With top designers increasingly turning to the Middle East for inspiration, the region's influence on the fashion world is stronger then ever before.
A new muse: the Middle East in haute couture
Middle Eastern-inspired fashion is currently en vogue around the world from the streets to the catwalks. But rather than merely dabbling in aesthetic exoticism, the designers and brands who are exploring the region's sartorial traditions are drawing inspiration from a commercial viability that's given the style such sturdy legs.
Kaffiyehs were an integral part of the Eighties bohemian look worn by American girls. They caught on with Japanese teenagers in the early part of the decade, but by the mid-2000s, however, hipsters from the gritty sections of Brooklyn to the hallowed halls of New York's universities were again seen sporting the traditional Arab attire as scarves around their necks, making a statement purely for the sake of style.
Soon, they were available at H&M, Topshop and Urban Outfitters, while Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga adorned them with charming pendants in his collegiate and tribal-inspired autumn/winter 2007 collection. To complete the scholastic-inspired outfits, Ghesquière also paraded them along with jodhpur pants, which were showed in various iterations at numerous shows, including Roberto Cavalli, Vivienne Westwood and Dries Van Noten.
In early 2008, harem pants were first spotted on many trendsetting women such as Lou Doillon, and later that year, the look seemed to take on a life of its own. During the spring/summer 2009 collections, countless female fashionistas took to wearing them as part of their show-going outfits, while men sported brightly printed and distended versions paired with high-top trainers for a casual appeal, metallic lace-up shoes for a romantic look, and boots for a more rugged air.
The chicest arrangements were seen on the French Vogue editors, who paired them with leather jackets, masculine-looking vests and asymmetrical cardigans - a languid, dishevelled luxury that only stylish Gallic girls seem to pull off perfectly. Even hard to please, avant-garde- leaning fashionistas in Tokyo found ways to incorporate the look into their darkly hued wardrobes. "There is a lot of crossover with traditional accessories," observes Misha Janette, a Tokyo-based fashion journalist.
Additionally she says: "The harem pants have been big among the fashion types for quite a few seasons now - I believe Yohji Yamamoto brought it back a few seasons ago, and it has caught on as harem pants worn with flat sandals." While the streets teem with such fashion flourishes, more designers continue to be inspired by the relics and sartorial inspirations of the region. "The reason why the Middle East is often referenced in art, music and fashion is due to the region's rich and profound cultural heritage as well as its distinct exoticism," says the Manila-based Bea Valdes, whose line of handcrafted bags and jewellery is doing brisk business at Tanagra boutiques all over the Gulf region. "It really does encourage contemporary wanderlust," says Valdes.
For Balenciaga's autumn/winter 2009-2010 line, Ghesquière manipulated silk to mellifluous effect, yielding lushly draped jodhpur-like pants that chic women everywhere will clamourafor once they hit the stores later this summer. Haider Ackermann's draping of bunchy leggings underneath long robe-like, abaya-inspired dresses also hints at this tribalism, while Angela Missoni's heavy layering of scarves, head pieces and knits for Missoni is both cosy and also a clear reference to Bedouin clothing. But the most palatable pieces for women came from Chloé, where the creative director Hannah MacGibbon used desert colours, such as sandy brown, beige and tan to create trousers with voluptuous silhouettes in velvet, silk and cotton.
The recent resort collections of important luxury players such as Lanvin, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent also had an Arabic leitmotif running through them. At the recent men's shows in Paris, Julius featured conceptual takes on the abaya and the hijab, Rick Owens layered and deconstructed a series of tunic-like tops, Mihara Yasuhiro made harem trousers into purposely distressed jeans, and various tops by Comme des Garçons looked like abbreviated khandouras, a garment that Kris van Assche skilfully worked into masculine pieces that also had urban appeal.
Riccardo Tisci seems to be leading the pack with this new cultural aesthetic, however. Although there were Middle Eastern touches in his resort 2010 show, his menswear outing in Paris also featured harem pants, references to the hijab, and geometric patterns. At Givenchy's autumn/winter 2009 couture show in Paris, he also paraded heavily embroidered harem pants - worn by Lakshmi Menon - but the most winning and dramatic pieces were two long, silk abaya-esque dresses donned by models decorated with ornate jewellery.
Outside the Arab context, these clothes are right in step with the current practical demands of dressing. Sonny Groo, a progressively attired stylist and editor-in-chief of the online fashion publication Mykromag, says that fashion is moving too fast and as a result, there's little time to promote individuality. "And that's why we're going to protect ourselves. That's why we'll layer again, dress with more volume, but add more rich elements such as gold to complete our feeling," he observes. "I'm sure that in a couple of years from now, fashion will be all about heavy materials, longer shapes, volume, back to baggy. Feel good, no-nonsense and it's all going to be about you from the inside: personality."
Even though Groo's prediction may seem extreme, it isn't too far-fetched. With conspicuous consumption now long gone, fashion is moving into more modest times. Shoppers are less likely to buy into trends, but are making more considered shopping decisions with value as the priority. The Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M, a company that has built a multibillion global empire with trend-driven clothes at low prices, posted a more than expected loss in June, while earlier this summer, Lanvin, the French label with finely crafted clothes that carry a considerably hefty price tag, posted a sales gain of 29 per cent. Based on its second quarter earnings, Hermès is holding strong amid the recession with a 12 per cent rise in sales. Although these brands are competing at different spectra of the market, their financial earnings are indicative of today's shopping mantra: quality over quantity.
Middle Eastern clothes are also universally flattering. "The style and fit of kaftans and harem pants specifically appeal to many markets and customers as they are comfortable, light and airy, hide a multitude of sins and allow the customer to 'buy into' a diverse culture of their own," says Boutique 1's fashion and buying director, Nicole Robertson. While adaptability is the draw for fashion consumers all over the world, the region's strong purchasing power is attractive to many western fashion businesses even in a downturn. "Although the luxury industry in the Middle East in general has definitely been affected, the overall spending of our Arab customers from the Gulf region actually has not," says Zayan Ghandour, the co-owner, head buyer and creative director of S*uce.
It's also one of the few places that's seeing a number of store openings rather than closings, a prevalent occurrence everywhere else. The region is integral to the survival of the couture business and is probably a commercial reason why Givenchy chose to do such elaborate pieces in its recent show. "I believe that for luxury brands to excel in this market they must adapt to the needs of the local client. Giving the consumer a unique product specific to this market is one of the key ways to connect," says Rosemin Manji, the managing director for RR and Co, a luxury consultancy that works with international brands such as Tom Ford and Issa to help customise their business strategies for the local market. As part of their penetration strategy, many brands have designed products specifically for the region and are working with stores to ensure that Arab tastes and sensibilities are met because the demand is so strong.
As a result, Emporio Armani has made branded ghutras, Fendi has offered shailas, Tom Ford has produced khandouras, and Gucci makes sandals. "YSL were one of the first houses to reintroduce their version, the sarouel, and in our Kuwait boutique they were sold out in a matter of weeks. The result is followed by a second instalment for the upcoming spring/summer 2010 cruise collection and many other houses are following suit," says Natalie van Rooyen of Villa Moda, the region's premier luxury retailer.
Villa Moda has already collaborated with some of the world's most illustrious brands, such as Prada, Etro, Marni and Tom Ford and this symbiotic relationship is getting stronger. "We are constantly working with local and international brands to do kaftans, jalabayas, dishdashas as well as other products for us, so that we can cater to the needs of our clients," says Van Rooyen. Since opening its doors in 2004, S*uce has worked closely with its designers to make sure their offerings fit well in the market. "Fetty, for instance, a jewellery brand based in New York which is famous for its New York rock necklace (an actual rock embedded with a diamond), created a Dubai version using a rock that we picked from the shores of Dubai and sent over by courier," notes Ghandour.
But some brands such as Issa have taken it a step further by integrating Middle Eastern-inspired pieces in their collections. "Issa London has incorporated permanent cuts in their collections which are very popular. Kaftan dresses and long wraparound dresses are some of the brand's signature cuts, which are repeated in different prints every season. Similarly, the Japanese brand Tsumori Chisato has added a kaftan style to its collection," says Ghandour.
The cross-cultural influence is clearly a two-way street, with designers drawing inspiration from and customising products for the region's inhabitants. With a rich cultural history and a contemporary appetite for design, the Middle East is fashion's new muse.