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Dubai, the gleaming emirate known for being a luxury retail mecca, showcased a very different side of its fashion industry earlier this month — its homegrown designers.
The first Fashion Forward event saw 20 regionally based emerging and established designers showcase their work.
“This region is a significant market; fashion consumerism at its highest,” said Bong Guerrero, founder and chief executive officer of Fashion Forward. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t champion our own brands.”
The first event of its kind for emerging and established designers in the Middle East, Fashion Forward is not quite a traditional fashion week, instead aiming to be a platform to support emerging designers. In addition to runway shows, the four-day event included panel discussions, workshops and mentorship programs. Guerrero said collectively the designers in the region are in what he described as an “incubation period.”
“Our homegrown brands need to reach a point to compete on a global stage,” he added. “We need to take steps forward, starting with visibility.”
Among attendees at the event were Steven Kolb, ceo of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Arab designers Reem Acra and Rabih Kayrouz. Kolb, on his first trip to the region, hosted a luncheon for designers and industry professionals. “The region is young and spirited,” he told WWD. “And while that’s great, things can get lost in a cluster of too many ideas. I can compare it to where New York was 50 years ago. With the right path, program and people, there’s huge potential.”
He said designers can reach wider audiences through some of the larger department stores in the region, from Bloomingdale’s to Saks Fifth Avenue, Harvey Nichols and Galeries Lafayette. “The great thing is that because a lot of international retailers are interested in this market that are connected back to America, there is opportunity where noise can be made for a local designer here,” said Kolb.
Creating a Middle Eastern identity remains a bit of a challenge. Kayrouz, who is a cofounder of Starch, a nonprofit that supports emerging designers in his native Lebanon, took part in a discussion panel on the topic. “We have forgotten a lot of our traditions and history. It’s time to bring them out, to have a real identity,” he told the audience. “Oriental things were inspiration for a lot of designers. Saint Laurent brought kaftans to the Parisian street. Our designers should bring back certain pieces into daily life.”
Zayan Ghandour, owner of Sauce, a Dubai boutique that has supported young talent from the region for years, also launched her own line, Zayan. Her lighthearted collection featuring polka-dot prints, brocades and metallic trims had a “satwa” style theme, in reference to one of Dubai’s oldest working-class neighborhoods.
Essa Walla, one Dubai’s most popular local designers, has won multiple awards as best regional designer from various fashion magazines. Reclusive for many years, Walla said he loved the process behind creating his well-known Neoprene dresses, but was not always keen on showing on a runway. “I realized it was an important part of the process. People need to see the dresses and know me,” the designer said.
Tahir Sultan, of mixed Kuwaiti and Indian origin, said the multicultural nature of Dubai was a great place for him to show. “I’m proud to be from two diverse places that offer two very different points of view and open doors and windows to different and uniquely inspiring creative worlds,” he said. Sultan has also shown at London Fashion Week and his collection is a mix of structural jackets, jumpsuits and knits handmade in India by local artisans.
Qatar-based designer Lama El-Moatassem set up her fashion house in 2009 in Doha after working with Matthew Williamson and Chloé in London. Her flagship, designed by architect Peter Marino, has taken off in a short time. Known for her intricate embroidery, her collection championed a mix-and-match approach, including delicate lace separates. “I wanted the precious part of the garment with the delicate beaded collars to be transferrable and versatile, pieces that can be styled up or dressed down,” she said.
Perhaps one of the most dramatic collections was by Furne One of Amato Haute Couture. The couturier has worked as the in-house designer for the royal family in the United Arab Emirates. Since launching his own label, he has dressed celebrities including Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. He showed a collection of couture gowns styled with sculptural elements made by a local designer.
The grand finale show by Ayesha Depala showcased the designer’s trademark feminine style with a dose of street edge. The designer, originally from India, is well known for dressing Bollywood A-list celebrities. She showcased a collection consisting of casual separates along with formal cocktail dresses and gowns in fabrics including silk crepes, velvet, silk gazar, leather, lace and faux fur in a neutral color palette.
Fashion Forward did not separate ready-to-wear and couture just yet. Most of the region’s designers are well versed in couture, since there is a great demand for it in the Gulf region. According to Dubai-based Rami Al Ali, who recently dressed model Chanel Iman at the Oscars and presents during haute couture week in Paris, launching rtw in the region, which is saturated with Western brands, is challenging. “You’re immediately competing with the established global brands that have been in the market for decades,” he said.
The next edition of Fashion Forward will take place in Dubai in mid-October. The organizers hope to add an advisory council to help steer the direction of the growth of Middle Eastern designers.
Acra, who came on the last day of the event to represent the CFDA, is optimistic the region will shine quickly. “We are at the very beginning here. But knowing Dubai and how fast it grows, if everything goes at that same speed, the industry is going to move quickly,” said the designer.