Middle Eastern designers are claiming their own space in fashion

Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

When Dubai-based Basma Abu Ghazaleh launched her luxury ready-to-wear brand Kage in 2009, she said she could count the number of fellow fashion designers in the region on one hand.

“There were couture labels, sure — we’ve always been known for that — but very few high-end contemporary options,” she said in a phone interview. “If you wanted something that wasn’t a red carpet gown, you had to look elsewhere.”

Just over a decade later, things couldn’t be more different.

“Today, you could fill a whole wardrobe with clothes and accessories by Middle Eastern designers,” Abu Ghazaleh said. “It’s a whole new landscape.”

Indeed, the Middle East has experienced a surge of local talent and supporting fashion initiatives in the past several years.

A look from ready-to-wear brand Kage. Credit: Sabrina Rynas/Courtesy of Kage

The shift has come as more women have entered the workforce and sought out homegrown fashion that is sensitive to the region’s social customs and religious beliefs.

It has also been driven by new talent carving out their own space in the wider fashion industry. “There’s a whole new demographic of consumers who support Arab designers and prefer to be dressed by up-and-coming names rather than bigger brands,” Kuwaiti designer Haya Al Abdulkareem, founder of seven-year-old handbag label Folklore, wrote in an email.

“Middle Eastern shoppers want to be diverse without compromising on quality. By purchasing local and regional designs they can achieve that,” she added. “I believe we have an appreciation for our culture and language that gives us an upper hand in communicating with the market and delivering our ideas.”

Qatari designer Yasmin Mansour shares similar feelings. “Fashion consumers here are really stylish. They love to embrace and experiment with different aesthetics and ideas, while still paying attention to their culture,” she said in a phone interview.

“I think that pushed me and a lot of other designers to try to do something out-of-the-box, and set our own agenda. And you know what? The response has been great.”

Yasmin Mansour is known for her edgier approach to formal wear.

Yasmin Mansour is known for her edgier approach to formal wear. Credit: Courtesy Yasmin Mansour

Mansour’s eponymous label, which she founded in 2014, was one of the first contemporary womenswear fashion brands in Qatar, making it’s name by taking an edgier approach to formal wear. Her designs juxtapose different materials and fabrics — metals and feathers, sequins and tulle — and combine dramatic, romantic silhouettes with modern geometric shapes and structural details.

Other emerging creatives have shown similarly forward ideas. Casting an eye across the Arab world’s fashion landscape, there are ultra-feminine dressmakers such as Jordanian Haya Jarrar of Dubai-based Romani and avant-garde visionaries like Moroccan Faris Bennani and Jordanian-Palestinian Zeid Hijazi; streetwear devotees such as Jordanian Hanna Bassil of Jdeed — the first streetwear brand inspired by Arab culture — and minimalists like Qatari Ghada Al Subaey, whose 1309 Studios has been reinventing the abaya (the loose robe-like dress worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world).

“We all add something different to the conversation around Middle Eastern fashion,” said Abu Ghazaleh of Kage — which makes tailored separates and luxe wardrobe staples and has recently branched into homeware and lifestyle items. “I think there’s a real wealth of diversity, not unlike what you find in Europe. The sector isn’t quite there yet in terms of its potential, but it definitely doesn’t lack the talent to develop it.”

1309 Studios is grounded in a "contemporary bohemian" aesthetic.

1309 Studios is grounded in a “contemporary bohemian” aesthetic. Credit: Courtesy of Ghada Al Subaey

Fostering a fashion community

A number of initiatives have emerged to support that talent.

In the United Arab Emirates, Fashion Forward Dubai (FFWD), an event backed by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, was launched in 2013 to bring together regional designers, buyers, press and high fashion consumers, quickly gaining recognition as the Middle East’s most international fashion trade show.

Dubai hosted the first edition of Arab Fashion Week in 2015 and Saudi Arabia held its own fashion week in 2018. Meanwhile, Vogue magazine, which expanded into the Middle East in 2016, has been running Vogue Fashion Prize, an annual endowment granted to the most promising fashion, accessories and jewelry designers from across the Arab world.

But perhaps the most far-reaching fashion incubator in the region is Fashion Trust Arabia (FTA), a non-profit founded in 2018 by Lebanese philanthropist Tania Fares in Qatar.

Amina Muaddi receives the Special Recognition Award for Entrepreneur of the Year from the late Virgil Abloh at the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize Gala on November 3, 2021 at the National Museum of Qatar in Doha.

