Sumayyah Al Suwaidi is the fashion entrepreneur behind the recent Abu Dhabi Fashion Days event in which 45 local and regional designers showcased their brands to the local community as well as international buyers.
Emirati entrepreneur brings home-grown style into fashion
Creating her own fashion line was Sumayyah Al Suwaidi’s dream when she thought of starting her own business a few years ago.
Her line of abayas, kaftans and apparel called Seen – which means the letter “S” in Arabic – first launched in 2011 with a fashion show in Mall of the Emirates. It was followed by another at London Fashion Week in 2012 and a third at Miami Fashion Week last year.
While international exposure is great for a home-grown brand, local events – equally important for a fledgling UAE designer – are thin on the ground. So last month, the Emirati entrepreneur organised Abu Dhabi’s own fashion exhibition, featuring 45 fashion designers – half of whom were Emirati with a handful from countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – each with their own brand of apparel or accessories to showcase.
“In 2007, I started curating art exhibitions and built a name in event organising,” Ms Al Suwaidi says. “Seeing how the UAE was evolving into an arts and culture destination, I realised Abu Dhabi needs something like Abu Dhabi Fashion Days.”
In a country where global fashion brands dominate the retail space, local designers are hardly visible to those who do not seek them out. The fledging sector for home-grown companies that create designer wear in Abu Dhabi and other emirates has a small support base, say local fashion designers.
However, lack of a local platform to market their wear, expensive real estate, and high start-up costs for expat designers are among the reasons holding back the potential of the local sector.
“It was a one-person initiative,” Ms Al Suwaidi says of the four-day Abu Dhabi Fashion Days event that allowed designers to showcase their designs to the local community as well as international buyers.
“We needed something at international standards where international buyers would come and order from local, regional and international designs.”
Despite her enthusiasm, the event came into question among some more conservative audience members.
“Some asked me why it was open to men,” she says. “I said we are in Abu Dhabi and we are open-minded enough to be shopping with husbands, brothers and fathers, and some women like to be pampered.”
While the event has some way to go before it can claim a spot on the fashion industry’s global events calendar, the demand is there.
Two months before the show, Ms Al Suwaidi was swamped with applications. She says she chose the first 45 designers to apply because they were all professional.
Later this year, Abu Dhabi Fashion Days is expected to return with an autumn-winter collection.
The designers are “so eager to be out there, show their creations, and are confident about them”, Ms Al Suwaidi says.
Satami, a three-year-old Dubai company that designs T-shirts and framed traditional burqas, was among the exhibitors at the first event in March. In the Arabian Gulf, burqas are the traditional masks that partially cover the faces of women. Although they appear to be made from metal, the masks are actually created from cloth traditionally imported from India.
“When starting off, you do not do wholesale, plus you use your home for storage and so there’s a space limitation,” says Heyam Hassan, a 42-year-old Emirati designer and a former clinical dietician on the challenges of setting up a fashion label. “But I am not competing with [the mass market]; there’s a fascination with the unique and people are always looking for souvenirs.”
Ms Hassan has so far spent Dh50,000 on the venture.
Meanwhile Abu Dhabi-based Nazzy Beglari, another designer at the Fashion Days event, started her fashion line of kaftans featuring embroidery and old Arabic and Indian movie stills after arriving in the UAE in 2009.
“It is expensive to open a shop, to rent a space or a studio,” she says. “You need big capital; I am doing it from home.”
Some of the designers say they broke even on the first three days of the four-day event. The fashion line McQueen Abayas netted Dh30,000 in the first three days, Ms Al Suwaidi says.
It cost Dh10,000 to rent a stand for the whole event.
“We needed something home-grown, so that people from abroad can say ‘let’s go and see what Emiratis are showcasing’,” Ms Al Suwaidi says. “We need something that is authentic, and not done somewhere else and brought here.”
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