A model walks the runway during the Arwa Al Banawi presentation at Fashion Forward March 2017 held at the Dubai Design District on March 23, 2017 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

DUBAI — Despite a rare downpour in the desert over the weekend, 10,000 people from Dubai and the region came out in force to see regional designers showcase their latest collections at Fashion Forward, the emirate’s answer to a fashion week.

The key themes that emerged were wearable, seasonless collections, with an emphasis on comfort. In a region known for its interest in couture, ready-to-wear designers showed a move toward practical dressing with a decidedly feminist edge.

“Dubai is a retail capital, something that can be a really big advantage for our young designers,” said Bong Guerrero, chief executive officer of Fashion Forward. “Social media gives emerging talent the opportunity to take their runway designs directly to their audience, and it creates a lot of buzz and demand right after the shows.”

With retail sales generally slowing in the area, retailers are looking for new brands to discover. Maria Gold Knudsen, head of style and content at Ounass.com, a new luxury retail platform in the Middle East, said the company is featuring several regional designers alongside well-established global brand names. “We have capsule collections launched exclusively for us [that] do very well. We are always on the lookout for new brands from the region.”

Remaining competitive in a market saturated with international brands means local designers have to offer something unique at the right price point. Acile Sleiman, head of retail, e-commerce and online services at Google in the Middle East, spoke at the event, encouraging designers to utilize search tools to help zero in on the needs of the market. “Saudi Arabia has an 86 percent smartphone penetration rate, which is higher than the U.K.,” she said. “Most of their search behavior happens on smartphones.”

She also advised designers to do search analysis to meet customer demands. “Tools like Google trends can help determine the size of a potential market for a product by showing you what people are searching for in the region.”

Fashion Forward occurs late in the buying season, making it difficult for buyers to place orders because budgets are often spent. But for several designers showing this season, the platform offered them a chance to test a see-now-buy-now model, although with small quantities.

Arwa Al Banawi
Saudi designer Arwa Al Banawi, launched her namesake brand in 2015, and quickly has become known for her statement graphic-printed suits. A former banker, she saw a void in the market for women’s wear that is both professional and fashion forward. This season, Al Banawi coined the phrase “the suitable woman,” which was emblazoned on T-hirts and tanks tops layered under jackets. Her collection, entitled Hayata or “her life” in Arabic, had a decidedly relaxed feel. “I wanted to seize this ath-leisure moment. I wanted everything to be easy-to-wear. The jersey cotton fabric won’t wrinkle, you can wear them for work or even when you are leaving the gym.”

She also launched shirts and sweaters with the slogan, “Darast Amreeka,” which means “I studied in America,” a statement she said is used commonly among twentysomethings in Saudi Arabia to make a statement about education, empowerment and strength. She sold her slogan T-shirts immediately after the show in a pop-up shop and sold out on the first day. “Here people want things immediately and then if we say ‘It’s not in stores for another three months,’ it really slows things down,” she said. “I can’t do this with everything in my collection, but the T-shirts worked.”

Designed by three Iranian brothers, Babak, Haman and Farhan Golkar, the brand best known for its expertly tailored men’s suits created a very urban-inspired luxe streetwear collection in collaboration with Reebok. Mesh bomber jackets were layered with logo shirts and paired with slouchy shorts with bold zipper details. Each look was styled with the new Reebok Zoku sneaker. The show opened with a performance by rapper Pepstar, who provided a backdrop of urban beats to the collection. The full collection was available immediately in the company’s own retail stores in Dubai.

Roni Helou
One of the biggest standouts this season was Lebanese designer Roni Helou, who debuted with his first collection called Element X, which he says, “follows the journey of feminism.” His fluid separates in neutral colors were made from men’s suiting fabric and cotton poplin. Shirts with wide sleeves were cuffed around the wrists with long strips of fabric. “The bands symbolize the oppression women experienced throughout history, and the gradual integration of men’s wear suiting fabrics into the pieces represent the upward struggle toward equality, one wave at a time.” Helou, who is based in Beirut, said he was heartened by the positive reaction to his collection. “This is my first time showing to such a wide audience and it’s been fantastic.”

Hussein Bazaza
Bazaza, known for his fairy-tale-inspired embroidered gowns, added separates like sweaters, pants and jackets this season to offer looks that were more wearable on a daily basis. The jackets featured tweed and silk with the signature intricate beading and delicate patchwork fabrics the brand is known for. He used military patterns interwoven with prints of aircrafts used in World War II, an ode to the difficult political climate. Bazaza said his inspiration was the Forties and Fifties. “We added a modern twist to it. The shapes are mostly classic flared skirts but with puffed sleeves and edgy shoulders.”

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