The Middle East, particularly Dubai, has become an important region for luxury brands over the past few years, but it’s becoming an increasingly important market for streetwear labels and athletic companies wanting to take advantage of Dubai’s popular mall culture — Nike opened a 35,400-square-foot store last weekend at the Dubai Mall for example. But with a market of shoppers that skews young, brands are wanting to foster a direct connection not just by selling to the region but engaging with it.
One way they are able to do that is via Sole DXB, an annual footwear, music, art, and lifestyle festival that takes place in the Dubai Design District Dec. 6–8. Founded by Hussain Moloobhoy, Joshua Cox, Kris Balerite and Rajat Malhotra in 2010, the event started small as a screening to “The Mystery of Flying Kicks,” a 15-minute short film that required each guest to wear a pair of sneakers for entry.
From that screening, the founders realized there was an interest in hip-hop, sneakers and streetwear in the region, which led to the expansion of Sole DXB. The event takes place in a 150,000-square-foot venue and drew 16,000 visitors last year. The marketplace features a mix of brands and retailers including Pyer Moss, Les Benjamins, Adidas, Nike, Farfetch, Kappa, Herschel and Concepts. Kenzo and Dior Homme were the first luxury brands to participate in the event last year, and Dior Homme will return this year.
“It’s a meaningfully smaller market and we’ve had to figure out how we get brands to pay attention to the region, but that’s started to change over the last three years,” said Malhotra, a partner at Sole DXB. “Because we are all consuming the same media, the market is interested in the same brands, and brands are releasing larger drops. But it’s our job to also find local brands and offer them a platform.”
In previous years, the festival narratives have included Eighties and Nineties hip-hop, Grime and Japanese fashion. This year, the event will highlight South African creators and will premiere with a screening of “Rock Rubber 45s” a documentary by Bobbito Garcia about basketball and sneaker culture. Single-day passes are around $55 and weekend passes are about $80.
According to Malhotra, who also uses the Sole DXB platform as an agency that helps brands market to the Middle East, the goal is to appeal to a broad audience that’s interested in culture and not just sneaker and streetwear enthusiasts. He said 72 percent of its visitors are between 18 and 34 and the male and female attendance is almost equally split — 54 percent of visitors are male and 46 percent are women.
“There is a progression that we like to show in the space of fashion, music and the workshops we conduct. We aren’t pigeonholed to a particular geographic demographic. And if you look at Dubai, people who live here come from everywhere,” said Malhotra. “If you look at how we program the festival, we try to get a mix of contemporary and heritage.”
Programming this year includes musical performances from Blood Orange, Lion Babe, Giggs, Nas, Yasiin Bey, Joey Bada$$ and DaniLeigh. Talks include a session with Roxanne Shanté and music journalist Vikki Tobak, a masterclass with musician Masego, and a talk about graffiti and its relation to art with Futura. They’ve also integrated programming that explores art in Africa, including a session on visual culture in the region featuring Yasiin Bey, Jason Storey and Dr. Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz.
Adidas has participated in the event since it started and will host a four-floor space with one floor dedicated to the Falcon sneaker, which targets younger, female customers, and a Panna football cage.
“Every pillar of street culture is represented at Sole. Its unique positioning targets savvy consumers and offers brands an opportunity for consumer-centric activations,” said Arnaud Jeangirard, business director of style at Adidas. “It is essential to have a connection and relationship with the local scene and the opportunity to educate, experience and story-tell as a brand through a great, localized concept such as Sole for Dubai and the Middle East.”
Farfetch is working with sneaker and streetwear marketplace Stadium Goods to present a collection of exclusive sneakers with an offline and online hybrid experience. Edward Sabbagh, the managing director at Farfetch, couldn’t disclose how much volume comes from the region, but characterized the Middle Eastern shopper as younger than average and more inclined to shop on mobile phones via apps.
Les Benjamins, a streetwear based in Turkey, will drop its spring/summer 2019 “Road to Ball in Japan” collection before it hits flagships and other retailers. It will also release its collaboration on the Thunder Disc Triple Black collection with Puma and will have a workshop with Leo Lunatic, a Turkish graffiti artist.
“More than marketing, it’s about storytelling,” said Bunyamin Aydin, founder and creative director of Les Benjamins, about the importance of the event. “It’s not necessarily only sales but empowering younger designers, artists and also giving hope to the youth in the region is key. People forget that storytelling has to be real and you can’t fake it with marketing.”