If the tide of fashion labels in Dubai malls leaves you reeling, not to worry, the multi-brand boutique is alive and well in the UAE
UAE's multi-brand boutique shops are in fashion
You probably thought Dubai had enough shops. If you're not in top fashion-hunting form, a wander (or should that be a trek?) through Dubai Mall can leave you feeling saturated, dazed and helpless in the face of thousands upon thousands of garments asking to be bought.
The Fashion Avenue, the Fashion Dome, department stores, high-street chains: it's as if the era of conspicuous consumption never went away.
But it's exactly this confusion of choice that has created a little gap in the market for independent multi-brand boutiques carrying small quantities, unusual labels and carefully chosen pieces; the kind of place that offers a more personal approach to meet their customers' needs.
The UAE's boutique pioneers, of course, are well known to fashion-lovers here: Boutique 1, S*uce, IF Boutique, all purveyors of their own distinctive aesthetics, providers of services such as pre-ordering, and replete with devoted customers who know the staff by name.
Where Harvey Nichols, Bloomingdale's, Galeries Lafayette and Saks Fifth Avenue offer comprehensive collections from high-end designers, these smaller stores carry just a few of each piece, for an in-the-know clientele. Sure, you might not always be able to find your size, but you can be fairly safe in the knowledge that you won't bump into another partygoer wearing the same frock.
These stalwarts of Dubai fashion, together with old favourites such as Desert Rose, Tigerlily, Luxecouture, Bauhaus and Ginger & Lace made the boutique scene possible, and many continue to push boundaries with new stores and moves into e-commerce, but the past year or so has seen a flurry of new international-style boutiques - or, in modern retail parlance "carefully curated concept stores" - opening up around the city.
We take a look at some of the most interesting new stores:
The newest of the bunch, Ume (pronounced “Oo-may”), opening any day now, currently stocks just two labels – but boy are they good ones, both proponents of the “faded romance” look.
Handwritten is an eco-friendly fashion line launched by Tanya Sarne, the founder of that quintessentially 1990s label Ghost. The designs have all the relaxed, pure, grown-up glamour of her original line, and are produced in easy-to-care-for fabrics developed by Sarne that are made from wood fibres mixed with silk and cotton.
The polar opposite in terms of techniques, but coming from a similar place, Megan Park is a British label that is all about the embellishment – though we’re talking more about subtle shades and textures than blinging Swarovski crystal. These are exquisite heirloom pieces to be treasured.
Jacqueline Lewis, the founder of Ume, is an interior designer from London, but since moving to Dubai in 2007 has felt there was something missing from the shopping scene.
“I think that as people become more diverse, they get more sophisticated; I think the consumer here is becoming more sophisticated, and with that comes a need for a bit more niche,” she says. “I mean, I love Dolce & Gabbana, don’t get me wrong, I love those big brands, but as people become more aware of what’s happening in terms of small designers, then the demand’s there.”
Though hers is a small repertoire of brands (she does plan to expand it), the lines are extensive and highly wearable, and she will be buying in only a couple of pieces per look, to keep things interesting. “I’m my own customer,” she says.
“I work very hard, like most people in Dubai, and you want to feel easily glamorous. When you’re running around in 50°C heat and you can’t afford those killer heels to be on your feet because you need to get somewhere quickly, you want something that’ll go well with a pair of flats, that will still look fabulous enough to walk into a formal meeting with, and then go to the beach straight after.”
For Lewis, it’s all about engaging the customer, a lesson learned and applied by Boutique 1 and S*uce before her. “We’ll let you know what’s going to happen in spring/summer 2011 now – you’ll know in advance what you want to buy. We’ll be blogging, trunk-showing, we’ll be doing everything we can to go out and reach our customer.”
Still, first things first: opening the shop will be a good start.
Ume, Shop 2, Majara 2, Dubai Marina, 050 1006231
BULLETS & BUTTERFLIES
Opening later this week, this new addition to Mercato Mall is owned by the Emirati sisters Hind and Alia Bin Kherbash and has an individualistic, rock-chick feel to its merchandise, which ranges from T-shirts and sneakers to jewellery and gifts. The most welcome of its brands, though, will be the super-hip legwear company BeBaroque, which produces extraordinarily coloured and embellished tights and leggings.
Bullets & Butterflies, Mercato Mall, Dubai
A big hitter in Dubai’s boutique world, Symphony is owned by the terrifyingly young Salama Alabbar, 23, who started off her career in fashion with the excellent Marami accessories boutique, also in Dubai Mall, and who operates Temperley London in the UAE.
It’s perhaps Alabbar’s youth that has made Symphony such a fresh concept here. Starting as a blog and showroom (symphonystyle.blogspot.com) back in March, months of persistent press kept the excitement ramped up, and the shop finally launched in October, selling a selection of hot-as-cakes brands in a pretty boutique filled with bits of art and books.
“Social media is so important; it is a way to build a relationship with your clientele. We feel like we are creating a big family – we keep our ‘Symphony Stylers’ updated with all Symphony news and arrivals, of course – but we also share a dialogue for a love of fashion and art and culture,” Alabbar tells us in an e-mail. ”
And the brands? You won’t see the big conglomerates in here: it’s the Ports 1961, the Erin Fetherston, the BodyAmr, the Christian Siriano – the brands that we keep reading about abroad and can finally get here.
A testament to that is the fact that Charlotte Olympia and Jonathan Saunders, both stocked at Symphony, have just been nominated for the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, which recognises the best up-and-coming designers in the UK and helps them establish themselves in the market.
“The big thing is not to underestimate the clientele,” writes Alabbar. “These are intelligent, well-travelled women. They spend their summers visiting the most beautiful and esteemed stores in the world. They sit front row at couture fashion week. They read every international magazine from cover to cover, they visit the world’s finest art galleries and sit at all the big auctions. They are difficult to please – and rightly so.”
Symphony, Dubai Mall, Dubai, 04 330 8050, www.symphony.ae
Officially opening just over a year ago, Valleydez – the “Valley of the Designers” – in Wafi Mall is something of a lucky dip: packed with quirky labels, the huge price range and the seemingly random buying means that while it could take a while to get through the collection, it’s almost impossible to leave without trying something on, whether it’s a Giles dress or an Arrogant Cat jacket or a piece by the local brand Neon Edge. You’ll be lucky to find other sizes, but the shop staff are extremely attentive and knowledgeable.
Valleydez, Wafi City, Dubai, 04 324 2883, www.valleydez.com
Dubai’s Marina Mall, while not exactly at Dubai Mall levels, is home to a few interesting shops, including the tiny fashion and gift boutique Soboho, which sells frocks, T-shirts and accessories from Los Angeles, as well as some very cute babywear and gifts. It’s all about the Hollywood lifestyle, says the co-owner Hazar Duwaji.
“Everything is bought in LA. It’s very LA-style, with very funky items, so in a way we like to think of it as InStyle magazine in a store. All the latest stuff that the stars are using with their kids, what they’re wearing...”
With a mix of vintage-style rock tees and easy-to-wear minidresses, streetwear and tops, there’s plenty of unusual fare, though, as you’d expect with LA, you’ll be lucky to find much to fit anything beyond a pint-sized Paris Hilton figure. The odd larger piece exists, but a US four or six is probably about the standard.
Soboho, Marina Mall, Dubai