x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

From Dubai to London: The UAE's designing women

Many Emirati women are studying in London to pursue a career in fashion.

Shiza Khan from Dubai chose to attend the London College of Fashion as she says it offers students more opportunities than they would get in Dubai.
Shiza Khan from Dubai chose to attend the London College of Fashion as she says it offers students more opportunities than they would get in Dubai.

According to Reuters, Middle Eastern women have become the world's top couture clients. This could explain why so many young Emiratis pursue their fashion ambitions in the UK. But what is life like for those bold enough to make the move? Lucy Vincent reports.


It's 6pm on a Thursday and 21-year-old Shiza Khan is in Baker Street doing her weekly Tesco shop. She's about as far as she can get from the comfort zone of her privileged upbringing in Dubai and is slowly discovering that life and work in the real world can be demanding.

Khan is one of a growing number of Emiratis who have chosen to pursue a first-class fashion education in the UK. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services, there are more than 300 fashion-related courses available in the UK. A student from anywhere in the world can choose to specialise in any subject ranging from fashion illustration to bespoke tailoring and even sportswear design.

"I felt that in Dubai there were only a few small colleges that offered fashion courses," Khan says, "but the prospects weren't as promising as the UK or the London College of Fashion [LCF]. Plus the fashion industry here in the UK has been established for such a long time. In Dubai it's still growing every single day."

According to the British Council, in the 2009/2010 academic year alone, 400 new Emirati students enrolled in higher education courses in the UK. This number is continually on the rise, and the UK remains among the top choices for overseas study among UAE nationals, as reported by the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Season by season, London consistently maintains its fashion capital credentials by nurturing, promoting, showcasing - and more importantly - educating emerging fashion talent. A fashion student in the UK can expect not only high-quality teaching, facilities and a buzzing environment surrounded by like-minded creatives, but also industry links and internship opportunities - that all-important foot in the door. So it's no surprise that young Emiratis are drawn to the idea of realising their sartorial ambitions in a country whose fashion industry is built on a winning mix of heritage, innovation and risk-taking. On paper, the UK has it all.

Since gaining internships in Dubai at publications such as Harper's Bazaar and Esquire, the fashion PR student Khan was determined to gain a place at LCF - a notoriously selective university with a cut-throat application process and on average 25 fashion hopefuls for every available place.

But privilege has its benefits.

"If you're an international student, I don't think it's that difficult to get into LCF," Khan says. "Money is a huge factor. I had an interview and they saw that I was passionate; that I had work experience and that I would be paying international fees. It's not like the States where you have to take SATs. Here it's like, you've got a diploma, you've got money - you're good to go."

Money, it seems, along with talent, is key. Could an Emirati student who wasn't from a wealthy family pursue the same kind of study in the UK? With international fees for 2012 entry standing at almost £13,000 (Dh75,242) per year, making one's fashion dream a reality without full financial family support would be difficult, to say the least.

But for the majority of students from the UAE who choose to study in the UK, money is not the problem. For fashion students, looking the part and living the life of the high-powered fashion editor many aspire to be one day is as essential to the lifestyle as are all-nighters and baked beans on toast.

As they remain keen to continue enjoying the luxury of Dubai, it's not uncommon to see LCF students make a quick dash to Selfridges on their lunch breaks or head for dinner at Nobu in Mayfair after their 5pm fashion history lecture. And it goes without saying that wedging themselves on the Bakerloo line every evening would be more than enough to shatter the fashion dream to smithereens. After all, what would Anna Wintour do?

"My lifestyle here and my lifestyle in Dubai are completely different because I've been completely catered to as my family is there," Khan says. "So I get everything done - I don't have to do my laundry, I don't have to do anything by myself if I don't want to. Here I still do try to maintain the same lifestyle as I do in Dubai. But there's still the factor of being independent and doing things yourself every day."

If these students were looking for luxury then it goes without saying they would have stayed in Dubai. What the UK offers students willing to pursue a career in fashion is high teaching standards, a rich cultural life and an unrestricted and unconventional approach to fashion. A fashion degree from a London college will stand you in good stead in a competitive job market. Added to which, the country has a culture of tolerance that is particularly inviting for any students new to the UK - people are receptive to different religions and traditions, and this makes it all the more easy to feel at home.

For 25-year-old Amira Rashid, a postgraduate student in fashion buying and merchandising, the decision to come to the UK last year was based purely on her ambition to reach the top of the fashion game after becoming disillusioned with fashion in the Middle East.

