So, the weather has turned. The temperature is lovely and the glorious UAE winter stretches ahead of us. For those of us with children, now is the time to rediscover parks, long afternoons by the pool and pottering on the beach. Of course, to do this, we need appropriate clothing. My three children are growing at a rate of knots and their summer wardrobe is looking a bit, well, tight. With this in mind I headed off to Marina Mall to replenish their T-shirts, sundresses and, of course, swimming costumes. It should be of no great surprise to me, seasoned Abu Dhabi expatriate that I am, that the shops are by now stuffed to the rafters with woolly jumpers, cord trousers, puffa jackets and fur-trimmed boots. My mission to find summer clothes really did seem an impossible one and, as for swimming costumes, forget it.
Marina Mall offers a range of shops to suit most price ranges, so I started at the least expensive and worked my way up. I needed a T-shirt, a skirt and a sundress for Jessie, my eldest who is nearly seven years old; T-shirts and shorts for Danny, who is four; and T-shirts and a dress for Lizzie, nearly two. Oh, and, swimmers for all of them. Adams did not look promising. From the doorway I could see a marvellous array of fur-trimmed parkas, including a fabulous bright pink one for Dh165. The Barbie sunglasses did seem a bit incongruous next to the woollen scarves, but perfect I suppose for some après-ski. They did have T-shirts and shorts for Danny and Lizzie, not a great selection, but good value. No swimmers, unfortunately. As I left, I caught sight of a fabulous faux leather bomber jacket for boys (Dh165). Surely worth turning the air conditioning up high for that one.
On to Pumpkin Patch. I had high hopes that a New Zealand company would be more flexible in what sort of clothes they sell at this time of the year, it being the start of their summer now. Unfortunately, however, there was still not a great selection and what there was was hidden in with all the winter wear. There were three knee-length styles of shorts for Danny and a few short-sleeve dresses for my two-year-old, but only a couple of styles of T-shirts for each of them. I really had to root around to find the more summery clothes. In line with a lot of the mid-range stores, Pumpkin Patch bring in their autumn/winter range in August and the spring/summer range will reappear in January.
I was curious to see what an antipodean clothes company did in their home market, and logged on to the Pumpkin Patch Australia website. There were pages and pages of children wearing summer clothes. If they can do a summer wear line at this time of year in Australasia, why not here? According to Jane Gammon, the international business manager who heads up the Middle East team from New Zealand, the company is aware of the need for summer clothing all year round in the UAE. As Gammon explains, "This year we developed a complete transition range which featured seasonally appropriate styles (short-sleeve dresses, tiered skirts, short-sleeve fashion tees) in a new fresh early autumn colour palette. This worked extremely well and the concept will be repeated for next year." According to Gammon, Pumpkin Patch's UAE partner "is very careful to only select a few jumpers and coats which they then feed into the stores much later in the season". Together they select styles from the main Pumpkin Patch range and rework them into short-sleeve versions. I had clearly just visited the shop a little too late, or maybe they just need to work on their display. Still no swimwear, though.
It is not just buying clothes for everyday wear that is an issue, it is replacing things lost or worn out. As Abi Hill, who has three boys age six, four and two, points out, "If you lose a sun hat at this time of year, it's really hard to replace it." She has also experienced the challenge of trying to find swimwear. "Bathers are a real problem. They don't last a whole year with all the wear the boys get out of them, so I will have to find some more somewhere."
When I visited, Mothercare had only the remnants of their summer sale all back on at full price. Only a couple of T-shirts for Danny and a handful of reasonably priced cotton tops for the girls. But, oh joy, they did have swimmers for babies and some very sensible wet suits for six- to 12-month-olds to take you through swimming to Christmas. I upped the ante and headed in to Burberry. Ramzi Hamaoui, the manager, explained that they bring in their autumn/winter collection in June to satisfy demand for warmer clothes: "Our customers are mainly locals and they need clothes to take with them on their summer holidays." Hamaoui explained that the Abu Dhabi market for Burberry was very different, even to the Dubai one. "In Abu Dhabi, 90 per cent of our customers are local. In Dubai, 97 per cent are tourists, so we have to alter what we sell and when, to work to that." I complimented Burberry on their flexibility to cater to different markets across the world and even in the country, while my hands brushed lovingly over a Burberry print sun dress in Lizzie's size (a mere Dh845). Time to move on.
For new arrivals in the UAE, the dearth of summer clothes can be quite a shock. "I was stunned to see all the winter clothes in the shops," said Sophie Hooton, who arrived here in October with her husband and one-year-old son, William. "Before we knew we were moving here, I had bought William his winter wardrobe ready for the UK. By the time we had it confirmed we were coming, the shops in the UK had already switched from summer to autumn clothes. I didn't worry at the time as I thought I would be able to buy him the next size up in summer clothes in Abu Dhabi. He's now growing out of his summer clothes and I can't find him any new ones." Sophie sympathises that if you are used to summers where the temperature tops 50 degrees, a temperature of around 17 degrees will feel chilly. "I can already feel I've acclimatised. It's feeling lovely and cool now and yet in the UK this would be summer weather." But still, she wishes the shops wouldn't go to such extremes. "Some summer clothing all year round would be good."
Claire Cox, mother of Millie, eight years old, and Isabelle, six, has lived in the UAE for three years and has all but given up shopping for clothes at this time of year. "I just don't try to buy at this time of year. I buy in the sales in September or October, then wait till Easter to look again." Cox has had particular difficulties buying swimwear for the girls. "It's difficult all year round to buy decent UV tops. Quite staggering in such a hot country. I order them online and get them delivered to the UK."
It does seem bizarre to have the international stores impose their idea of suitable winter wear on us. Although I confess I do have my nose pressed up against the shoe shops' windows convincing myself that I need those Dh1,000 boots, is it really necessary to have such heavy winter clothes in the UAE? The average low temperature in December ranges from 15C to 17C, with the average highs still up between 24C and 26C. Even for those who have acclimatised to great heat, surely there is no need for so many winter coats.Is there really such a huge demand from people holidaying abroad that justifies an entire shop's stock being more suited to Oslo than Abu Dhabi? Given that the majority of people living in the UAE do not go abroad to such cold climates, there must be sense in maintaining a decent range of summer clothes all year. I am sure retailers would find there is the demand for it.