x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

School parents in battle of the brands

Emirati mothers admit they are struggling to keep up with the social pressure of being seen to provide only the best for their daughters

ABU DHABI // Emirati parents say they are struggling to keep up with the social pressure of buying expensive designer schoolwear for their daughters.

But many of those teenage girls say they have little interest in designer brands and it is their mothers who are determined to match other Emirati families.

The result is an outbreak of one-upmanship in schools, with some girls donning expensive designer clothes and accessories as a mark of social status while less affluent families try desperately to keep up.

"People judge us by looks, hair, make-up, clothes, everything," said Maha al Juneibi, a 17-year-old Emirati at Al Nahda International School in Abu Dhabi.

"I'd say 80 per cent of my friends judge other girls based on looks and brands. I don't care, but if my mum sees that my friends are wearing brands and I am not, she would want me to be the same - a bit like a competition between families."

That competition comes with a painful price tag. "When you have lots of kids, it's hard to keep up," said Umm Faisal. Three of her seven children are in secondary school.

"They are young, we shouldn't need to get them brands all the time."

Shaima Mohamed, a 17-year-old Emirati from Abu Dhabi, and her mother, said parents were often at fault for this "untraditional" trend.

"Family is the main pressure - it's all about reputation and family name," Shaima said. "In recent years this has grown, everything goes by brands and the name - everyone has a stereotypical image of an Emirati based on their family name, if they are pure or not."

She said this caused friction at school. "Some people think they are better than others by their names, and they have to get the brands to go with it."

Her mother, Umm Mohamed, said: "The first people to blame are the parents. They should have other priorities. This is not part of the tradition here. It makes other people who cannot afford it feel bad."

Another mother, Umm Saleh, said her four daughters were obsessed with Chanel. "It is my luck they all only want to wear Chanel, so I buy four of the same bags. It is not right, but we cannot deprive them and make them feel other girls are better than them."

Halima al Shehi, a youth worker at a care home for Emiratis in Al Ain, said she was a fan of designer goods. And so are the girls in her care, despite her efforts to discourage materialism.

"In the centre they all wanted branded stuff, and now we are trying to get them used to cheaper things, but I support brands," she said.

In addition to designer bags and shoes, girls have found more subtle ways to add some bling to their schoolwear - by substituting plain white shirts with Dh700 Ralph Lauren polo shirts, for example.

"Sometimes you get Burberry too," Shaima said. "We wear abayas, but we have to take them off at times, so everything shows. So not only are their abayas blinged up, but under they are dripping with brands."

A saleswoman at Burberry said local teenage girls were regular customers. At the start of the school year, there was a run on the luxury retailer's Dh1,750 school shirts.

"The mums come as well," she said. "Sometime they say the price is high, but they want the clothes and bags, so what can they do?"

Teachers seem oblivious to the battle of the brands in their classrooms.

"We haven't known before that this was a problem," said Bridin Harnett, a guidance counsellor at Al Nahda International School. "You do get some girls coming in with Chanel bags, but brands have become part of their lives now."

Expatriates have been sucked in, too, with some going to markets such as Karama in Dubai to buy fake branded clothes and accessories.

"Although everyone says they can spot a fake easily, they don't know my bags are fake," said SA, a 16-year-old Jordanian. "I can't ask my parents for a Dh13,000 Chanel bag - they'd kill me!"

osalem@thenational.ae