A call to arms: Middle East fashion scene

This is not an article on the fashion trends of the Gulf nor is it one about the regional fashion market. This is an article about why the Middle East fashion scene is stuck in amateur limbo.

You’ve seen it all before: Middle Eastern girls flashing their designer handbags and Swarovski-heavy sunglasses, while the men are even more designer-saturated in their Armani outfits, accessorized with Hermes belts and Gucci shoes. We claim to love the world of fashion, yet do nothing to show the world our own sense of it. Why is that?
The ability to buy designer handbags like it’s a weekly top up to your phone credit is a curse as much as a privilege. We’ve become obsessed in our superficial vanity that we’ve forgotten what makes fashion…well, fashion. It’s about self-expression, revealing a unique narrative through what we wear. Not buying a “Valentino” because it’s a Valentino, but because it exposes that wink of femininity that we’ve been hiding underneath an androgynous Rad Horani jacket all week. Fashion goes beyond individualism and stops somewhere between existentialism and the history of the future. Sometimes people get lost in the hype of fashion, or in this case, the hyperbole, but you must never forget the bigger picture: making a statement. And, the burgeoning fashion scene of the Middle East is screaming to be put on the international fashion map.
Although Dubai Fashion Week passed a few weeks ago, its residual effects can still be seen and heard. Debating on the good, the bad and even the ugly, both international and regional fashion insiders are using DFW as a litmus test to predict what’s to come of the Arab fashion world.

But, why Dubai as the indicative city of the entire Middle Eastern fashion sphere? Opposers may argue there are too many influences — and honestly, they would be most correct. A melting pot of expatriates and non-Arab locals, Dubai sometimes appears too non-Middle Eastern. Yet, despite its drawbacks, it’s still the best option. Beirut is too French — and also too politically unstable. Saudi Arabia has impossible visa restrictions, while Bahrain is too small and Kuwait is too localized. Doha’s infrastructure is not quite there yet, but maybe in two years this article will be rewritten with Doha replacing every “Dubai.”
There is so much potential for Dubai to be the hub for Arab fashion. Its location makes it ideal for both regional and international buyers and press. Now, the ratio of hotels to PR agencies is almost 1:2. The opening of Esmod Dubai Fashion University encouraged the emergence of skilled fashion designers, while allowing the unbidden and dreaded shopping-addicts-turned-“designers” to be filtered out. Dubai is also the only city in the Arab World to earn a position on the list of the top 15 global fashion cities (11th) in 2009, according to Reuters. This year, however, Dubai fell short — not even making the top 20.

So, with everything it has going for itself, why is Dubai still not living up to its potential?
Unfortunately, the reason is behind the split local fashion scene. There are those who genuinely love the industry and want to see it succeed. Then, there are those who genuinely love themselves and want to see themselves succeed. Self-ambition is good, but building an industry that is respected by its international counterparts is even better.
Yet, there it is — Dubai and its fashion scene — as stagnate as the water from the man-made lagoons that surround it. And, it is not because of lack of talent or lack of interest. Those things are in full abundance in the Middle East, and the numerous fashion magazines popping out of this region are a testament to it. Although very premature, the fashion scene of the Middle East is still an alluring cosmopolitan of influence and styles. From traditional garb (like ornate saris and contemporary abayas) to the avant-garde and haute couture, Dubai acts as a nucleus of diverse design aesthetics from an eclectic compilation of talented designers.

However, what is lacking is support: the unwillingness of the regional fashion community to come together and participate.
You already know you’re not going to see Georges Chakra and Elie Saab in Dubai, as they are now big shots who show in New York and Paris respectively. Still, editors and Isabella Blow-esque scouts need to still be front row come fashion week because Chakra and Saab had to start from somewhere and you never know when you’ll discover the next Rami Al Ali or Hatem Alakeel. These big names, like QASIMI who have done so well for themselves, need to come home to help boost the media presence and shine a spotlight on these emerging talents because nothing is more fashionable than giving back.
The pessimism of unstable and constant transference in management of such fashion events is also another deterrent for many. PR companies are beginning to outnumber the number of malls in the region—and no, that’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact. With this constant shift, it seems almost counterproductive. How is DFW to progress and learn from previous mistakes when management keeps changing and starting from scratch?
Take the case of this year’s DFW and Capital Marketing. Many complained, stating that Capital Marketing is not a fashion-oriented company, instead of praising them for trying to keep the dream alive. This year’s new tent venue at the Atlantis Hotel and Resort resembled international fashion weeks more than any of the DFW’s previous locations! The shows were on time with very few exceptions, and the designers saw a better turn out of regional buyers.
Truth is, without even realizing it, Dubai is more of a fashion capital that most people know. Forget the designers, models, press and runway shows; it’s the gossip. Add in some Louboutins and Minx manicures and you have yourself the perfect mix for fashion drama — both on and off the catwalk.
Mercedes-Fashion Week wouldn’t be New York Fashion Week if us insiders didn’t rant about how Jessica Simpson — with her hair extensions and Target line — was absolutely the worst choice for Project Runway’s guest finale judge. Paris Fashion Week wouldn’t have been worth the words in print if editors didn’t debate why Blake Lively appears to be the new muse to every designer — she’s Sarah, Plain and Tall with gorgeous legs, admit it. And, Dubai Fashion Week wouldn’t be worth the columns of print if not for its ridiculous fashion politics and high-society shunning.
But, now that the drama criterion has been more than fulfilled, it is time for the other criteria to be met too.
Seeing a designer’s eyes light up as he enthusiastically explains his inspiration behind his collection’s color palette is what it’s all about. The worth of the freebies at the shows is not. Budding teenage fashionistas who come with their parents and take pictures in front of the DFW walkway and immediately post them on Facebook, is also what fashion weeks are all about. Which paparazzi were present to take pictures of you seen with (insert Bollywood actor name here) is not. The designing students who camped outside and whose only dream is that someone of fashion importance will notice their outfit (which they’ve planned a week prior) and invite them to the Manish Maholtra finale to show for their fashion prowess is what fashion week is all about!

This article is a plea to all you fashion lovers and fashion wannabes, stylists, editors, photographers, potential sponsors, buyers and both established and emerging designers.

The Middle East fashion scene can be great. But it won’t be without you.

Article by Marriam M Mosalli – Arab News