Emirati designers give traditional fashion modern twist

Local designers are getting more creative with traditional dress to keep pace with growing demand from fashion-conscious Emiratis, while international luxury fashion brands are increasingly targeting this growing market segment

Tucked away in a quiet street in Dubai’s Jumeirah neighbourhood lies a fashion emporium that has played a pioneering role in changing the face of Emirati women’s fashion and helped to forge a profitable new industry that now extends across the region.

Since its establishment in 2008, Ush Boutique has helped to transform traditional Emirati women’s dress – principally consisting of the all-black robe (abaya) and black headscarf (shailah) – into a vibrant movement of haute couture that is pushing the boundaries of UAE national dress. 

The contemporary interior at Ush points to the inspiration its creators have drawn from the chicest fashion boutiques of New York, Paris or London. Polished concrete floors and an airy modernist feel combine to offer a sophisticated yet relaxing space.

Add to the mix a vast choice of abayas, kaftans and dresses by local fashion designers and it is apparent that the store’s owners have created a successful homegrown business. 

“This was a new concept for Emiratis. The idea was to get all the designers together in one shop. Before you had to arrange an appointment and go to a designer’s home. I saw so many talented designers operating like this,” says Abeer Al Suwaidi, Emirati designer and owner of Ush, who talks passionately about her “hidden jewel”, as she calls the store. “As soon as we started, it was a hit because people found it much easier.” 

The store launched in 2009, with 64 abayas from six designers. Fast forward six years and Ush has undergone rapid expansion. The store now holds some 600 items of clothing at any one time from a selection produced by more than 50 designers. With outlets in Dubai’s World Trade Centre and another in House of Fraser, Abu Dhabi, there are now plans to do something in Europe in the near future. 

Al Suwaidi is a trendsetter at heart and her goal wasn’t limited to creating just a store. She also had ambitions to wield new influence in the world of Emirati women’s clothing. In 2009, the Emirati fashion world was already in the early throes of transition but nothing prepared her for the radical shifts in tastes to follow. “When I first started in 2009, we were holding on to black so much. But now the colour and designs have changed completely,” she says.

Al Suwaidi’s own clothing, a lightweight rosewood brown abaya and matching shailah, is not the only time the designer and boutique owner has used colour – her 2013 collection used intricate gold overlays and silks, and her latest offering includes abayas in dusky pinks and whites.

All around Ush are examples of designers playing with colours and texture. One collection features tartan swathes and buckles, an homage to traditional Scottish costumes. Another presents a lightweight blue gown with simple jewelled motifs across the front. In so many ways, bold new fashions are being created and Al Suwaidi admits to feeling conflicted about achieving the right balance between tradition and modernity. 

“As a designer, I am still very scared about what I’m doing. I love the fashion industry but a part of me says this is not traditional,” she says. “And yet Emirati fashion is empowering women in the way they want to look and in the way that they want to feel.” 

In a country that upholds national dress as the mainstay of its identity and heritage, such developments are helping to keep the UAE’s traditional attire modern and relevant to people’s changing lives and times.

Western fashion emporiums crowd Dubai’s shopping malls, but it is rare to see Emirati males wearing anything other than the elegant kandura (an ankle-length white gown), or women wearing the abaya and shailah. Ask Emiratis and few will wear Western clothes when they are in the UAE. But slowly and surely, the latest trends in kanduras and abayas are making their way into the public domain, as the industry grows beyond all expectations. And the trend is not only local. Italian luxury fashion houses Dolce & Gabbana has announced plans to launch a collection of hijabs and abayas, catering to wealthy customers in the Middle East.

Take a trip around Dubai and it is clear that the colours and designs of abayas worn by Emirati women in public are undergoing a transformation, especially among more fashion-conscious younger generations. Shailahs are no longer exclusively black and, little by little, the division between traditional abayas and trendy gowns designed by the big European fashion houses is breaking down. 

In a contemporary cafe in Downtown Dubai, Emirati fashion designer Huda Al Nuaimi showcases her portfolio. Wearing an olive-green abaya featuring utility pockets and golden stars embroidered across the front, Al Nuaimi is the epitome of style and innovation. 

Having returned to the UAE in 2009 after studying at the London College of Fashion, Al Nuaimi did not want to wear what she describes as “loose and old-fashioned” abayas. Unable to find what she wanted, she decided to design her own. “I created a completely new silhouette. I narrowed the shape, I brought the abaya up, to ankle length, and I introduced turbans,” she says. 

The end result was a collection of bold designs featuring slimline abayas with shoulder pads and adorned with stud, crystals and powerful motifs, designs that blur the lines between Eastern and Western styles.

Al Nuaimi’s latest collection includes a striking long-sleeved dress with hundreds of tassels falling from waist to hem, a pale, rose-pink dress coat and a deep-red embroidered robe, studded with glimmering stars. “When my clients walk out they look very approachable. What we’re doing is creating versatile clothes that can work between two worlds.”

Al Nuaimi freely admits her designs are not everyday wear but represent high-end outfits for special events. Yet stitch by stitch, the changing trends are weaving their way into the new Emirati style lexicon. “Emiratis have become a lot more fashion-conscious and experimental. Now I get a lot of requests from Europeans too.”  

Designing for a wider market makes business sense. Take, for example, the advent of Emirati designer outlets in department stores such as House of Fraser and Galeries Lafayette, which attract a wide diversity of customers. Their existence is testament to an increasing number of women who aspire to wear more fashionable clothes that fit into the category of Emirati dress.   

As demand has picked up, so has the number of suppliers. Two years ago there was a flood of new designers diluting the field. Now standards are better, Al Nuaimi says, and the industry is maturing, with a greater emphasis on quality.

Al Nuaimi says she is expanding organically and, with sales of between 60 to 100 garments a month, has built a solid business that exports her designs across the region. 

Though more conservative, Emirati men are also experimenting with personal style. A visit to Kandura, a men’s boutique in Dubai, shows the array of choice in fashions that are percolating through Emirati society. Like Ush, Kandura offers a sophisticated shopping experience, with cool premises and plenty of advice on hand.  

As a young man, owner Mohammad Al Madani joined his father’s kandura tailoring business, which began back in the 1940s. From humble origins, the story of the Al Madani Group is testament to the enduring role of traditional Emirati clothes, on which the family has built its business of 15 tailoring outlets.

At Kandura, customers can choose from a selection of designs from across the region, and materials and outfits are handmade by an on-site tailoring team. Innovation is part of the attraction, and yet subtlety is the key. In recent years, new fashions have appeared that have helped keen-eyed tailors drive business forward. Popular trends include embroidery on sleeves and necklines and coloured kanduras, including cool beige and midnight blue. Al Madani believes that what he is doing is innovatory, but the appetite for change is limited. “You have to understand that ‘wow’ designs aren’t so acceptable,” he says.  

The industry is burgeoning, though, and Al Madani is convinced that this is down to the central role of national dress in Emirati society. “The youth are proud to wear the kandura. It is the spark of our culture. This is about our heritage but you need to be innovative to be a good businessman. That means finding new ways to modernise our traditions.”

This pride and pioneering spirit drives many Emirati designers. Their goal is to demonstrate the creativity the Emirates has to offer. “I want to show the world that we have the techniques and the calibre of international markets,” says Al Nuaimi. “My work represents the UAE. We have come a long way and it feels amazing.”