Middle Eastern designers claim their own space in fashion


Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

When Dubai-based Basma Abu Ghazaleh launched her luxury ready-to-wear brand Kage in 2009, she said she could count the number of fashion designers in the region on the one hand.

“There were couture brands, of course – we’ve always been known for that – but very few high-end contemporary options,” she said in a phone interview. “If you wanted something that wasn’t a red carpet dress, you had to look elsewhere.”

A little over a decade later, things couldn’t be more different.

“Today you can fill a whole wardrobe with designer clothes and accessories from the Middle East,” said Abu Ghazaleh. “It’s a whole new landscape.”

Indeed, the Middle East has seen a surge of local talent and support for fashion initiatives in recent years.

A look from the ready-to-wear brand Kage. Credit: Sabrina Rynas / Courtesy of Kage

The change came as more and more women entered the workforce and sought out local fashion that is sensitive to the social customs and religious beliefs of the region.

He was also motivated by new talents who have carved out a niche in the fashion industry at large. “There is a whole new demographic of consumers who support Arab designers and prefer to be dressed by promising names rather than bigger brands,” wrote Kuwaiti designer Haya Al Abdulkareem, founder of the handbag brand. Folklore, aged seven. E-mail.

“Middle Eastern buyers want to be diverse without compromising on quality. By purchasing local and regional designs, they can achieve this,” she added. “I believe we have an appreciation of our culture and our language which gives us an advantage in communicating with the market and delivering our ideas.”

Qatari designer Yasmin Mansour shares similar sentiments. “The fashion consumers here are really stylish. They love to embrace and experiment with different aesthetics and ideas, while paying attention to their culture,” she said in a phone interview.

“I think that prompted me and a lot of other designers to try and do something outside the box and set our own agenda. And you know what? The response has been amazing.”

Yasmin Mansour is known for her bolder take on evening wear.

Yasmin Mansour is known for her bolder take on evening wear. Credit: Courtesy of Yasmin Mansour

Mansour’s eponymous brand, which she founded in 2014, was one of the first contemporary women’s fashion brands in Qatar, making a name for itself by taking a bolder approach to formal wear. Her designs juxtapose different materials and fabrics – metals and feathers, sequins and tulle – and combine dramatic and romantic silhouettes with geometric shapes and modern structural details.

Other emerging creatives have shown similar avant-garde ideas. Glancing over the fashion landscape of the Arab world, there are ultra-feminine dressmakers such as Dubai-based Jordanian Haya Jarrar de Romani and forward-thinking visionaries like Moroccan Faris Bennani and Jordanian-Palestinian Zeid. Hijazi; streetwear enthusiasts like Jordanian Hanna Bassil of Jdeed – the first streetwear brand inspired by Arab culture – and minimalists like Qatari Ghada Al Subaey, whose 1309 Studios have reinvented the abaya (the loose dress in the shape of a robe) worn by some women in part of the Muslim world).

“We all add something different to the conversation around Middle Eastern fashion,” said Abu Ghazaleh of Kage, who makes bespoke clothing and luxury wardrobe basics and recently launched into household and lifestyle items. “I think there is a real wealth of diversity, a bit like what we find in Europe. The sector is not quite there in terms of potential yet, but there is certainly no shortage of talent to develop it.

1309 Studios is anchored in a "contemporary bohemian" aesthetic.

1309 Studios is anchored in a “contemporary bohemian” aesthetic. Credit: Courtesy of Ghada Al Subaey

Create a fashion community

Several initiatives have emerged to support this talent.

In the United Arab Emirates, Fashion Forward Dubai (FFWD), an event supported by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, was launched in 2013 to bring together regional designers, buyers, the press and high fashion consumers, quickly becoming recognized as the middle east’s most international fashion fair.

Dubai hosted the first edition of Arab Fashion Week in 2015 and Saudi Arabia hosted its own fashion week in 2018. Meanwhile, Vogue magazine, which expanded to the Middle East in 2016 , organized the Vogue Fashion Prize, an annual endowment awarded to the most promising fashion, accessories and jewelry designers in the Arab world.

But perhaps the region’s most ambitious fashion incubator is Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA), a non-profit organization founded in 2018 by Lebanese philanthropist Tania Fares in Qatar.

Amina Muaddi receives the Special Entrepreneur of the Year Recognition Award from the late Virgil Abloh at the Fashion Trust Arabia Award Gala on November 3, 2021 at the Qatar National Museum in Doha.

