As Dubai Fashion Week gets under way, it is worth musing over what it takes to break into fashion's big four: Paris, Milan, London and New York. Can the UAE make the leap from star consumer to hotbed of creative genius? Could Dubai be the missing fifth element?
The story of one fashion house might be instructive, and it begins in an impoverished one-room apartment at a bitterly cold winter deathbed. How long six-year-old Gabrielle and her siblings sat in attendance next to their mother's corpse is a mystery. A chronically absent father meant that she would be raised in abject austerity at the monastic orphanage of St Etienne in France.
Who could predict that this illegitimate, orphaned peasant girl would grow up to employ thousands of people, counting among her employees no less than a grand duchess. Her often apocryphal biographies suggest she held the hearts of artists and aristocrats in her hands. In rejecting a marriage proposal from the thrice-divorced Duke of Westminster, she nonchalantly quipped: "There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but only one Coco Chanel." So reads the rags to riches legend of Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel.
The designs of Chanel are still with us nearly 40 years after her death, and her monastery-inspired austere minimalism is today frequently juxtaposed against the luxurious backdrop of the UAE's spectacular mall-scape. Chanel's 2.55 handbag, with its once innovative chain strap, is ubiquitous here. In terms of brand recognition, the childlike interlinking Cs of the Chanel logo are as instantly recognisable as the Nazi swastika - and for some fashionistas, equally emotive.
But what makes the allure of Chanel and the other leading fashion houses so strong? Is there really a touch of genius in the design? Are these "gifted creatives" actually able to commune with the zeitgeist, the "spirit of the age", and divine the collective sartorial aspirations of the masses?
Certainly Chanel did not think so. She saw herself more as a fashion dictator, suggesting to one of her biographers: "These women, I'm bloody well going to dress them in black … I imposed black; it's still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around."
But perhaps it is the personal myth of the designer that imbues their creations with the fetishistic magic so often associated with high fashion. Certainly Chanel's own myth is a powerful tale of transformation, a narrative of triumph over adversity, enfolding a tragic sub-plot of love lost, and boasting a fairytale cast of thousands including Stravinsky, Salvador Dali and Picasso. Chanel suggested that in purchasing her creations, women became "privileged characters who are incorporated into our legend. For them this is a far greater pleasure."
"Fashionologists" who study the sociology of fashion have traditionally proposed the trickle down theory. This basically argues that the driving forces of fashion are imitation and differentiation. In short, one strata of society signals its higher status through its dress and accessories, and these styles trickle down to the lower strata who attempt to imitate them in the interest of upward social mobility. The lower strata's imitation causes the higher strata to reinvent its costumes, thereby reasserting social distinction.
It is easy to understand why economists have long referred to fashion as "capitalism's favourite child". A pair of sturdy boots might last forever, but fashions always change.
Dr Yuniya Kawamura, an assistant professor of sociology at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, argues that this depends on an institutionalised system made up of designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, public relations people, journalists and ad agencies. This is a system of legitimisation that creates the charismatic superstar "creative genius" at its heart.
And what does this mean for the UAE? After several misfires, Dubai Fashion Week is back under new management. Can this showcase of local designers tailor their own system to join the big four? Might Emiratisation one day expand into indigenous fashion system, perhaps even challenging the hegemony of the self-legitimating systems elsewhere? Might expensive luxury items consumed in the UAE come to be conceived here too? Or must Paris forever dictate what people should and should not wear?
Justin Thomas is professor of psychology in the department of health science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi