While the fashion landscape was once dominated big international brands, UAE consumers now have more choice than ever, writes Hafsa Lodi
Fashion forward: the rise of UAE's homegrown brands
A decade ago, being a fashion designer in the UAE meant that you had a knack for jazzing up kaftans and abayas, embellishing eveningwear or creating turban-style head-wraps. Fast forward ten years, and the market is brimming with homegrown fashion brands with radically expanded repertoires. Likewise, in the past, UAE shoppers relied on shopping malls for their fashion fixes, investing in goods that obviously carried the logos of popular international brands. But since social media has taken the region by storm, and pop-ups have taken hold as an alternative retail platform, local consumers have become increasingly experimental. As a result, homegrown fashion brands are flourishing.
“Over the past few years, the wardrobe choices being made by women have grown to include more and more seasonal trends, fresh from international runways, but also rich with local finds,” says Zayan Ghandour, co-founder of Sauce stores and designer of Zayan The Label. “In parallel, the caliber and quality of local designers has exponentially matured, responding to and encouraging the appetite for the uniqueness and novelty of homegrown talent.”
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A popular concept store for curated fashion finds, Sauce, which opened in 2004, has provided a launch pad for many homegrown designers, such as Dima Ayad and Arwa Al Banawi. Being backed by a reputable regional fashion retailer, means that doors opened to further opportunities for many of these local labels. “We work closely with homegrown talent to help them hone their talents and streamline their designs in a way that maintains their individuality and strengthens their commercial edge,” explains Ghandour. As the retail landscape has evolved, Sauce has opened various sister brands, dedicated to fine jewellery, beachwear and resort wear
Homegrown fashion brands are creating a name for themselves within distinct and often niche offerings – like Talar Nina, who specialises in bomber Jackets, Lady Fozaza, known for her structured blazers, Azra, whose covetable leather bags take the shapes of half-moons and Bil Arabi, which is renowned for bold, jewellery inspired by Arabic calligraphy. “There’s an amazing spectrum of design here now. The regional design scene now encompasses everything from the coolest streetwear through to the most luxurious, couture-level bespoke pieces,” notes Firras Alwahabi, CEO of Faux, a boutique agency dedicated to promoting regional fashion labels through PR, social media and distribution services.
Realising that there was a pool of talented designers in the UAE, but a lack of effective representation for them, Alwahabi launched Faux in 2011. His very first client was Sheikha Madiyah Al Sharqi, whose eponymous label developed a significant regional following in its first five years, and in 2016, became available in the United States at the upscale Manhattan boutique Fivestory. Other UAE-based brands that have impressed international buyers and landed partnerships with global stockists over the past few years include All Things Mochi with Farfetch.com, Bambah and Zayan The Label with ModaOperandi.com and Huda Al Nuaimi with MatchesFashion.com. “A consistent element that we see in the brands that really make an impact internationally is that they all have a unique visual identity,” explains Alwahabi. “They are blazing their own trail, with a unique look and style, and they aren’t mimicking the work of anyone else.”
International celebrities and royalty – or at least their stylists – have also started to take notice of the UAE’s fashion talent. Dubai-based Michael Cinco has dressed countless stars, including Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga; trousers by Reemami were spotted on Queen Rania; a shirt-dress by Bouguessa was worn by Beyoncé; robes by Madiyah Al Sharqi have been seen on Sofia Richie and Lorde; and a box-clutch by L’Afshar was carried by Kendal Jenner on her birthday. Being affiliated with an A-lister is a huge achievement for an emerging fashion label, and this is sometihgn that is being facilitated by today’s digital climate.
“Brands have the ability to connect now with anyone who owns a digital device, meaning the potential for engagement is basically limitless. That’s had a huge impact on the growth potential of brands here,” explains Alwahabi. Ghandour adds that Instagram has become essential as a promotional tool. “It is a great way to offer audiences a 360-degree insight into the brand’s world, its ethos and who the people behind the label really are. It’s a fascinating time, as now more than ever before there is a direct communication channel between brand and consumer, and it’s really important to use that connection effectively,” she says.
Lisseth Villalobos, managing director of Create Consultancy, which helps place Middle Eastern designers on Hollywood red carpets and in leading ad campaigns and fashion magazines abroad, believes that designers from the region have started catering to a wider audience but have also managed to remain true to their roots. “Their aesthetics have not changed, but the way they produce their collections, shoot their collections and have tailored their silhouettes to have more of international appeal has changed,” she says. “FMM by Fatma Al Mulla is a great example of a UAE based designer who has taken the traditional kaftan and abaya and has made it wearable streetwear for anyone, not just modest consumers.”
Al Mulla has also diversified her brand to include handbags, phone cases and enamel pins, which she often sells at pop-up markets. These have become a trending sales model throughout the nation, with outdoor fairs taking place during the winter, and indoor fashion exhibitions occurring during Ramadan. “Opportunities like pop-ups, where brands have the chance to engage on-to-one with consumers, are an amazing way to forge personal links and to also reach people who may never have come across a brand in another context. They’re a great way to drive sales in a very tangible way,” says Alwahabi, who organises seasonal trunk shows and pop-ups for labels represented by Faux.
While many UAE consumers invariably still splurge on international brands, they’re embracing homegrown labels at the same time. It isn’t a matter of deciding between Lama Jouni and Louis Vuitton, or Yasmin Al Mulla and Saint Laurent, because contemporary consumers are opting to mix their brand-name buys with Arab labels.