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The Middle East Fashion Week Labyrinth

The Middle East Fashion Week Labyrinth

Brands looking for long-term relationships in the Middle East have found that most fashion weeks don’t stick around long or they come with too much baggage. Since the mid-noughties, many fashion week events have launched with great fanfare, and then faded into obscurity. Others, with troubled fits and starts, have managed a semblance of staying power but are fettered by structural challenges.

“We have, at times, what feels like a deluge of one-off events that offer no continuity, no programming through the year and certainly no investment into the design community — and most importantly no accountability,” said Nez Gebreel, former chief executive of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, who left her post in November 2016 to pursue a career as a consultant.

Dubai is the centre around which most efforts have coalesced but, long before the disruptive forces of the Covid-19 pandemic, attempts to build a successful fashion week have been fraught with setbacks, no-shows, delays, funding issues and other growing pains. With a dearth of legitimate events in the region, designers and buyers share a common frustration of not knowing where to invest their time, money and support.

The landscape has become a labyrinth. The emirate now hosts International Fashion Week Dubai, Middle East Fashion Week, Dubai Modest Fashion Week and the Islamic Fashion Festival, as well as many one-off events. It has also seen other fashion week attempts, like the now-defunct Dubai Fashion Week and Fashion Forward, among others. Currently Arab Fashion Week (AFW) is the only event that maintains a regular seasonal cadence but it is still a work in progress, having launched less than seven years ago.

For a city whose status as the regional fashion capital has been undisputed for nearly two decades, why has such a fragmented landscape of fashion weeks been allowed to develop in place of a single, long-running powerhouse event? Paradoxically, it is the same set of characteristics that made Dubai a fashion success story in other areas.

Victim of Its Own Success

The strength of the local retail infrastructure underpinning Dubai’s consumer culture has led some event organisers to underestimate the preparation and work needed to create a best-in-class regional fashion week.

The international perception of Dubai as a land of opportunity, fed by its strong financial institutions, free zones, rights granting foreigners 100 percent business ownership and incubators geared towards start-ups, has also played a part.

Most of what we’ve seen aren’t fashion weeks, but ad hoc events. That’s why it’s so hard to keep up, even for those of us so enmeshed in the fashion industry.

“The United Arab Emirates, as it’s built — and especially Dubai — encourages entrepreneurship. Because of that, people have been able to come and do whatever,” Gebreel explained.

Indeed, Dubai is a true melting pot. More than 200 nationalities live in the emirate, with a population comprising only 15 percent natives. And many of the fashion week efforts have been undertaken by non-natives, who may have no lack of skill or resources but might not be keyed into the local industry’s greatest needs.

Success can be elusive when fashion week event organisers don’t spend enough time formulating a sustainable, long-term strategy in the first place. “Strictly speaking, most of what we’ve seen aren’t fashion weeks, but ad hoc events. That’s why it’s so hard to keep up, even for those of us so enmeshed in the fashion industry,” Gebreel added.

Born in Exile F22.

Obsolescence may well have been unwittingly built into many of the events that have underwhelmed professional audiences over the years. At best, some attempts have looked amateurish; at worst, fraudulent. With so many voices and so many competing and overlapping agendas, it can be difficult to distinguish which fashion weeks are credible. But slapping a big name — a sheikha, a global designer, a celebrity — on an event and hosting a few influencer-studded after-parties does not equate to above-board efforts.

A lack of experience behind the scenes has also crippled many efforts with otherwise successful event planners emerging as less than successful fashion week producers. Conflicts of interest and questionable motives are two other challenges. For-profit fashion weeks are not always incentivised to support fashion designers at an industry level and even those with business models that sustain themselves financially are not necessarily designed to be effective advocates.

There is no doubt that producing catwalk shows in the Middle East’s fashion capital can be a lucrative enterprise, but what are fashion weeks for if not for the benefit of the regional fashion community?

Dubai’s Most-Recognised Fashion Week

AFW is backed by the Arab Fashion Council. Founded by Italian-Lebanese entrepreneur Jacob Abrian, AFW has held both men’s and women’s fashion weeks in Dubai — as well as events in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — since October 2015. While the council is a not-for-profit organisation, AFW is a for-profit business.

The AFW website claims that it “has become one of the five most important fashion weeks in the world.” The AFC’s chief strategy officer Mohammed Aqra, who was born and raised in the US and is of Jordanian descent, measures this in several different ways.

(L-R) Honorary president of the Arab Council, H. H. Princess Noura Bint Faisal Al Saud, Country Director Saudi Arabia, The Arab Fashion Council, Ms Layla Issa Abuzaid and founder and chief executive of the Arab Fashion Council, Jacob Abrian attend the Arab Fashion Council Breakfast during London Fashion Week.

