchants - establishments with names like I Pinco Pallino and Oilily, many of them catering just to children.
A raised runway and 100 or so black and white velvet-covered chairs were laid out for two days of fashion shows. Most of the seats filled up on the first night. A statuesque Morrocan-Algerian emcee emerged, holding a microphone and wearing a low-cut v-neck cocktail dress. Then, in a husky English accent, she announced the line of La Coquette, a label designed "to suit the tastes of fashion-loving children."
With that, the music cued up, and a couple of violet-tinted spotlights began swivelling, tilting, and beaming up at the runway like extreme sufferers of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And then the children began sauntering down the catwalk. (Kittenwalk?) Only the twelve-year olds - the oldest of the kids - came close to perfecting the alluring-but-unreachable 40-yard stares of professional models. The three boys in the show gave casual, slightly petrified grins. But most of the little girls gave great big, irrepressible smiles, which delighted the audience more than anything else. Men and women standing 10 metres off from the seating area were flashing their own constant 100 kilowatt grins back.
Meanwhile, the clothes themselves showed a predictable ambivalence towards childish innocence - some of them seemed to feed off of it, others baldly contradicted it. One model, a petite little girl in cornrows who looked to be about 10, came out holding white flowers, wearing a tiara and an understated version of a white princess dress (what used to be called "grandma bait" in midcentury American fashion trade journals).
Later on, the same little model came out wearing an outfit from Dolce & Gabbana Junior. One winces to think what kind of bait it was. She wore a silver-coloured ribbed t-shirt, a silver-metallic belt with a bow-shaped clasp, metallic lipstick, and slim-cut beige jeans. A large cut-out "D" was stitched to the left back pocket of the jeans at a jaunty angle, and a big "G" was similarly stitched to the right back pocket: Dolce & Gabbana, inappropriately bringing up the rear.
Behind the runway, a long aisle of black privacy screens served as a makeshift backstage area. Just before one of the daytime shows, the models queued up among racks of clothing, all bundles of nervous energy. (Many of them, first time models, were recruited from a school drama class.) The little girl in cornrows, whose name was Sade, was among the most offhandedly confident. "I've been in fashion shows before," she said, standing with her weight on one hip. "When I was little, I did not have the experience. I didn't know what it was going to be like to be a model."
Isabella, the young model with the broadest runway smile, described how difficult it was to modulate one's face. "When I'm happy, I laugh," she explained. "And then everybody laughs back." The girls disagreed over what was the best part of being in a fashion show. Some said it was the hair and make-up styling. Some said it was being onstage. Others said it was the excitement of running back and changing clothes between cues. None of them said much about the clothes themselves.
A few mothers were hanging out backstage to help with getting the kids ready. They liked the clothes well enough, but didn't expect they'd be making any purchases from the runway line-up soon. "If there's a 70 per cent off sale, maybe," one said. The ancient Egyptians didn't have establishments like I Pinco Pallino, where girls' dresses run between Dh1600 and Dh2500 - sums that can really cut into your budget for pyramid-building.