Underneath those long black abayas and chiffon veils, women are clad in luxury brands and adorned with opulent accessories – even if nobody sees them. The Middle East is a region that is slowly but steadily gaining power and influence when it comes to fashion. The money spent on luxury goods sales in the region has reached $8 billion US dollars, the world’s top retailers experienced over a 40% increase in recent years, and the Middle East makes up one-third of the haute couture clientele. Through “fashion finance”, powerful families have been able to create multi-million dollar business, as well as a region of fashion-conscious societies, and they’re keeping it all in the family.
Majed Al Sabah, who is the chairman of Kuwaiti-based luxury retailer Villa Moda and competing to put Kuwait on the map as the Middle Eastern fashion capital says, “everyone thinks our women are wrapped up in veils and chadors. In fact, this is a very liberal and free community”. However, in some Middle Eastern countries, women do cover up in abayas. Contrary to what others may think, this makes fashion pieces even more prevalent, as sales for bags and shoes make up a greater percentage of total sales in the Arab world than in other parts of the world.
One of the strongest fashion forces in the Middle East lies in Qatar. Qatari Royals Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, with his wife Moza, a style icon in her own right, have a strong vision when it comes to investing in fashion. In 2010, the Qatari royal family brought Harrods from its previous owner Mohammed Al Fayed for a reported £1.5 billion, which caused a stir in both the Arab world and Britain. A couple of years later, the royal family confirmed that it had brought Valentino. A significant portion of the fashion house’s clientele lies in the Middle East. This year, the couple faced severe backlash when Harrods customers were urged to boycott the department store as the Qatari family was accused of either directly funding terrorist groups or turning a blind eye to financers operating out of the Gulf. Mark Lewis, a solicitor who is one of the leaders of this boycott, stated: “We can stand back and do nothing, but when we do, we are paying for that terror. People need to know where their money is going.” Qatar has denied funding terrorist groups.
Another power couple is the Lebanese twosome Tony and Elham Salame. The entrepreneurs own Aishti, a multi-million dollar retail company created in 1989. Aishti is made up of over 150 brands and 40 mono brands including Burberry, Dolce & Gabanna, Jimmy Choo, Dior and Marc Jacobs to name a few.
The Al Tayer family, founders of the Al Tayer Group established in 1979, is responsible for holding the franchise of many successful brands and companies such as Armani, Stella McCartney and Gucci. They are also responsible for the licenses of both Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdales in the United Arab Emirates.
One cannot discuss powerful Middle-Eastern fashion families without mentioning the Chalhoub family. Think of them as a real-estate dynasty. Patrick Chalhoub is the CEO of the largest-family owned luxury retail company, which includes 400 brands and has expanded to over 14 countries. In the last three decades, the Chalhoub group has managed to secure franchise agreements and joint ventures with companies such as Chanel, Christian Louboutin and Louis Vuitton. They have even managed to thrive during periods of heavy conflict. The family was forced to relocate to Kuwait in 1975, during the Lebanon civil war, and the business flourished when the next Chalhoub generation took over. With time, they have added Celine, Lanvin, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more to their portfolio of brands. The Chalhoub family built their company on a foundation of direct communication with their customers; something they try to instill in their business model today. “At the beginning of my parents’ career there was no network of distribution. There were no retail stores and there were not many people who would understand and appreciate luxury and the refinement of it”, Patrick Chalhoub has said. The ambitious family has also created Etoile Group, composed of brands such as Alaia, Mara Hoffman, Azzaro, Rochas, and Roksanda Illinic. Today, the family manages over 400 stores from its headquarters in Dubai in 14 different countries.
The Binzagir family has a huge impact on the fashion industry in Saudi Arabia but is even gaining more recognition abroad. Sheikh Abdullah Binzagr, who is CEO of Rubaiayat Modern Luxury Co., holds the distribution rights for top luxury brands such as Kenzo, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta. The family also created Qaiymah Production distribution to offer brands that are at a lower price point, such as Armani Exchange, French Connection and Coccinelle.
Sashi Menon, publisher of Style.com/Arabia, says that these families “benefited from being early to approach brands at a time when the Middle East wasn’t a high of a priority as other more developed parts of the world”. The families became experts in their field. “They went from generalists in trade to specialists in fashion brand, more and more luxury labels began to approach them”, says Haleh Nia, founder and editor-in-chief of Savoir Flair.
There has also been a boom recently in small niche concept boutiques, like Princess Deena’s store in Riyadh, DNA. Although it has taken time, e-commerce is becoming more popular in the Middle East, which has also affected the distribution system. Net-a-Porter and Shopbop are both popular sites. Princess Deena has said, “exceptional service, truly stimulating visual merchandising and a dynamic shopping environment – these are things the old distribution system hasn’t always incentivized. This has caused retailers to focus on what they’re offering their clients”. Princess Deena played an important role in allowing young designers such as Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu and Erdem Moralioglu to test the Middle Eastern market by carrying their pieces in her upscale boutique. Deena herself represents many fashion-conscious, business-savvy Arab women who are currently under the radar.
Today, Dubai is the hottest place for fashion, with retail sales growing at 20-30 percent annually due to tourism, development and population increase. This year, Dubai hosted its first inaugural Fashion Week Middle East in October. This was accompanied by the Fashion Forward event, sponsored by major companies such as MAC, L’Oreal and London College of Fashion. Organizers of the event are planning to take selected designers to New York Fashion Week to present their work. Furthermore, in Dubai’s Media City, all the Middle-Eastern fashion magazines are based, such as Grazia, Harpers Bazaar and L’Officiel.
Ali Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, the Dubai-based international real estate and hotel developer which is responsible for hotels such as the Armani hotel in Dubai and the gigantic Dubai Mall, recognizes the importance of the fashion industry in the Middle East, claiming that it is a “dominant factor in the world”. He breaks down the demographics, revealing that, “In this region, 60 percent of the population are below the age of 25, 50 percent of our population are women and they are serious shoppers”. LVMH, the French luxury group, plans to establish a megamall for fashion and arts in Abu Dhabi, will coincide with the opening of the Guggenheim museum in 2017. Emaar Properties plans to invest about 4 billion U.S dollars to build more shopping malls across the Middle East.
However, to really attract global attention, it’s important for the Arab world to export and showcase its own hidden talents. This has been happening lately with exceptional designers like Razan AlAzzouni, Reem Al Kanhal, Madiyah al Sharqi. Krikor Jabotian has established himself as a strong couturier. They have gained popularity abroad through social media, celebrities wearing their clothes and international press coverage. It’s now a priority to nurture young talented designers on the rise to give them the opportunity to gain global recognition.
What the world might not understand is that each country in the region is different in terms of its culture, economy, and of course, approach to fashion. For the Middle East to even compete with New York, Paris, Milan or London, it must unite to present one strong fashion week. This is a challenge but, if achieved, can prove to be an opportunity. The world also needs recognizable faces to remain interested. Spokespersons of fashion in the Middle East that are creative and charismatic will undoubtedly make people take notice. The rise of Middle Eastern bloggers and editors makes this possible. Stephanie English Strickland, organizer of FWME, has acknowledged that organizing the event has been difficult but also recognizes the potential for the future, “it’s been great. It’s new and it’s fresh and I think it’s going to explode.” This boom all began with a few families that had a singular vision.
Words: Nada Abdul Ghaffar
Illustrations: Louise Clifford