Fashion Has an Emerging New Capital in the Desert

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Fashion has an address in the desert now.

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It’s Saturday night, and fashion insiders gather on the terrace of a seaside hotel. Everyone is dressed to impress. There is a PR executive in a bow tie, a model in a mermaid gown and an ambassador’s wife with earrings as long as her champagne glass. On the dark horizon stands the tallest building in the world — the Burj Khalifa.

Welcome to Dubai, one of the world’s new fashion capitals. At least, that’s a tag everyone at this party is hoping for. Known best for its man-made islands and vertiginous skyscrapers, the Emirati city is now trying to become a first-class destination for all things stylish.

Dubai is now home to a slew of successful international events, which gives the country credibility in the fashion world.

Saisangeeth Daswani, design innovation researcher

It’s a bold move, going up against Paris or New York. But Dubai’s Design & Fashion Council has a strong plan of attack, and it is not pulling any punches. Fashion magazines? Vogue Arabia is headquartered in the city. Shopping malls? It has the world’s biggest, equivalent to more than 50 football fields. And space for designers? Well, of course. Dubai Design District is a newly finished 21.5 million square feet creative hub packed with galleries, workshops and studios for fashion icons like Christian Dior and Burberry but also homegrown talent like haute jewelry designer Nadine Kanso. The city’s efforts seem to be paying off. According to global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the United Arab Emirates is the second-fastest growing fashion market in the world, only after India. The country even hosts its very own Arab Fashion Week, which this year showcased work from the 22 countries that make up the Arab League.

“Dubai is now home to a slew of successful international events, which gives the country credibility in the fashion world,” says Saisangeeth Daswani, head of advisory for fashion and beauty at Stylus, a U.K.-based innovation research and advisory company.

Luxury and even global brands aren’t new to Dubai or the United Arab Emirates. According to Deloitte, 70 percent of Emiratis actually increased their spending in 2017. Overall, Arab consumers spent $320 billion on luxury fashion in 2016, a figure projected to grow to $490 billion by 2019. As far back as the late 1990s, when the Indian economy was still opening up, wealthy citizens of the world’s largest democracy would travel to Dubai to shop for top-end Western brands that were available at the plush malls of the desert city. 

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(Top) Models participating in the 2014 Essa show during Fashion Forward at the Madinat Jumeirah resort in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Bottom) An aerial view of the runway during the Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience in 2014.

Source (Top) Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images (Bottom) Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

What is new is Dubai’s effort to emerge as more than just a city-size shopping mall for luxury goods, at a time when much of the Gulf region is trying to reposition itself to reduce its dependence on oil exports. Part of what has traditionally held the city back — and still does, some fear — is that Dubai, however rich, simply lacks the cultural je ne sais quoi that makes London or Tokyo so appealing to designers. After all, much of Dubai is only a couple decades old, and over 80 percent of its residents are foreign-born.

Furne One has no such worries. Dressed head to toe in black, he is one of Dubai’s most internationally celebrated fashion designers. His couture firm, Amato, is a favorite among both Middle Eastern royalty and celebrities like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Shakira and Nicki Minaj. This hotel party is to celebrate him.


The designer says the city’s cultural melting pot is actually a great source of inspiration. Born in the Philippines, One has lived in Dubai since 1994 and says the city, where a majority of residents are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has plenty of character. “I am constantly marveled by its diversity,” One says. “I recently went to learn embroidering from an incredible Indian migrant woman. Where else can you do that?”

Still, Dubai has its own limitations, many of which are dictated by the Emirates’ cultural conservatism. “Designers are restricted here because there are some things they’ll never be able to do,” says Glitzy Al Banna, the CEO of the Dubai-based modeling agency Niche. “Like a Victoria Secret show. That will never happen here.”

Fashion takes time, but we’ll get there.

Furne One, Dubai-based designer

But some argue that missing out on lingerie catwalks may not prove a big loss given the market potential of “modest fashion” in West Asia and North Africa. “It’s time for mainstream fashion to welcome modest dressers, and Dubai is a great shop front for this style,” argues Franka Soeria, co-founder of Modest Fashion Week. The latest edition in Dubai gathered so much interest that she has decided to set up a permanent office in the city.

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A model walks the runway during the Zareena show at Fashion Forward Dubai held at the Dubai Design District on Oct. 28, 2017, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Source Cedric Ribeiro/Getty Images

Despite its paradoxes, Dubai seems determined to take its place among the ranks of top fashion destinations. And as global brands continue to flock in, the focus is now shifting to homegrown talent. Vogue Arabia is partnering with the Dubai Design & Fashion Council to fund a prize for up-and-coming Middle Eastern designers. Even the jewelry giant Swarovski has opened a design center to help local creators make their mark.

Meanwhile, One and other established designers have launched Fashion Forward, a platform to support and showcase local creators. “When I look at the next generation, I see the potential of Dubai,” he says. “Fashion takes time, but we’ll get there.”

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