Every four months, Dubai announces another exclusive eastern fashion week. Even the economic downturn does nothing to deter this visual onslaught of shades and silhouette. Amid red carpets and shutterbugs, litanies of labels are launched.
Organised by events companies, fashion is the eye candy on whose snob value sponsors piggy back a ride; so alcohol companies to telecoms, magazines to banking products, celebrate the culture of chic as commercial crutch.
In the west, fashion weeks are serious business-2-business events that sustain the world's fourth largest industry – the garment, accessories and apparel industry. Held in conjunction with the respective fashion councils, these weeks are capacity-building exercises, hosted by democratically-elected bodies working towards creating national brands. Supported and subsidised by local governments, adding value of design they develop awareness and aspiration for local talent.
In the east, neo-colonialism reflects through the shopping mix; from Calcutta to China imports decorate store windows. There is no internationally recognised eastern fashion designer brand anywhere between Dubai to Delhi. A few Japanese and Korean designers have made headway but only after being based in Europe of the US. The rest of them turn into faceless nameless talent amid sequins and T-shirt sweatshops. While Western designers make a mark in the mega-million dollar eastern malls, national brands remain outside the fray – used as low end couturiers for occasion wear.
The millennium witnesses a style rebellion from India, Malaysia, the UAE, Lebanon and Singapore against sweatshop servitude. Creating a renaissance, breaking out of their 'ethnic' tag using their crafts with contemporary culture they created a renaissance of sorts. Supported by regional consumers whose rising purchasing power led to mind styles changes, gone was the socio-moralistic minimalism of the new age purveyors of style signalled the region's growing capacity.
Regional sales stimulated these fraternities to evolve into serious players on the fashion circuit. Detrimental to this process were local fashion councils who infused business sense, went beyond gilded ropes structured in the business of fashion. Building infrastructure, designing legal frameworks, setting benchmarks, these councils incubated a de jure industry; local labels that were culturally sensitive with globally acceptable quality.
Unveiling them through hype and hetroglossia they used pure showmanship at fashion weeks supported by content-hungry media to showcase evolving aesthetics. But these weeks were essentially opportunities to form trade linkages, used as marketing tools where muses and marketers met to set trends. Tarun Tahiliani and Rohit Bal, Doori Chung and Manish Aurora, Vivienne Tam and Lida O Riley are names that catapulted from these catwalks to chic international stores.
Realising their potential the councils extended their reach into natural extension markets. Fashion Foundation of India unveiled a B2B, at Dubai's Bastakiya. Summet Nair, CEO said: "It's only natural to seek alliances with the UAE; there are a lot of intrinsic similarities and a large diaspora market." Building partnerships with local organisations, creating an exchange of talent, FFI's efforts received given visual impetus when Emirates Vision's John Matthew showcased collections by India's top 12 – the response reflected directly through sales and store signage.
The UAE seemed a natural destination; on the wish list of very luxury label. So what is it about fashion that seduces the mind with glitz and glamour? Its here that beauty comes alive, in a form of art that hardly exists in India in any other realm; people watching a beautiful woman, stride down a magically lit up ramp, attired in beautiful ensembles, applauded by beautiful people priming and preening in front rows; a shinny sub culture that makes us forget the reality of recession in a nano-second.
Modelled along this thought is Creations Fashion Week; it has launched many an emerging Emirati and eastern talent. An innovative, inexpensive podium supported by Dubai Shopping Festival and Emirates Vision. Here designers put their first feat forward, presenting to their first audience, daring to dream of providing alternative solutions to local shoppers who otherwise depend on international brands or cheap imports or mass market mediocrity.
Raising awareness in UAE's consumers about their own talent, Creations is a powerful cultural platform, especially since it has given designers a chance of going global. Zahra Mohammed, won the Creations Designer of the Year Award 2008 earning an opportunity to show the rich Arab culture at Miami Fashion Week. This year, a strategic tie up with Colombo Fashion Week will see Shabana Asif unveil her creations in Sri Lanka. This talent exchange has raised interest in local labels even across the shores; going 'out is certainly considered being in'.
John Mathew of Creations Fashion Week said: "The UAE is an emerging fashion hub of the east; where top brands and designers seek to imprint their identity. But UAE is not for designers seeking to host trunk shows; it's about creating brand awareness and networking." Truly, the regional media is being extremely supportive, but several hiccups in the organisation result in slack buyer/designer interaction – though after-show exhibits stir off shopping sprees, the catalyst to set-off cash registers is missing.
Its national support that stirs up aspiration for local labels; Armani was first a rising star in Italy before taking New York by storm. Representative of the Italian designer fraternity, nurtured by Italian textile industry (when they needed a showcase for their wares) – they have jointly worked on fashion weeks, jointly scaling unprecedented heights. The UAE designers lack local business support; there is no indigenous textile industry to support it and the multitude of malls refuse spaces to most regional brands, so there is no direct link from show to store.
Even though UAE is cosmopolitan country, home to over 200 nationalities, an import market worth $11.4 billion (Dh42bn), the largest textile and garments market in the Middle East with more than 73 per cent of the world's leading brands available here, its hasn't got a single label to write home about. Though talent abounds as local bridal fashion houses and regional ramps bear witness to, none have captured regional minds. Despite skilled labour and rare crafts available to the region's designers they are unable to tap the interest of 1.6 billion Muslims across the world.
Despite demographics and large disposable income, there are several challenges local labels face. Rabia Z, a critically acclaimed designer won accolades for conservative creativity in keeping with the tenets of Islam. Providing casual yet chic options for Hijabi women, this media magnet is unable to get her collections together for the last two seasons. Shortages for small-run production facilities, imperative for prêt have been a deterrent, lack of start-up investment and the unavailability of multi brand stores – either through store-in-store, consignment or franchisee formats- does not allow her dreams to turn into reality.
As the UAE ambitiously evolves into a design and fashion hub; with Louvre and The Met moving east and malls growing in multiplier mode, it is important to realise how important local graffiti and cultural chic are. The world comes to these shores to shop, so why is every mall showcasing the same store mix, where are unique stores that have products exclusively from the the UAE? Fashion colonialism tarnishes the face of emerging eastern economies; powerful iconography of international fashion brands superimposed on the minds of eastern consumers.
Nurturing national labels would directly reflect into a healthier GDP – especially since media exposure for UAE designers is high. Ambitious fiscal soothsayers insist that it's the best time for local labels to break-out. With established brands suffering shrinking market, malls emptying up due to credit crush and the everyday consumer looking for value-added option; local designers can provide affordable luxury. The UAE has low labour cost for highly skilled workers affording regional talent a better chance to compete.
More technology is necessary to meet international market demands. Designing a lab to create short runs and offering production capacity for new labels are critical. Good governance is important to ensure reputed local labels are accorded the dignity of sharing the retail spaces with global labels. Also critical is the building of a local council to bridge communication between buyers and designers and a legal cell to conduct business in a professional manner. And most importantly – one National Fashion Week in keeping with the tenets of tradition is required to regulate and benchmark local labels.