Fashion The UAE's top menswear buyers reveal the sharpest new looks for the season ahead.
Return of the real man
In the departure lounge of Abu Dhabi airport a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a group of hyperactive 18-year-olds jumping the queue in the Costa outlet. So what, you ask. It's the behaviour of teenagers the world over. But what really held my attention was the boys' impeccable grooming, their thobes crisply pressed and ghutras snowy and gleaming, at an hour when most right-minded people and sulky youths are still in their pyjamas. Half an hour later, I spotted them again at Gate 5, this time transformed, in anticipation of their flight to Heathrow, with brand new pastel-coloured knits à la Kanye West, sharp caps at a rakish angle, Oakley sunglasses and crunchy Evisu jeans. While the rest of the room, having got up in the early hours, had pulled on their most comfortable, baggy old denim for the seven-hour flight, these boys wore threads that were nothing less than boxfresh.
What this reminds us is that the Emirates is no backwater when it comes to men's fashion, with a significant and growing population of sartorially savvy chaps. And though once there had been a dearth of cutting-edge menswear to match, recent months have seen a small flurry of new shops opening to cater for the man-about-the-desert. Saks Fifth Avenue has quietly opened its menswear-only branch at Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai, just pipping Boutique 1 to the post, which also has a men's-only branch in the pipeline at JBR. The bespoke tailor Savile Row, run by a former Savile Row tailor, is in JBR too, and when the long-awaited Villa Moda opens its menswear branch at DIFC in the autumn, the highlight will be bespoke tailoring by Savile Row's Richard James.
"The last couple of seasons have been amazing for menswear," says Mishari Ibrahim, the men's retail manager at Boutique 1. "There's been a big, big increase in menswear sales in the last five seasons. Men here are starting to love fashion, whether it's a pair of low-rise trousers by Margiela or some beautiful, conservative Jil Sander pants." Of course, while no one is more in the know than the buyers from the Emirates' best menswear stores, this season will be more challenging than most: autumn/winter fashions are always a tricky prospect in the Gulf climate (shearling coat in 40-degree heat, anyone?), and this season's dark tweeds, Depression-era wide trousers and workmen's boots are a world away from the Emirates' conspicuously flash style. "It's going to be a very dark collection, getting progressively edgier," says Ibrahim, "and we're going to be seeing more Crombie-style jackets, pea coats and sharp shapes." Which means that while fashionable men in Europe and America will be happily donning their grandad's tweed suits, the buyers here have to carefully apply the key details of the season to a more boomtown-friendly approach, encompassing super-light fabrics, fine tailoring and luxury accessories.
"It is a return to the 'real man' look, based on the suit and some very masculine accessories," says Julian Bertic, the menswear buyer at the soon-to-open Villa Moda. "Most of the catwalk shows have been focusing on tailoring - Jil Sander's collection of suits was luxurious and sharp - and of course there is a strong Fifties and Sixties inspiration, as that's the last time we wore proper suits (I don't count the Eighties!)."
After seasons of painfully thin male models and suits apparently made for undernourished teenagers, this return to masculinity should come as a blessed relief to the gym-loving population of the Emirates, many of whom are simply too muscular to embrace the skinny-chic look. The new shape, while still fitted, is more Daniel Craig than Pete Doherty, and with the new Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, due out halfway through the season, the 007 influence will get stronger and stronger.
So if it's all about tailoring and the suit, how do you differentiate your sharp threads from your dad's double-breasted office number? Before your do anything else, ditch your three-button jackets. "The three-button suit is almost extinct," proclaims the Harvey Nichols buyer Jean Nakhle. "Of course, we still have them for the classic lines, but more fashionable shoppers will wear two- or even one-button. John Varvatos's tweed tux is perfect: it's sophisticated, it's in a really nice fabric, it's slim-fitting, it's one-button and the tweed gives it that gentlemanly feel."
Ibrahim agrees: his top buy for the season is a two-button blazer. "The two-button blazers by Acne, Bamford & Sons and Paul & Joe will definitely be our most sought-after pieces," he says. "They have a really sharp silhouette, with an aggressive midriff and shoulders. And the two-button suits by Attolini are absolutely incredible quality - it's the nearest thing you have to Savile Row, and most of the clients that buy them are VIP customers."
Naturally, when fashions become more simple and less gimmicky, the quality of stitching and fit grow far more relevant. Saks Fifth Avenue has bought in plenty of traditional shirts, ties and cufflinks, and the buyer Andrew Ege has spotted an improvement in construction from some brands. "There's also a whole sartorial movement right now which is about luxurious, modern, updated classics. Items like Charvet shirts and ties are old-school, but they're slender and fitted, not the boxy style your dad might have worn. And Dolce & Gabbana has some great fitting jackets. They've really raised the bar on quality this year with their suiting. Kris Van Assche is looking very interesting for Dior Homme, too - the cuts of the jackets and the lapels were wonderful."
If you feel like dropping some serious cash, a three-piece suit, cut close to the body, is the hottest ticket, because it contains at least two of the season's most important pieces: the two-button jacket and the waistcoat. "The Dolce & Gabbana three-piece suit gives you that gentlemanly look immediately," says Nakhle, "because even when you take off the jacket you still look smart with the waistcoat."
In fact, the waistcoat will be a smart buy on its own, too, appearing again in next year's spring/summer collections. "For our region it's a great formal compromise when it's too hot for the jacket," says Bertic. "The big debate, though, will be between the thin tie and the wide tie - although it must be said that if you are a tall guy it is not as easy to wear the thin tie." Ah, the skinny tie. The buyers are unanimous that, even after so many seasons, it is hanging on to its status as the only neckwear to don. "Slim ties may have been around a while, but they are still a fantastic look with a three-piece suit," confirms Nakhle. "Bow ties are coming in on the catwalks, and of course are popular for evening, but I don't think they'll really take off for daytime like they have in Europe."
The tie is not the only item that's skinny: in spite of the new flowing trousers on the catwalks, buyers here are expecting slim-leg trousers to remain the big sellers in the Emirates for now. "Wide trousers will gradually be adopted here, but at the moment pant legs are still fitted," says Nakhle. In fact, according to Bertic, they are tighter than ever. "They have been 20-21cm at the hem, but now they are 19cm or 18cm, or even 17cm for the very adventurous, and I think some of the people in the region are definitely going to try it. A big look is to wear them cropped to the ankle and sockless, with absolutely classic formal British shoes, or even with sandals, which is perfect for the region."
But if suited and booted is not really your look, there are some alternatives. The leather blouson jacket, for example, looks like being one of the season's big hitters. "If you put that over jeans and a plaid shirt, you really change your look," says Ege. "They're coming in some interesting colours, too, at Kris Van Assche and Galliano." One of the best under-the-radar leather labels is Isaac Sellam, available at Boutique 1. "He's a real leather specialist and his ostrich leather jacket, in a creamy blue brushed antique finish, is absolutely stunning in its construction," enthuses Ibrahim.
Boutique 1 also has plenty of sportier looks from the likes of Y3 by Yohji Yamamoto, Diesel Denim Gallery and Kenzo Minami, and the emphasis on quality in suiting seems to have rubbed off on the casual brands too. "The fabrics are better now than ever," says Ibrahim, "with exceptionally beautiful wool mixes, cottons and cashmeres." Add the plaid shirts and chunky cashmere roll necks that all four buyers have picked up (strictly for the man who travels, of course) and there's plenty to interest the less buttoned-up gent. And though the colours of the season may be wintry blues, black, greys and plums, the mood is far from sober. "Think Sean Connery as Bond: chic but not too formal," says Nakhle. "That's an edict worth obeying."