DUBAI // For artists, it is a beautiful picture: a "free zone for fashion" devoted to nurturing local talent and attracting foreign fashionistas. The Dubai Arts and Culture Authority announced plans this week to build a fashion and design district that includes affordable housing and infrastructure for developing culture.
Legislation will be amended to enable artists and designers working part-time or on commissions to get residency visas. Zayan Ghandour, owner and creative director of the Sauce fashion boutiques, said the moves would help to develop the domestic fashion industry. "In other sectors of the economy, businesses have been given incentives and freedoms to help establish the UAE as a financial and commercial hub," she said. "Something similar, a kind of free zone for fashion, will be very welcome."
Mishaal al Gergawi, the authority's projects and events department head, outlined the plans at a summit in Dubai sponsored by the news agency Reuters. He said the organisation, which has a Dh3.67 billion (US$1bn) budget, was committed to developing culture and wanted to remove barriers to an artistic career. "There is a lot of pressure from the family in the UAE to pursue a mainstream or conventional career rather than support anything alternative," Mr al Gergawi said. "Cultural expectations can therefore hold back Emirati nationals from following artistic pursuits."
The proposal is the latest initiative supporting a greater goal of establishing the UAE as a creative and artistic centre, one that has already seen an international literature festival created, plans for Guggenheim and Louvre museum branches and the country's impressive debut at the Venice Biennale art fair. The neighbourhood will especially accommodate art and design with studios, and workshops and housing so artists can live on site. Details of the location and design have not yet been disclosed, but officials say the development will incorporate fashion, design, gastronomy and the visual arts. Boutiques and galleries will be featured as well.
Expatriate artists and designers have been restricted from settling in the Emirates by visa regulations that stipulate they must have a sponsor, and therefore a permanent, salaried post. For aspiring artists, work tends to be occasional, unpredictable and reliant on commissions. Many are forced to give up the arts and take a conventional salaried position to retain their residency status. Ms Ghandour said many local designers hold office jobs.
"If these plans are implemented it will enable them to become full-time designers and therefore help to professionalise the industry," she said. "The designers' and artists' village is a brilliant idea, because there is an enormous talent pool in the region that needs to be encouraged and supported. Offering them facilities and affordable housing will help them progress." As well as helping open a career path in fashion and the arts for local talent, the neighbourhood will be promoted to international artists.
Omar Bin Kediya, owner of the art and fashion boutique O Concept, said there was a lot of international interest in the Dubai art and fashion scene, and if incentives were offered it would attract foreign artists. "There is a great desire for international artists and designers to exhibit in Dubai, but a lack of galleries and spaces to showcase their work," he said. "When the neighbourhood is created it will provide these venues and also give courage to local artists to express themselves. It will be a great opportunity, especially for young people looking to become established."
But Sarah Belhasa, a local boutique owner and supporter of local designers, said they had to be protected from foreign competition. "There is a risk with a scheme to attract foreign designers that it will undermine the existing, local designers who have established their reputations," she said. "It is important that the UAE retains its own values. I am concerned that if there is an influx of new designers a saturation point will be reached."
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