“First, we’re in Dubai, which is the leading capital in the region. We’ve hosted over 400 brands from 50 countries, and we are the only council that puts designers on the official calendar of Paris Fashion Week at the ‘Arabs in Paris showroom at Palais de Tokyo,” he said. “[And] no other entity has our social media power.”

Backed by Dubai Tourism and Dubai Design District (or D3), AFW has made strides over the years towards becoming Dubai’s most recognised fashion week, and has accumulated a strong roster of partners such as Meta, Microsoft and Aramex.

In its latest ready-to-wear edition in March, AFW hosted emerging talents such as Born in Exile, Ilyes Ouali and Emergency Room Beirut, as well as more established names like Amato and Michael Cinco. Though it has struggled with balancing the composition of its roster (its first incarnation was dominated by Italian brands, for example), shows this time were weighted towards Middle East and North African talent, with nine brands from the region showing and 6 from outside the region.

Some observers have suggested that bolstering the local dimension may have been mandated or at least encouraged by D3 to maintain its partnership with AFW. D3 executive director Khadija Al Bastaki was unavailable for comment.

Ibrahim Shebani, founder of Born in Exile — an edgy, modern brand with strong ties to Libyan culture — showed for the first time at AFW in March as part of the fashion week’s grant programme. The catwalk show package covers models, hair, makeup, lighting, photography and the backstage space. “We saw a lot of sharing on social media; I got more followers and some good media coverage,” Shebani noted. The main drawback, he said, was the scarcity of buyers.

According to Sue Holt, former publisher and managing director at Dubai’s ITP Media Group, a firm which holds the license for the Arabic and Middle Eastern editions of fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and Grazia, the sales function has long been a weak point at fashion week events in the region.

“Historically, there never seemed [to be] enough buyers, both internationally and regionally, [present at the events who were] interested in the designers from this region to sustain the early fashion weeks that launched. Therefore, the designers were often left frustrated because at the end of it all, they did not get sufficient orders to make a difference to their business,” said Holt.

This was also a complaint levelled against Fashion Forward.

Unclear Return on Investment

In the past, the closest Dubai had to a legitimate fashion week experience was Fashion Forward, spearheaded by the Filipino event organiser Wilfredo “Bong” Garcia Delfiero Guerrero with the endorsement of the Dubai Design and Fashion Council.

Ihab Jiryis HC S2.

DDFC, a government-backed council, was set up as a joint effort of the Dubai Executive Council and the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority. It boasted high-profile fashion industry leaders, such as Patrick Chalhoub of Chalhoub Group and Khalid Al Tayer of Al Tayer Group, as board members.

DDFC was responsible for the launch of Dubai Design Week — which is ongoing at the city’s main business park — and the support of the bi-annual Fashion Forward showcase, which is now defunct.

Guerrero did not respond to a request for comment on why Fashion Forward shuttered, but when Gebreel stepped down as chief executive, it didn’t take long for DDFC to shutter. To fill the gap, Fashion Forward negotiated funding from partners like D3 and fashion retailer Splash — which is held by the multinational conglomerate Landmark Group.

Reema Al Banna of the UAE-based brand Reemami pointed out that things got a little better towards the end. “I showed at Fashion Forward in 2019 as more of a PR thing. I went in not expecting to meet buyers.” Before her show, she attended a showroom arranged by Fashion Forward where she met buyers from Tryano, Chalhoub, That Concept Store and Boutique 1.

After her show, Tryano placed an order. “[But] if we had kept seeing the same buyers season after season more [of those other] relationships may have flourished [too],” she said.

The experience explains Al Banna’s hesitation to participate in other fashion weeks in the region. “There are so many we don’t [know] which one is the credible one.”

A newcomer to the scene, Middle East Fashion Week has entered the picture hoping to address some of the market’s issues with a traveling format across the region and a strategic partnership with Dubai’s The Sustainable City. Founder and president of Middle East Fashion Week, Swiss-Italian entrepreneur Antonio Rubel, and his son chief executive Simon Lo Gatto, sit at the top of the Middle East Fashion Council.

“We saw that there was a general gap in the market,” Lo Gatto said. “When you look at the fashion weeks here, they are more like fashion shows. These so-called fashion weeks were set up for other reasons, rather than being a business-to-business model [to] increase [designers’] bottom line … which is what it should be.”

