Dressed for success

Tommy Hilfiger is just the latest in a long line of fashion gurus looking to the Middle East to make their mark. Alicia Buller reports.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  May 14, 2006

|~|26-55327751-200.jpg|~||~|Tommy Hilfiger is just the latest in a long line of fashion gurus looking to the Middle East to make their mark. Alicia Buller reports. Dubai is churning out luxury shopping malls relentlessly − crying out like a child to serve the 15 million tourists that are expected to hit Dubai annually by 2010. And the rest of the world, of course, has taken note. In the last six months alone, the likes of Burberry, Paul Smith, Jimmy Choo, Emporio Armani and world-acclaimed department store, Harvey Nichols, have all chosen to hit the city’s shores − in search of a slice of the region’s glittering $US200 billion luxury goods market. But what better testament to a land of sartorial greatness than to witness US-fashion demi-god Tommy Hilfiger take his first steps onto the city’s sands last week? Still, the king of ‘prep’ clothing is not the first, and neither will he be the last. Not insignificantly, Giorgio Armani, who made his first visit to Dubai early this year, commented that the city represents “the beginning of a new chapter” for Armani. The world-acclaimed designer also revealed one of the keys to the city’s mushrooming high-end retail sector, adding “we can do everything here exactly as we do in our stores in London and Hong Kong, without local, religious, legal or trade constraints.” What’s more, the Italian fashion super-giant and his rival firm Versace have signed combined deals worth US$2.7 billion to build two five-star branded hotels and more than 100 luxury branded villas in the city. The retail onslaught is latest in a long run of coups for the Dubai economy. And like the oil, finance and knowledge markets, the luxury goods industry is driven by one thing: hard cash. Not least, this will fuel the potential for Dubai to export fashion clothing to other countries. The burgeoning Middle East fashion and textile export market is said to be worth $US 11.4 billion, with Dubai’s logistics, strategic location and tax free areas marking it as a potential key manufacturing player on the world stage. But while the successful spinning of world-marketable yarns remains some way off, the fashion retail dynasty has already arrived. This is best illustrated perhaps by the recent arrival of the legendary and internationally acclaimed Harvey Nichols store in Dubai. The giant outlet is built on three levels, spans 136,900 square feet, and commanded a whopping investment of more than US$27 million. “The store is a fitting tribute to the discerning Dubai shopper, for whom luxury is a way of life,” says Joseph Wan, CEO of the UK-based Harvey Nichols Group. “We are confident of Harvey Nichols Dubai becoming the benchmark for the luxurious shopping experience in the UAE.” One man that hopes this isn’t true is Mohammed Ali, manager of US-owned rival high-end fashion store Saks Fifth Avenue Dubai, which has been in the city since 2004. But even if Harvey Nics has stepped right onto his store’s well-manicured toes, Ali agrees that luxury really is a ‘way of life’ for Dubai shoppers. “I am continually fascinated by the level of brand awareness here,” he says. “Having worked for Saks for 13 years in the States, the market savvy of our customers is really not all that different. And everyday, it’s getting more and more refined. We feel very proud to be here.” Saks Fifth Avenue is America’s most popular high-end fashion department store and, tellingly, the Dubai outlet is currently its largest store outside the US − paving the way for upcoming forays into China and India. “We get both local customers and international customers. And while we don’t sell any traditional or religious dress, we are in the process of getting in some custom-made Kaftans for females,” says Ali. “And while we find that European designers are currently the most popular, we’ve also just brought in Maniche O Reya from India and Chili Cooper from Australia.” While the Dubai consumer’s choice of fashion label usually reflects its international population − many retailers insist that there is a preference for European labels. Meanwhile Villa Moda, upscale Kuwait-born clothing department store and archrival of Saks Fifth Avenue, also claims that its most popular brands are largely European: namely Prada, Chloe and Blue Marine, with the exception of Lebanese designer, Elie Saab and UAE-based favourite, Zareena. “A large chunk of our customers are local women, and they also like to show a certain amount of patriotism to the region in their purchases,” says Jana Khoury, marketing manager for Villa Moda, which has eight stores across Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, London and, now, Syria. Notably, Middle Eastern designers have seen a huge surge in popularity of late. When the actress Halle Berry wore a drop-dead gown that strategically