What’s Next for Design and Fashion in Dubai?

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Photo: Courtesy of Dubai Design and Fashion Council

Following a decree announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Dubai Design and Fashion Council has been established to raise the profile of the Emirates as a regional and global destination for design and fashion. Here, Savoir Flair sits down with the CEO of the council, Nez Gebreel, to discuss how she plans to help transform Dubai into the emerging design capital of the world.

"We have enough content here and in the region. We have the right designers, we have the right mentality, and we have the heritage as well."

You’ve worked with everyone from David and Victoria Beckham to Roland Mouret. How have these experiences prepared you for your role as CEO of the Dubai Design & Fashion Council?
I think it is more my experience at 19 Entertainment. I was thrown into the music management world where I had to learn very quickly. We went from music management to more of an entertainment company, so we took on TV, film, and then sports and fashion. I think it was that learning experience of building, not just building brands, but building them with integrity. It’s always about looking at where you want to be in five years’ time and then taking the steps to do that. We always started on a very strong foundation, did our research, and then moved forward.

Can you talk a little bit about the council’s key initiatives at the moment? What are your hopes for the future of design and fashion in Dubai in the next five years? Ten years?
I think it’s about changing the perception of Dubai.

What do you think the perception of Dubai is now?
Even for me, before I came here, I didn’t realize how rich the creative community was, so it is about shouting out and celebrating our successes. I do think we have to work again from the roots up. So in terms of council initiatives, we are looking at everything from working with the universities, perhaps even creating our own design school, looking at what is missing in the region, what’s missing in Dubai, and helping to facilitate that. We are coming up with an education and workforce-planning study at the end of the year around September/October. We’ve also done research called the MENA Design Study, which we conducted with Deloitte, and that’s a study that has never been done before and is across the whole design sector of the region. We will be sharing some insights from that as well. We’re looking at everything from education to talent development to revamping Fashion Week. On a more practical level, we have our DDFC talks, for which we’ve created this year-long program that we are hoping will allow designers to leave each of the talks feeling that they’ve learned something about their business.

Can you talk more about the DDFC talks?
We have one coming up called “Design Thinking”, and I think it is breaking people’s perceptions of what design thinking actually means. To me, design thinking is about coming up with solutions; it’s about innovation. It is not just a philosophical thing, which a lot of people think it is. Our very first talk, interestingly enough, was on intellectual property, and we had so much interest in that. We are working with law firm Clyde & Co. on doing a series purely on intellectual property. They want to do some pro bono work with designers on a one-to-one workshop basis. We also have talks on business and strategy, on how to put a financial model together, so really practical advice that designers can leverage.

To me, design thinking is about coming up with solutions; it’s about innovation.

And these workshops are open to anyone?
Yes, they are open to anyone. Some of the workshops will obviously be first come first serve. But so far they’ve been open to the entire design community.

Can you describe what you see for the future of Dubai’s fashion and design community?
First of all, we are very lucky to have a very visionary government. It has been much more forward thinking than other cities. It has created a council and a space like Dubai Design District – all of the things to really build a framework for the industry to flourish. And I do believe that Dubai will be the hub for the emerging markets.

And are there any particular benchmarks for this?
I don’t shy away, but I move away, from benchmarking against London, Paris, and New York. What I don’t shy away from is that they have their own identity and that’s what we need to create; we need to know our strengths and weaknesses. We’ve seen other Fashion Weeks that don’t work where people have been flown in continuously. We have enough content here and in the region. We have the right designers, we have the right mentality, and we have the heritage as well. So it is just about putting it in a more formal structure and allowing it to flourish.

In terms of timelines, you’ve mentioned potentially bringing back Dubai Fashion Week. Is there a timeframe for that? How will this impact Fashion Forward?
Fashion Forward is badly edited and badly styled. There’s merchandise that you know has just been thrown in there, so this year I pushed for Fashion Forward to have a presentation element and a separate industry day where designers who showcase could have the industry and buyers view their work. I was happy with that, but it is still not there yet. With regards to a Dubai Fashion Week, what I’ve done with the DDFC board is split it into subcommittees and each subcommittee has its own leader, and this subcommittee is headed by Patrick Chalhoub. We’ve finished off and signed off with the board strategy for Fashion Week. We’ll fall into the international calendar and it will be a citywide activation. It won’t just be one small platform. It will be B2B and B2C, and we will look at having all the touch points, whether it is the hotels, the airlines, or the airports, so people know that it is Fashion Week.

And what is the timing for all of this?
It depends on the content. Content is king. By the content I mean we have to get our designers up to the level of being able to showcase and people being really impressed by what they are showcasing. So this involves all the mentoring that we are doing. We also have the Woolmark Prize with the official nominating body and they are bringing the region finals to Dubai for the first time. It is working on initiatives like that.

Content is king. By the content I mean we have to get our designers up to the level of being able to showcase and people being really impressed by what they are showcasing.

I think “supporting regional talent” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the industry and across cities, so I’m wondering what you see as the single biggest challenge right now to supporting regional talent. How will the council aim to overcome it?
That is such a big question, because there are so many layers to that. It is about education, it is about mentoring, it is also about designers realizing a lot of the difficulties they go through as part of that journey. We won’t have the answer. They have to go strive and find it themselves. So it is a mixture of talent development, education, and also the right initiatives. When people come to us about endorsing events, for example what we say to them is, “How are you feeding back into Dubai and how are you feeding back into the talent of Dubai?”

What would be an example of companies feeding back into Dubai?
I can’t really mention names, but there is an event that wants to come in at a couture level, and it really wants the endorsement of DDFC, because it feels that it will give it prestige. So we’ve said that’s fine, but this is our criteria: we need to see that you are really feeding back to Dubai and see how you will showcase Dubai. It’s not just about the city of Dubai, but also about supporting the talent. If they want to return and do the event the next year, then we expect to see a yearlong investment of time. It’s not one flash event and then they go disappear for a year.

Which designers are on your to-watch list and do you think have been particularly impactful in the market?
Obviously we have people like Reem Acra on our board. She left the region and from nothing built this career for herself. I find people like Zuhair Murad very interesting, because he is a great talent and gives back a lot, which is really important even for your growth as a designer. In terms of emerging designers, for menswear there is Ahmed Abdul Rahman of Thamanyah – he is also launching a women’s collection so you and I will have the joy of wearing his pieces – and then of course there are the usual suspects. There is Bouguessa, who I think is really interesting because she is trying to break the boundaries of fashion, and in terms of accessories there are Nadine Kanso and Nathalie Trad. They really have that international standard in terms of quality. I like people like Reemami; she has very fun collections. We’ve been speaking to her as well about how to look at her collection in a commercial, yet still editorial, way.

Let’s say I am an emerging designer. What should my first step be if I want to get involved with the council? If I want to be part of this flourishing design community, what should I do first on a practical level?
You would start by attending the DDFC Talks. We also have DDFC mentors, like Reem Acra, myself, and Roland Mouret – the list keeps on growing. We have a database of emerging designers who come to the talks, so we look; we work with them.

My last question for you would be how does it feel to take on such a critical role in shaping the region’s creative and fashion community?
I feel very honored and I feel very proud to be in this role. I think me being in this position exemplifies what Dubai says about allowing people to come here, settle, and flourish. I have experience from all over the world and I have worked with all sorts of people – this is my way of giving back as well.

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