"In Dubai there seems to be a lot of designers who one day will just be sitting at home and say: 'OK, I've got resources, I've got money - why don't I just become a fashion designer?'" Rashid says. "You can't become a fashion designer by thinking you can just design clothes that you would wear. This is why I came here to study; it was to understand the consumers and the market I want to work for. Often the individuals who are making clothes in the Middle East aren't properly trained and they haven't experienced the international market. That's why the UAE hasn't made a proper fashion statement yet."

Keen to tap into the obvious demand for a top-notch fashion education in the UAE, London College of Fashion now offers a series of fashion and design short courses held in Dubai. In its second year, the college sends over a group of lecturers, alumni and industry experts to teach nine crash courses in such discipines as fashion marketing, journalism, luxury brand management and personal fashion styling. Ranging from meagre 90-minute sessions to full five-day studies, the courses will get students a certificate from LCF and a nifty CV boost for anyone trying to crack the industry.

Reid Aiton, the marketing manager for LCF's short course programmes, runs the sessions every six months.

"It's about getting access to high-quality fashion education, so it's not just about turning up and getting the certificate," he says. "A lot of the feedback we get is phenomenal. Some of these students have completely changed the way they think about fashion."

With each session attracting about 120 students, the courses often act as a good advertisement for what LCF has to offer.

"Ideally it's not designed as a recruitment event," Aiton says. "It's about taking the LCF brand and delivering its high-quality teaching in Dubai. But there is a natural overlap - some people will come to London, some people will treat it as more of a taster for fashion education at the college."

But this kind of fast-track fashion qualification comes at a price, with one booked-up business start-up consultancy course held at Hotel Pullman Dubai Mall of the Emirates this October charging Dh2,800 for a 90-minute session. It seems that whether it's £13,000 per year or Dh2,800 per hour, young Emiratis will fork out for fashion.

So what happens when an industry that's built on breaking rules comes face to face with a culture that rarely steps out of line? This was the reality for Rashid, who after graduating in Dubai with a degree in business management and setting up her own fashion line in Saudi Arabia told her family of her desire to study in the UK.

"I really wanted to study fashion myself, come out myself, but I wasn't actually allowed to," Rashid says. "So there was more pressure - if I wanted to study abroad I had to commit myself to someone. Then there was a lot of pressure in terms of an arranged marriage, but eventually I did choose someone for myself. I was lucky enough to find someone who respected my ambitions and goals in life. He never actually stops me from doing anything."

Four years ago, Rashid married a British man who works in the banking sector and finally could begin planning her move to London. A year later, she became pregnant and subsequently gave birth to a baby boy, who is now two and a half years old.

"I've got friends who get married and then go to America or the UK to study - they have their babies in between, you know," she says. "If they are ambitious they go for it and only those people will succeed here. In the UK you really have to work very hard compared to what you do in the Middle East."

It's this work ethic that perhaps acts as the biggest challenge for young women making the move to the UK, particularly those in similar circumstances to Rashid's. Raising a family, completing a full-time postgraduate course and continually adapting to a lifestyle and a country so different from your own teaches these plucky individuals a life lesson worth far more than any £13,000 degree.

So with an industry-recognised degree and an impressive network of contacts, is it full fashion steam ahead in London's competitive market? Or back to the UAE, where opportunities are rife and the fashion industry has really only just begun?

For Khan, it's a matter of money over mind.

"I would love to work in the UK - the fashion industry is so fast-paced and you can go very far here," she says. "But the pay is awful; I don't think I'd ever stay here. In Dubai it's much more for a job in fashion."

For Rashid, the draw is her Emirati lifestyle.

"For most people who come here, their goal is to go back to the Middle East," she says. "You can never get used to the lifestyle. I'm here to work hard and get my degree and have an unforgettable experience."

It's this "unforgettable experience" that is perhaps the real lesson. Life in the UK might be tough, but an education here sticks with your forever.



Some statistics

In the 2009/2010 academic year, about 400 new UAE students enrolled in higher education institutions in the UK.

There are now more than 2,800 Emirati-domiciled students registered in higher education courses in the UK.

In 2009, more than 700 UAE nationals received government scholarships to study overseas.

Between September 2008 and 2009, the British Embassy in the UAE issued 2,838 student visas - the vast majority of them to UAE and Indian students.

International higher education fees in the UK stand at almost £13,000 (Dh75,242) a year.

Sources: British Council, Unesco Institute for Statistics