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Creating a Fashion Mecca in Dubai’s Design District

Nine buildings are under construction on a vast site that is the future home of the Dubai Design District.

A digital rendering of the future Dubai Design District, or D3.

DUBAI — A Dubai developer is giving fashion and other design disciplines plenty of room to grow — up to 25 million square feet of space, in fact.

This story first appeared in the June 10, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Nine buildings are under construction on a vast site that is the future home of the Dubai Design District, with office tenants expected to start moving in in January.

It’s only the first phase of an ambitious, mixed-use development that aims to position Dubai as a key fashion capital and nurture a nascent and fragmented industry. Ultimately, a design school, concept stores, boutique hotels, showrooms and residences are to sprout up, nurturing a nascent local industry — and creating an alternative attraction to megamalls stacked with mainly international brands.

“People are hungry to know more about our culture, about Dubai,” said Dr. Amina Al Rustamani, group chief executive officer of Tecom Investments, which is spearheading the project, known as D3 and rising up on a creek-front site not far from The Dubai Mall and the downtown core area. “The project is to nurture local talent and hopefully have the next global brand come out of Dubai.…This city is full of secret talents.”


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Al Rustamani is also billing D3 as an ideal venue for Western brands to use as a hub for their businesses in the Middle East region, northern Africa and environs, exploiting Dubai’s strategic geography and advanced infrastructure.

As luxury businesses flourish in the Middle East, many are transitioning out of franchise arrangements and setting up joint ventures or establishing direct operations in so-called “free-zone” districts.

“Dubai plays a major role as the gateway between East and West,” Al Rustamani noted. “Dubai is a melting pot.”

Tecom specializes in creating such business clusters, having already built up districts such as Media City, home to scores of entrepreneurs alongside marquee banners including CNN, CNBC, CBC, Reuters, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. It operates 10 business parks housing mainly knowledge-based workers in fields such as science, media and education.

The design district is to span multiple disciplines, including art, fashion, luxury, architecture and home design. “Building a business community” is how Al Rustamani describes her mission. “You open doors for them; you provide business opportunities.”

According to Tecom tallies, the fashion and interiors market in the Gulf states is expected to top $14.7 billion this year with the UAE accounting for $6.26 billion of that total.

Fashion, which already accounts for roughly half of tourist spending in Dubai, is to be a key attraction at D3, according to Al Rustamani, an engineer by training, who attended the interview dressed in a sleek navy pantsuit by Hugo Boss and was joined by D3 executive Umran Shah.

Leading a hard-hat tour of the work site, Shah showed off future offices boasting staggering views of Dubai’s spiky, futuristic skyline and street-level retail spaces with mezzanines that could house fashion ateliers.

Al Rustamani noted that Dubai-based designers are sprinkled throughout the city, but could soon coagulate in D3, with couture types setting up salons in upper floors of the office towers and ready-to-wear makers selling their wares out of waterfront boutiques.

Current plans call for the sprawling site to house a convention center, skateboard park, amphitheater, residences and scores of cafés and eateries. Al Rustamani stressed that developing footfall is a key priority, which it plans to garner with retail and cultural attractions, along with private events.

Al Rustamani traveled to Paris, New York and Milan to benchmark how such cities evolved into fashion capitals, and developments such as Miami’s Design District.

Creating a fashion council last year marked another step in positioning Dubai as a fashion center. Its goal is to magnify talent in the broader region, extending as far as Southeast Asia and North Africa, and give designers a piece of the international pie. Dubai’s biannual fashion week is called Fashion Forward, and is to hold its fourth edition in October, which will include a series of talks supported by D3.

The latest edition, staged in April, featured 18 catwalk shows, while 53 local brands displayed jewelry, handbags, T-shirts, shoes, hair accessories and home wares.

“Our fashion industry is beginning to blossom,” said Bong Guerrero, founder and ceo of Fashion Forward. “There is no doubting the region’s design talent, but to translate this into a thriving and sustainable industry, there needs to be increased education and support in all areas of the business.”

He characterized D3 as the “physical hub” for the design community, raising its international profile and “creating an infrastructure for the myriad components which are needed to make an industry in the region.”

While Dubai could potentially become known as a center for Islamist fashions that conform to religious or local dress customs, Al Rustamani said she prefers the term “conservative” fashions — or no labels at all.

In focus groups D3 held with local designers, most bristled at such terminology, stressing that design, even if it has a regional flavor, should not be constricted.

“Fashion is fashion,” Al Rustamani shrugged. “This should be global.”