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DUBAI — Fashion Forward, a marquee event here for designers hailing from across the Middle East, wrapped this week against a backdrop of a less vibrant retail scene.

Developing commercially viable businesses was a key concern for participants, especially as retail in the Gulf Region has seen a slowdown in sales. Finding stores to sell their clothes is a challenge as buyers are facing tightened budgets.

Yet the number of participants vying for attention reached a peak. With more than 47 ready-to-wear, couture, jewelry and accessory designers taking part in Fashion Forward, this season showcased the largest collection of designers since the platform launched four years ago.

“We are propelling Middle Eastern talent following the Dubai government’s mandate to cement the city as a creative hub,” said Bong Guerrero, cofounder and chief executive officer of Fashion Forward.

The range of designers reflected Dubai’s multicultural nature, hailing from across the Arab world, but also stretching to Pakistan and Central Asia. “Diversity comes hand in hand with cosmopolitan cities. Dubai is quick to embrace its multicultural footprint and Fashion Forward reflects that,” Guerrero said.

Basma Abu Ghazaleh, the designer behind Kage, a popular regional rtw brand, will be launching her e-commerce platform this week. “We aren’t stocked internationally yet, and I really wanted global reach. Having my own online sales platform helps in diversifying my client base and it also makes me be less dependent on just the few boutiques that buy me,” she said.

She added that for smaller brands, social media represents key channels to drive direct-to-consumer sales “For us, the reach of the social media and digital world is really important.”

International buyers attending this season including representatives from Lambert & Associates, the buying office for Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Holt Renfrew and Fenwick, as well as Harvey Nichols Riyadh, plus concepts stores from the U.K. and Russia. Paris-based Muriel Piaser, who organized the group of  international buyers who were attending the shows in Dubai for the first time, praised the platform, saying, “Fashion Forward offers the world an avant-garde viewpoint of the Middle East and shows it’s really a global market.”

But given the current climate, she noted it’s important for designers to stay competitive in pricing. “Buyers are still looking to discover new brands, but the designers here really have to be at the right price point and focus on marketing,” she said.

Although most designers want to get into the U.S. market, she commented: “It’s complicated because at the moment they won’t take a big risk. You have to develop a certain amount of fame and following. And they have to feel security that you will deliver the product.”

Sharmila Murat, general manager for the UAE market for the Chalhoub Group, spoke to designers during a panel discussion at Fashion Forward. “The developing fashion ecosystem here in Dubai — like design schools, peer networks and trade events — bolster the development of the entire industry,” she said.

Chalhoub is the leading franchiser of luxury brands in the region, and although it does support regional design talent in several of its department stores, designers must also focus on their commercial viability. “Creating a product that serves consumer needs is the first battle. But the real heart of the design business is in execution and understanding the supply chain. You have to be able to produce and deliver on time. For an up and coming designer, you really only get a few chances,” Murat said.

Dubai’s designers were eager not to waste their chance. “Showing in Dubai is very important for me as this is where most of my client base is,” said Hussein Bazaza, who showcased at Alta Roma this summer as well. “Dubai has great regional and international exposure and it keeps growing.”

Below, some notable designers who showed collections for spring 2017:

Hussein Bazaza
One of the most anticipated shows on the Fashion Forward schedule, the young Lebanese designer who has won accolades, including Vogue Italia’s Young Talents award, showcased a collection inspired by a dark fairy-tale of a mermaid infatuated with a sailor. It featured dark colors, bold metallic straps and traditional men’s wear fabrics like pinstripes paired with lace and ruffle details. Piaser commented: “He is one of the best this season here; he could be the Christian Lacroix of the Middle East.” Though more somber and grungy than his previous collections, the pieces incorporated whimsical embroidered stars, butterflies and unicorns which lifted the mood of each look.

Kage
Basma Abu Ghazaleh was inspired by the popular Eighties cartoon series “Rainbow Brite.” Light and airy cotton plaid and striped fabrics with details like layered ruffle sleeves created a fun, effortless vibe. She also incorporated metallic stripes alongside tangerine and canary yellow in a variety of silhouettes, including shorts and off-the-shoulder.

Salta
Originally from Kazakhstan, Saltanat Baimukhamedova is a relative newcomer to Dubai’s runways. But her bold mixture of street style and bohemian layering has become a favorite of regional fashion stars. This season she stuck to a muted palette of blacks, beige and cream for drapey overalls which had a sensual feel while offering “freedom and comfort.”

Arwa Al Banawi
The Saudi designer showed a collection meant to capture “the positivity tomorrow brings,” she said. Her standout looks were tailored suits in graphic prints paired with knee-length shorts, which stood out for their vibrant color palette. The young designer also showcased pajama-style silhouettes with Arabic fabric detailing on the belts and colors. Embroidered suits added a touch of eveningwear glamour to the collection.

Saucette
Zayan Ghandour departed from showing her popular women’s range, instead creating a 22-piece collection for girls ages 4 to 12 in collaboration with the Cartoon Network, inspired by the series “The Powerpuff Girls.” The show was a fun, fresh, contemporary take on superheroines and included mommy and me looks with cross stitch embroidery on sheer white organza, off-the-shoulder details, delicate hems and soft ruffles.

Madiyah Al Sharqi
Sheikha Madiyah Al Sharqi, daughter of the Ruler of Fujairah, a seaside emirate neighboring Dubai, grew up immersed in high fashion. Now an established name in the region, her spring collection featured her signature pastel hued flowy silhouettes inspired by waves and what she describes as “ripples in the sand.” The waves and ripples were reflected in her choice of textured fabrics translated onto jackets, asymmetrical dresses and blouses, with abstract cutaways capturing the rising and setting of the sun.

Bouguessa
Bouguessa designer Faiza Rym pours minimalist sophistication and feminine elegance into modest fashion. Inspired by architecture, she translates traditional abayas, or cloaks, worn to cover in Muslim countries into modern silhouettes, incorporating bold lines and sharp edges. For spring, she combined cotton, tweed, silk and linen into a collection of neutral pieces that look more like dusters and shirt dresses than traditional attire.

Nathalie Trad
Already carried by top luxury stores globally, Dubai-based Nathalie Trad is known for her distinctive handbags made from natural elements like wood and mother-of-pearl. She recently expanded into footwear in a collaboration with Rupert Sanderson, which will hit stores next season.

Madiso
Accessories designer Madiha Muzaffar uses a range of materials including precious stones, Swarovski crystals, acrylic and beads to create bold necklaces, earrings and handbags. Each piece is made by hand and is unique. Her current collection explores the magic and mystery of the ocean, with each piece representing a hidden treasure.

Rula Ghalayini
Ghalayini incorporates architectural form into each of her handbags, using exotic leathers and gold-plated brass elements to create edgy, statement bags. She reinterprets her signature cuff bag every season, introducing a new shape for the jewelry inspired handbag.

Inaaya
Showing at Fashion Forward for the first time, Inaaya’s handmade artisanal accessories are created in women’s cooperatives in Pakistan’s Sindh province. She uses traditional techniques, creating employment opportunities for women in impoverished villages. Her necklaces have been worn by the likes of Amal Clooney and she’s poised to take the brand to a wider audience.

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