Setting a trend

As the lights go down on this year’s S/S fashion shows, including the revamped Dubai Fashion Week, considers how smaller events on the international couture circuit are increasingly punching above their weight

The international fashion industry might be dominated by the big four fashion weeks – New York, London, Milan, Paris – but in recent years, the influx of successful smaller events around the world is proof that outside of the traditional fashion capitals there is much on offer. While the big fashion weeks are showcasing major global brands and dictating trends, buyers and designers are aware that the more modest fashion weeks could be the key to tapping into pivotal new markets.

Malaysia International Fashion Week (Nov 21-27) for example, is mainly trade driven with designers taking the opportunity to grow their fashion enterprises overseas via trade meetings with international fashion buyers, industry peers, and international media. Likewise, Russian Fashion Week in mid-October has evolved into the largest fashion week in Eastern Europe. It is aimed at supporting and promoting Russian fashion and has increased interest in Russian designers both at home and abroad.

In the past, Dubai Fashion Week (DFW) has struggled to make an impact on the international fashion circuit – with over 280 fashion weeks in existence around the world, only the most credible attract attention. Since taking the reins, new Creative Director Simon Lock, who was responsible for putting Australian Fashion Week on the map, has been working hard to ensure that DFW can offer something unique in order to secure a position among the main players.

For designers, regional fashion weeks deliver an opportunity to break into lucrative markets. While Emirati and GCC names dominated in Dubai, there was also a small but high-profile international presence from couturiers who regard the region as a key market. India-born Roopa Pemmaraju, a designer from Melbourne, Australia, who has also showcased at Sydney, Milan and Paris fashion weeks, believes it is important for designers to capitalise on the opportunities offered by Dubai’s market. “People here really understand luxury; the market is phenomenal compared with anywhere else in the world. I create a lot of high-end lines and while DFW does not yet match up to Sydney or Milan, it is a platform that has allowed me to make some great contacts and break into the Dubai scene.”

Key to the success of smaller fashion weeks is finding a USP, and for Lock, what sets DFW apart is its abaya market (the traditional robe-like dress worn by women in the Gulf region). “I believe abaya designers are one of the undiscovered great talents of the region – there is a huge demand for these garments across the world.”

Bloomberg has estimated that the global Muslim fashion market could be worth $96bn, and it is an industry that is fast developing. While this may not come as a surprise to those in the Middle East, where designers of abayas have long been experimenting with vibrant colours, embellishments and occasion wear; it is only recently that Europe and North America have started to take note – thanks in part to the smaller fashion weeks. The Islamic Fashion Festival, which has experienced great success in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Dubai since its inception six years ago, is rumoured to have been invited to showcase at Milan 2012.

It may well take a number of years to perfect the infrastructure and design necessary to establish DFW as a must-visit on the international fashion calendar, but Lock envisages the traditional Middle Eastern garment as a tool to attract buyers from prestigious stores such as Harvey Nichols and Lane Crawford. The global super-trend for individuality means stores must look to offer unique pieces beyond the likes of high-end brands such as Gucci and Prada, and smaller fashion weeks present opportunities for supplementing stock. “DFW will allow buyers to create exclusive relationships with designers in the region that enable stores to offer clothes that can’t be purchased anywhere else in the world,” says Lock.

Attention from the world’s press can prove a driving force behind a burgeoning fashion industry, while recognition from international celebrities for local designers is a sure-fire way of attracting attention to a brand. This was recently experienced by Emirati designer Hend Al Mutawa, who had clothes from her Nebrman (‘white flower’) boutique worn by US actress and socialite Kim Kardashian and her mother during a recent trip to Dubai.

Al Mutawa, who was also present at DFW, believes designers shouldn’t underestimate the potential that fashion weeks have to bridge cultures and to facilitate an appreciation of the talent of international designers.