However, industry leaders in the region contend that Middle East Fashion Week would strengthen its argument by narrowing its focus to Middle East designers and growing its reach from there. It has so far focused primarily on bringing international brands that are hoping to expand in the regional market. Among the six shows presented at the first Middle East Fashion Week, Rayan al Sulaimani of the Dubai-based Atelier Zuhra and bridal couturier Walid Atallah were the only Arabs, hailing from Oman and Lebanon respectively.

Besides the designers they secure as exhibitors, the perception of industry leader guests and the quality of the show production on offer, there are other ways of measuring competing fashion weeks.

Fashion councils are only as effective as the criteria used to select their members. It is impossible to measure the influence of the Arab Fashion Council because organisers do not make members’ names public, with Abrian stating this is to “respect their wishes to protect their privacy.” He did confirm that two former members of the council for the Saudi Arabia market were Princess Noura Bint Faisal Al Saud and Layla Issa Abuzaid, who appeared at related events around the time AFW showed in Riyadh.

In the case of the Middle East Fashion Council, it is made up of members such as Faris Saeed, the Dubai-based businessman behind Diamond Developers and The Sustainable City, UAE film director Nayla Al Khaja and Manuel Collas de la Roche, founder of Better World Fund. Though the known membership of both councils may be made up of prominent individuals in their respective fields who tick useful boxes like royal patronage or sustainability expertise, it is worth noting that few appear to be fashion industry professionals.

Need for a Fully Fledged B2B Ecosystem

Even if one of the main Dubai contenders significantly strengthens its position to become the city’s unrivalled, fully fledged fashion week ecosystem, it doesn’t necessarily mean events in other Middle Eastern countries become obsolete.

One of the great blunders that many brands and companies trying to penetrate this market fall into is treating the Arab-speaking expanse of the Middle East and North Africa region as a monolith. So long as B2B events complement one another, the best ones in the region could co-exist to form a valuable industry network.

Qatar’s Fashion Trust Arabia — while not a fashion week event — has been instrumental in elevating a wide range of Arab talent with its prize fund and partnership with MatchesFashion. Co-chaired by Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Tania Fares, the Doha event has arguably become the region’s most internationally respected industry event, drawing names like Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli and Naomi Campbell as prize judges.

Yet many of the fashion week events beyond the UAE have suffered a similar fate to those in Dubai which floundered. The wider Gulf Cooperation Council region has seen Muscat Fashion Week rise and then fall in 2013. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Doha went dark in 2015. Bahrain Fashion Week has also been attempted and events in Kuwait tend to be intermittent. However, a new industry event dubbed Oud Fashion Talks, produced by Tamdeen Group, bowed last week in the Kuwaiti capital.

Khadija Al Bastaki.

As the regional giant, Saudi Arabia holds more promise, especially with the launch of Fashion Futures in December 2021. The two-day event hosted a high-profile roster of speakers and panels focused on education and community intersection. It is a good bedrock on which to build the kingdom’s profile as an emerging fashion centre but whether designers in neighbouring countries see Saudi as the best place to present fashion shows for the entire region is another matter.

When asked about the potential for Saudi to host a fashion week, the chief executive of the Fashion Commission at the Ministry of Culture, Burak Cakmak, said the future is open-ended. “There is an association separate from the Fashion Commission, which is a ministry entity. They are the representative body of local designers and brands — all members are Saudi nationals — and they will decide the future of fashion week in Saudi.”

Further afield, fashion week events in markets such as Egypt and Lebanon have also tended to be intermittent. However, Egypt Fashion Week is set to launch in October 2022, led by the Egyptian-Austrian founder of Pashion Magazine, Susan Sabet. Though EFW will engage with counterpart events abroad such as Maghreb Collective and Creative Space Beirut, it will focus only on showcasing Egyptian talent. “Egypt offers craftsmanship, raw materials, and production facilities, which some of the other countries are missing. It’s an opportunity for collaboration,” Sabet said.

Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and Mohamed Benchellal appear onstage at the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize Gala.

Two longer running events in the Middle East which have been more consistent than most are Fashion Week Istanbul and Kornit Fashion Week Tel Aviv though both are national showcases of Turkey and Israel respectively so they are not part of the Arab expanse of the regional market.

Wherever it is hosted — though Dubai arguably remains the most natural location — the region’s future supreme fashion week event can take many forms. But looking at the models of the most successful fashion weeks in Europe, East Asia and the US suggests that a few key ingredients are essential: visionary event leaders with stamina, serious financial backing, highly invested government stakeholders and an empowered council of industry leaders.

If any of the contender or newcomer events can find the right mix of these and other important qualities, they will offer the potential of a Middle Eastern fashion week with real power, longevity and legitimacy.