Noor’s Notes: Will Middle Eastern Designers Ever Succeed Internationally?

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Photos: Courtesy of Fashion Forward

Middle Easterners have rightly earned an international reputation as some of the biggest consumers of high-end fashion, but bar a couple of designers who have attained global fame, our region is very rarely thought of as a producer of luxury goods. Is that all about to change? As the second season of Fashion Forward comes to an end, we ask the question that’s been on everyone’s minds: Will our designers ever succeed on both a regional and international level? The regional demand for fashion is there – there’s no denying it. According to Bain & Company, the sale of luxury goods in the region now exceeds USD 8 billion. But what is it going to take to get our regional designers on par with international ones, so that the demand for them grows both in our borders and beyond? A lot, is the apparent answer.

During the four days of shows held in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah for the occasion of Fashion Forward, we reached out to designers to find out what they felt were the most challenging and limiting aspects of being based in the Middle East. The number one frustration they expressed was the inability to produce locally at a level that would allow them to compete internationally. They listed limited access to materials, production facilities, and trained workforce as prime issues. Those fortunate enough to have larger capital have moved production and sourcing to European countries. In a recent interview with Savoir Flair, HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud highlighted this problem, saying, “With Baraboux, the challenge has been wanting to find the materials and the workmanship that can place my brand on an international playing field. Right now, we’re producing in Italy. Could we produce locally? We could, but I wouldn’t be able to compete internationally.”

Unfortunately, that can prove to be quite costly for an emerging brand, especially once you’ve factored in flights and accommodations when visiting factories, tanneries, fabric fairs, and so on. One way to deal with these costs is to increase the retail price of garments, but that would disadvantage brands. One woman who knows all about the importance of competitive pricing is Sauce buyer and designer Zayan Ghandour. She told us, “The biggest challenge has been securing high-quality production facilities that can provide the necessary tailoring services at competitive prices and with premium standards. That’s why we had to outsource to factories in China and Bali.”

According to Emirati designer Madiyah Al Sharqi, another factor limiting growth is the size of the market. As long as demand for emerging regional designers remains what it currently is, profits will remain too small to support any kind of substantial growth. In this respect, the press and buyers play a large part in educating the public about young Middle Eastern brands and in creating that demand. Surprisingly enough, the majority of the designers we spoke with shared the concern that they were not receiving enough support from local buyers. Lack of support ranged from flat-out refusal to stock regional talent, to requesting to buy collections on consignment only – something the designers say is just not a viable option for a young business – especially when considering their wares will often be displayed on small, barely visible racks in stores.

Buyers do take huge risks stocking relatively unheard-of designers. Will they be able to deliver on time? Will the quality be as good as promised? Will they sell through? Will they sell at all? Here, ladies and gentlemen, lies the source of this vicious circle. Without buyer support, very few designers will be able to establish proper production lines or turn around enough of a profit to survive. Without a proper production line, even fewer will be able to deliver and perform, and, without profits, it won’t be long before reality comes knocking on the door. It is sad but true that for regional designers the fastest way to make it at home is to first make it internationally. “I just need to make it onto Net-a-Porter, and then I’ll be in all the stores here”, shared one hopeful designer. International luxury brands and e-tailers are devoting an increasing amount of attention to our region, tailoring campaigns, creating dedicated Arabic websites, and even travelling to Dubai to meet with local talent. The world is taking us seriously. Isn’t it time we start taking ourselves seriously?

If you’ve been paying close attention over the past six months, you would have undoubtedly noticed something brewing in the air. From the launch of Fashion Forward and the unveiling of plans for the Dubai Design District to the announcement of an Emaar-backed fund for designers and the inclusion of 12 Middle Easterners on the Business of Fashion’s 500 People Shaping the Global Fashion Industry, the region is finally being recognized as the money-making, creative industry it has the potential to be.

When Fashion Forward was first announced, hopes were high that it would bring international buyers to our doors and regional buyers to their knees. But what Fashion Forward has achieved is far more important. It has provided a platform for designers, garnering press and attention. It has provided structure to an otherwise pretty chaotic industry by requiring that designers follow international seasons and demonstrate a certain sustainability. It has opened brands and designers up to public scrutiny and, at times, scorching reviews from editors, bloggers, and consumers alike that one can only hope will be for the better good. Finally, it has invited industry professionals and institutions to offer advice and guidance to designers who are in desperate need of it – whether they know it yet or not.

A lot of hope is also resting on Dubai Design District. The district, set to open in 2015, will do wonders in terms of legitimizing and shedding light on the local industry. In D3’s own words, “Fostering a design industry takes more than building a district.” While it will do little at first in the way of solving the bigger issues faced by designers, initiatives such as a legal framework to encourage startups, full repatriation of profits and capital, the creation of a design and fashion council, and more importantly the retail space to bridge the gap between designers and consumers are all steps in the right direction.

We may be miles away from an industry that can rival that of New York, London, Milan, and Paris, but if we work together, provide support and guidance to our designers, and take pride in our region, there is nothing we cannot achieve.

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