The lure of the designer label is still as strong, but in these straitened times even the wealthy are scouring the internet and flea markets for bargains. At the Armani Caffe, Shaikha Mohammed is tucking into her margherita pizza with relish when something distracts her. Open-mouthed, she pauses between bites, the pizza slice hovering in the air. "Chanel," she gushes breathlessly, her eyes following a shopper at Dubai Mall touting a lime-green tote bag. "Such a beautiful bag," she adds reverently, returning to her meal.
Seconds later, a man carrying a Louis Vuitton satchel tears her away from her lunch again. "Vintage," she says, after an approving glance. "You don't see many of those here." With her nails and lips painted a bubblegum pink and immaculate eye make-up, Shaikha, a 20-year-old Emirati, is like thousands of young women in the UAE; she has an eye for fashion and a taste for designer labels. She started wearing Gucci and Prada at the age of five, a love for branded goods which has continued into adulthood.
But if there is one thing Shaikha loves even more than the finer things in life, it is getting a good bargain. She may not be struggling financially but like many increasingly savvy shoppers in the Emirates, she has realised there are plenty of discounts to be had for those prepared to look beyond malls packed with designer stores. The recession may have forced UAE residents to tighten their belts but many still want the trimmings of the extravagant lifestyle that first drew them.
Fortunately for them, the number of people leaving, anxious to get rid of their luxury goods as soon as possible, has meant the internet is awash with bargains, giving even those on limited resources the chance to acquire bling on a budget. From plush cars to multimillion-dirham yachts, luxury villas and designer gear and accessories - which were once the domain of the wealthy and well-heeled - there is little that cannot be bought second-hand or borrowed.
Websites such as Dubizzle.com, eBay and Souq.com are flooded with discounted items while flea markets, second-hand stores and rental companies have been springing up to cater for the new "transumers" - the shoppers who want to change their cars and clothes as often as their hairstyle but do not want to pay over the odds to do so. Shaikha first started browsing the internet for bargains when she was 16 and soon realised she could buy her beloved Chanel handbags, vintage jewellery and Gina heels for a fraction of the shop price. She now owns 20 designer handbags, many Chanel maxis in different colours, including her favoured silver one, bought for Dh8,000 when the shop price is Dh13,000.
She places it delicately on a chair beside her and casts admiring glances at it every so often. "I can afford to buy them new but everyone loves a bargain," she says. "I get a real rush of adrenalin when I buy something at a discount. It makes you feel good." Her favourite shoes are a pair of Swarovski crystal-studded Gina heels, bought from the second-hand and vintage designer shop Reem's Closet in Dubai.
While she admits that some Arab nationals might turn up their noses at wearing used goods, Shaikha says an increasing number are shopping more shrewdly on the web. "They might not like to admit it, but I know a lot of Emiratis who shop on the internet," she says. "I do not tell my friends or even my family. Not everyone would buy second-hand shoes, but my Ginas had only been worn once and were a lot cheaper than buying them new. If anyone asks, I just say I got them from the Gina store.
"I would not wear second-hand clothes, though." Shaikha has cannily turned her passion for labels into a business, spending up to six hours a day browsing the internet and selling on designer items to friends or contacts. She says half her customers are Emirati. The growing popularity of bargain hunting among UAE nationals has surprised Reema al Khor, 35, the founder of ToujoursChic.ae, an online firm that loans designer handbags to fashionistas for a week at a time.
More than a quarter of her 400 regular customers are Emirati and together with other Arab nationals account for more than half of her business. "Local ladies in particular would not like to be seen coming out of a second-hand shop," she says. "What my customers like is that they can shop from the privacy of their own homes. I am Lebanese and I know how much Arabs spend on their handbags - because I used to as well.
"That does not mean we have money, we are just spending plastic money on credit cards." She learned the lesson the hard way, by running up a huge debt and maxing out 13 credit cards and loans on her handbag habit. While she is coy about saying how much she owed, suffice to say it was enough to buy a small luxury apartment. A year ago she came up with the idea of ToujoursChic, she says, to give her "enough of a legitimate excuse to buy handbags" to add to her collection of 30. "I am obsessed with handbags," she sighs. "It started when I was 15 and spent an entire year's allowance on a Louis Vuitton.