Amina Muaddi receives the Special Entrepreneur of the Year Recognition Award from the late Virgil Abloh at the Fashion Trust Arabia Award Gala on November 3, 2021 at the Qatar National Museum in Doha. Credit: Craig Barritt / Qatar Museums / Getty Images

Each year, the organization awards the FTA Prize to designers from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The winners – who compete in five different categories (ready-to-wear, evening dress, jewelry, accessories and beginner talents) – receive up to $ 200,000 in prizes, mentoring opportunities and a partnership with the e-merchant. luxury Matches Fashion.

A prestigious jury and advisory committee choose the winners, and they’re made up of some of fashion’s biggest names, from designers Tory Burch and Pierpaolo Piccioli to Valentino to photographer Juergen Teller and fashion editor Carine Roitfield. This year alone, the FTA Award received 700 nominations.

“FTA’s exhibition is monumental,” said Al Abdulkareem of Folklore, who was one of this year’s finalists in the props category. “To meet everyone in the fashion industry and have them recognize your product is remarkable,” she said, adding that her brand saw sales increase after the event. “The initiative has really enhanced the image of Arab designers.”

Fares, who also co-founded the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Trust in 2011 – which offers mentoring, business and financial support to UK-based designers – said she was motivated by the success of this initiative to launch the ‘association.

“After the BFC Fashion Trust, I wanted to do something to support and give back to the region I’m from, because there was nothing like it,” she said in a phone interview. “FTA took shape organically from this idea: to create something that could bring our community together, provide visibility, financial support and mentorship, but also serve as a bridge between East and West. ”

One of the looks featured during the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize 2021 at M7 on November 03, 2021 in Doha, Qatar.

One of the looks featured during the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize 2021 at M7 on November 03, 2021 in Doha, Qatar. Credit: David M. Benett / Fashion Trust Arabia / Getty Images

Qatar, she said, turned out to be the country most receptive to her aspirations, highlighting the patronage of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned, and the support of Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who co-chairs the association. “What the country has achieved for the industry in just a few short years has been honestly amazing. I believe Qatar is going to be the leading force for the fashion and creative sectors in the Arab world.”

The nation has certainly shown great ambitions in both areas. Qatar Museums – the public organization that oversees many of Qatar’s cultural institutions – has a long history of investing in its collections and museums, and recently announced plans to expand its already extensive public art program ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

In November, she presented Dior’s first exhibition in the Middle East, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams”, which was adapted specifically for the region; and a retrospective of the late designer Virgil Abloh, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech”.

And the newly opened M7, a self-proclaimed startup hub for local fashion, design and tech entrepreneurs, aims to nurture local talent by offering incubation programs, collaborative workspaces and more in its premises of 29,000 square meters.

“The FTA has done so much for the fashion scene, and now with the opening of M7, I think we’ll see even greater growth,” said Mansour, who was an FTA finalist for formal wear. in 2019. “We finally have a grid system to rely on. As a Qatari, I am very proud of what we have achieved.

1309 studios presents different versions of the abaya.

1309 studios presents different versions of the abaya. Credit: Courtesy of Ghada Al Subaey

Challenges ahead

Talent is not short, but lack of access to modern infrastructure, capital and resources, according to some of the designers interviewed for this story, poses unique challenges to domestic production.

Sourcing, in particular, is a big issue, as is finding local manufacturers with the know-how and production capabilities to make high-end clothing and accessories. Mansour pointed to the “relatively small market” for fabrics and materials, while Al Abdulkareem said there was a lack of options in terms of tanneries and leather manufacturers in Kuwait.

Kage offers luxury wardrobe basics and has recently expanded into lifestyle and household items.

Kage offers luxury wardrobe basics and has recently expanded into lifestyle and household items. Credit: Sabrina Rynas / Courtesy of Kage

Even hybrid systems, like the one Abu Ghazaleh set up for Kage, are still struggling. “We buy our fabrics in Europe and manufacture them locally, but the implementation was not easy,” she said. “Overall, the Middle East is still miles away from Asia in terms of high-end production capabilities.”

Tares hopes the FTA could help bring about change. “I would like FTA to become a platform that designers can turn to from brand creation to production,” she said. To that end, the non-profit organization launched a directory earlier this year that includes fashion resources from every country across the MENA region. “My ultimate goal,” she added, “is for the community to function on its own, but with the FTA as an anchor.”

While there is clear interest in “made and designed in the Middle East” among consumers, a fully self-sustaining fashion ecosystem may still be a long way off. But Abu Ghazaleh believes the industry is moving in the right direction.

“Look at how far we have come over the past 10 years,” said Abu Ghazaleh. “I think it’s a matter of time.”

Top image caption: a design by Yasmin Mansour.


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