covered and uncovered her body to the 2004 Academy Awards, it got the world talking about the previously unknown Lebanese designer Elie Saab. Other regional designers of note include Walid Atallah, the American-educated designer from Lebanon who has been based in Dubai for the last 11 years designing garments for famous Middle Eastern stars and Rami El Ali, from Syria, who now runs his own acclaimed fashion house out of Dubai. With all this enthusiasm for fashion in the city, in addition to the allure of a young population, one of the world’s highest per-capita income levels, a market of some 1.5 billion people within two hours flying time, a tax-free, duty-free economy and low local labour costs and it’s easy to see why Dubai is rapidly being a world hotspot for a burgeoning mafioso of high-end designers. But to take on the market, each one of Dubai’s high-end labels is going to have to pay careful attention to the mélange of styles on the streets, as well as international trends. And, with Dubai’s fantastical blurring of reality and dreams, it may be difficult to really pin down what’s actually at the heart of fashion in the Middle East’s favourite shopping spot − and that's not to mention what the future holds. However, there appears to be two staple desires fuelling Dubai’s fashion boom: the need for quality and the aspiration for ‘bling’. “There are many different tastes in Dubai,” says a source at Burberry. “Our Dubai store sees a real mix of customers, both local and international. And while the locals love the strength, heritage and quality behind our clothes, they also seek to make a bold statement − this is where our Burberry ‘check’ branding comes in as it’s easily identifiable.” Notably, Burberry, is said to be working on a ‘Gulf chic’ range of branded abayas, head scarves and sandals. “But you can’t look at Dubai and think that the rest of the Middle East is the same, because it’s not,” continued the Burberry source. “Kuwait, for example, is another world and is much more traditional. The fashions and the people here are eclectic. It’s a mix of quality, tradition and high-end glam − they like all the European designers, particularly the flashy ranges, such as Roberto Cavelli, Christian Dior and Versace. And while Burberry is generally thought to be an understated brand, we do have some more glamourous ranges, particularly our new Prorsum range − which is quite potent. I would typify the UAE female taste, if I had to, as ‘feminine glory’.” However, the CEO of Balbadi Fashion, which is the exclusive franchisee for Calvin Klien’s collection in the Middle East, places more emphasis on the city’s desire for quality items. “People want to buy something with good quality finishing. People here care a lot about the way they look. But, while before the emphasis was on funkiness, but now it’s definitely about quality,” he says. “And, of course, the logo is still important here. The CK logo says ‘I’m different’. We’re much higher quality than Tommy Hilfiger, for example. And we’re a trend-setter.” Meanwhile, Gap and Banana Republic are also feeling a little unsettled by new arrival of Tommy Hilfiger’s store in Dubai. “They are both definitely direct competition,” says a brand manager for Banana Republic and Gap at local franchisee partner, RSH Limited. “While Gap is better across the board, Banana Republic is all about quality. Out of the two, Banana Republic does better in Dubai because it is more exclusive and offers really high quality. Plus we only have one store, which makes it seem more exclusive,” he continues. “We are amazed by the popularity here, people are just asking for more and more. Even more than we expected.” And as the months roll on, not only are high-end fashion sales expected to rocket across the malls and hotels of Dubai, but the sense of the city developing its own, unique fashion style is imminent. “Dubai, while bling in some senses, still has a casual air about it,” says Khoury of Villa Moda. “It’s a tidier look that will compliment the glam, manicured look that the ladies of Dubai prefer.” And while the catwalk pulses of Milan, Madrid and London have enjoyed the luxury of having thousands of years to perfect their looks, it seems that Dubai is doing a fine job of catching up − even if does trip over its high heels now and then. But, that said, Ali at Saks Fifth Avenue Dubai, insists that a few ingredients need to be added to the city’s creative mix to ensure that Dubai’s creativity nucleus matchwes the fervour of its high-end retailing prowess. “Dubai still needs more creative synchronicity. It needs more of an art scene and more fashion events. It could do with its own fashion school − the place needs more culture, and less moderation,” he says. “It also could do with more glitzy evening events to give the community something to dress up for. But whatever happens, no one can argue that this place is playing stage to some of the world’s design greats.”||**||

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