"People who love bags understand how happy they make you. It gives me an adrenaline rush every time I buy one but I would get them on plastic money and then after a week, that was it. Another bag would come out and I would have to have it. It is like the lust in a relationship: in very few cases does it develop into love, mostly it fizzles out after a short while. "I came up with the idea of renting out bags as a solution for women like me. After two weeks, they get the bag out of their system and can move on to the next one."
Mrs al Khor also resells her customers' unwanted bags for a commission, including a sought-after brand new Hermès Birkin, such as the one carried by Victoria Beckham, for Dh43,990 - they cost about Dh60,000 in-store - and a Dior python clutch in good condition for Dh890. Rana Jamshed, 29, an Iraqi fashion designer based in Dubai, has sold four bags through the service and says: "I do not have a problem with admitting to selling or buying used goods. It is recycling. If there is something I no longer have a feel for, someone else can make good use of it."
At the upper end of desirable items, supercars and yachts were once the remit of only the most fabulously wealthy. But getting behind the steering wheel no longer has to cost an arm and a leg. The Scuderia 250 club lets its members choose from among 10 cars, from Ferraris to Porsches and Bentleys, and drive them for up to 100 days a year. The Dh55,000 to Dh135,000 annual fee may not be cheap - but they are a snip compared to the Dh1 million-plus cost of buying a new car.
Adrian Pieraccini, who co-owns the club, says: "Dubai is very much about appearance but in this climate, people do not want to buy the car outright with all the pain of depreciation and costs. "We offer a clever way of still having the glamorous life at a fraction of the cost of ownership. People still want the glitz and to be seen in new cars despite the credit crunch. "We call them transumers - the people who get excited about buying a vehicle but a month later, it is lying in a garage because they have lost interest in it. With us, they get that buzz every time they take a new car out."
The IFA Yacht Ownership Club, which operates from Dubai, offers a "timeshare" scheme for those who want "all the perks and advantages of a yachting lifestyle - without the excessive capital of owning a yacht". For prices ranging from Dh211,500 to Dh580,000 for a limited number of days per year, members have access to a fleet of fully crewed superyachts moored in Cannes, Dubai and Phuket in Thailand.
While club membership is not for those on a budget, it is still cheaper than buying new boats which depreciate quickly, require excessive maintenance and cost a small fortune to berth in the Emirates. Dubizzle, the auction website, is awash with advertisments for luxury goods, including one for a 2007 BMW coupe for Dh90,000, which boasts: "You won't find a better luxury sports car for this price."
Dimitri Dupont, 27, a French hotel manager, has been inundated with calls since advertising his Rolex Yacht Master watch complete with platinum bezel for Dh21,000, considerably less than its retail price of Dh36,000. "It is actually third-hand; it was second-hand when I bought it three years ago," he admits. "I love the watch and still wear it but I just need some cash. I was surprised how many Arab nationals phoned to ask about it as I thought from this region, people prefer new items.
"I am always browsing the internet to look for bargains as people here often sell unwanted gifts which are brand new and you would never know the difference." One downside is that sellers have to face increasingly aggressive hagglers who want the best value for money: "I've been offered Dh15,000 for the watch but I will not go that low," says Mr Dupont. Reem Mohammed, who runs Reem's Closet in the Mazaya Centre, says she has been flooded with unwanted Gucci, Prada and Chanel purchases. "Most have not even been worn," she says. "We all have impulse buys that we do not want the next day, so why not get something back for them?
"People who shop in the store would not necessarily be able to afford the full price. They also love that they can buy vintage items they might not be able to find elsewhere." Most of her sellers prefer to do their deals in a private back room: "It is not a common thing in this part of the world to sell your wardrobe. It is frowned on in many ways because people think it looks greedy, but that is changing."
Indeed, second-hand buyers and sellers have started coming out into the open and now convene at monthly designer flea markets held by Melanie Beese, the expatriate behind the successful Safa Park markets."There are so many people here with designer brands they no longer want or use and I wanted to offer a place where they could sell them on for a reasonable price," says Ms Beese. email@example.com