Dubai fashion means business

As Fashion Forward kicks off today in Dubai, Vision explores the city’s bold plans to become a global fashion hub 

With an impressive selection of labels and strong international representation, Dubai’s malls have long been a draw for visitors to the city. Combined with its fashion-conscious resident population, Dubai represents considerable buying power for international brands. The city has bold plans, though; to be not just a shopping destination, but a global fashion hub, complete with educational training programmes covering every aspect of fashion and the business of selling it, as well as trade platforms to help propel the new generation of homegrown designers into the regional market and beyond. 

The biggest of these is Fashion Forward, a bi-annual event now in its ninth edition that will see 17 new regional designers showcasing their brands to buyers and the media when it opens at Dubai Design District (d3) on Thursday 23 March. Described as “the definitive platform for Dubai and the Middle East, providing development, exposure and progressive direction for the regional fashion industry,” Fashion Forward will host, alongside its runway shows, industry talks and panels on subjects including trend forecasting and funding. Last year saw the event shift up a gear with the unveiling of a showroom in Paris during Fashion Week to give regional designers exposure to an international audience. 

Events like this are crucial to create a bridge between design prowess and commercial success, says Her Highness Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi, designer, editor-in-chief of Velvet magazine and Chairperson and Member of the Board of Trustees of the recently-opened College of Fashion and Design (CFD) in Dubai. She will be staging ‘The Royal Gala’ at the Versace Hotel in Dubai on April 8th to showcase regional designers’ work to royals and VIPs, along with regional buyers and media.

HH Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi
Her Highness Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi, designer, editor-in-chief of Velvet magazine and Chairperson and Member of the Board of Trustees of the College of Fashion and Design

“As a hub, Dubai needs a platform that embodies all Middle Eastern buyers and media with a long-term goal of international media and buyers who come to scout and invest in local talent,” she says. “My aim is to create an industry event for a mature market that will extend to the bigger media market internationally, by attracting global buyers, influencers and media.” She is passionate about the work that needs to be done to take Dubai’s fashion industry to the next level and is in the process of breathing new life into Arab Fashion Week, which is scheduled to take place in Dubai in November. 

At government level, things are also gathering pace. February saw the announcement of Jazia Al Dhanani’s appointment as CEO of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council (DDFC), the government body responsible for masterminding Dubai’s shift to global fashion hub. “Dubai’s fashion and design industry is at a very exciting stage, gaining grounds at a rapid rate in the MENA region,” says al Dhanani. “As demonstrated in the MENA Design Outlook report released by DDFC in collaboration with d3, the market value of the design industry in the region has grown at almost twice the pace of the global industry over the past four years, and has already surpassed US$100bn – with UAE being the largest overall design market in the MENA region. We are continually working to develop the sector further and elevate local and regional talent through dedicated programmes.”

Two of these initiatives include the DDFC Mentorship and Internship Programmes. The Mentorship Programme is designed to support emerging creatives by pairing them with dynamic industry leaders to address specific business challenges, and act as a sounding board for ideas and concepts. The Internship Programme connects up-and-coming talent with leading design companies and fashion houses, helping designers to build their careers. 

Jazia Al Dhanani
Jazia Al Dhanani, CEO of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council

Schemes such as these produce tangible results according to Ayah Tabari, founder and designer of Mochi, a quirky Dubai-based brand that is making international waves and is now sold in uber-hip stores all over the world. “I think the launch of Dubai Design District and the Dubai Fashion Council is helping to build a fashion community and buzz around fashion in the industry which didn’t really exist before,” says the Palestinian designer. “The way the council are building partnerships with international players such as Farfetch (a big online retailer) is gaining big exposure for brands and those really wanting to make a difference on the scene.”

Of course, any fashion industry is only as good as the designers it produces, and until recently there has been little in the UAE in the way of formal training in fashion design. The MENA Design Education Outlook study, released by Dubai Design and Fashion Council in collaboration with d3 in May 2016, highlighted the need for at least 30,000 design graduates by 2019. So it is just as well that the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), a state-of-the-art facility offering courses in five areas, including fashion design, is planned to open in 2018. Together with the College of Fashion and Design, this could see a significant new wave of local talent entering the market in the next few years. 

“The future is very promising,” says al Qassemi, “especially after students are better educated and become aware and conscious of the demands and what the industry currently lacks. Our shared goal is to cultivate the fashion industry. Therefore, we are actually working together to grow the fashion industry at every stage.”