Amina Muaddi receives the Special Recognition Award for Entrepreneur of the Year from the late Virgil Abloh at the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize Gala on November 3, 2021 at the National Museum of Qatar in Doha. Credit: Craig Barritt/Qatar Museums/Getty Images

Each year, the organization awards the FTA Prize to designers from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Winners — who compete in five different categories (ready to wear, evening dress, jewelry, accessories and debut talent) — receive up to $200,000 in prize money, mentorship opportunities and a partnership with luxury e-retailer Matches Fashion.

A prestigious judging panel and advisory board choose the award recipients, and they’ve been made up of some of fashion’s biggest names, from designers Tory Burch and Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli to photographer Juergen Teller and fashion editor Carine Roitfield. This year alone, the FTA prize received 700 applications.

“The exposure from FTA is monumental,” said Folklore’s Al Abdulkareem who was one of this year’s finalists in the accessories category. “To get to meet everyone in the fashion industry and have them recognize your product is remarkable,” she said, adding that her label saw a boost in sales after the event. “The initiative has really elevated the image of Arab designers.”

Fares, who also co-founded the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Trust in 2011 — which offers mentoring, business and financial support to UK-based designers — said she was driven by that initiative’s success to start the non-profit.

“After BFC’s Fashion Trust, I wanted to do something to support and give back to the region I have come from, since there was nothing of the kind,” she said in a phone interview. “FTA took shape organically from that idea: to create something that could bring our community together, offer visibility, financial support and mentorship, but also act as a bridge between the East and the West.”

One of the looks shown during the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize 2021 at M7 on November 03, 2021 in Doha, Qatar.

One of the looks shown during the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize 2021 at M7 on November 03, 2021 in Doha, Qatar. Credit: David M. Benett/Fashion Trust Arabia/Getty Images

Qatar, she said, proved to be the country most receptive to her aspirations, pointing to the patronage of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned, and support of Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who co-chairs the charity. “What the country has achieved for the industry in just a couple of years has been honestly incredible. I think Qatar is going to be the leading force for fashion and the creative sectors in the Arab world.”

The nation has certainly shown lofty ambitions in both fields. Qatar Museums — the state-run organization that oversees many of Qatar’s cultural institutions — has long invested in its collections and museums, and recently announced plans to expand its already extensive public art program ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

In November, it put on Dior’s first exhibition in the Middle East, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” which was adapted specifically for the region; and a retrospective of the late designer Virgil Abloh, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech.”

And the newly opened M7, a self-described startup hub for local fashion, design and tech entrepreneurs, aims to nurture local talent by providing incubation programs, co-working spaces and more in its 29,000-square meter facility.

“The FTA has done so much for the fashion scene, and now with the opening of M7 I think we’ll see an even bigger growth,” said Mansour, who was an FTA finalist for evening wear in 2019. “We finally have a network system to rely on. As a Qatari, I am very proud of what we’ve achieved.”

1309 studios presents different takes on the abaya.

1309 studios presents different takes on the abaya. Credit: Courtesy of Ghada Al Subaey

Challenges ahead

Talent isn’t short, but the lack of access to modern infrastructure, capital and resources, according to some of the designers interviewed for this story, pose unique challenges to domestic production.

Sourcing, in particular, is a big issue, as is finding local manufacturers with the know-how and production capabilities to make high-end clothing and accessories. Mansour pointed to the relatively “small market” for fabrics and materials, while Al Abdulkareem said there’s a lack of options in terms of tanneries and leather manufacturers in Kuwait.

Kage offers luxe wardrobe staples and has recently extended to lifestyle and homeware items.

Kage offers luxe wardrobe staples and has recently extended to lifestyle and homeware items. Credit: Sabrina Rynas/Courtesy of Kage

Even hybrid systems, like the one Abu Ghazaleh has established for Kage, still face difficulties. “We buy our fabrics from Europe and manufacture locally, but the road to set that up hasn’t been easy,” she said. “Overall, the Middle East is still miles behind Asia in terms of high-end production capabilities.”

Tares hopes the FTA might help bring about some change. “I’d like for FTA to become a platform designers can turn to from brand inception to production,” she said. To that end, the non-profit has launched a directory earlier this year that includes each country’s fashion resources across the entire MENA region. “My ultimate goal,” she added, “is for the community to function on its own, but with FTA as its anchor.”

While there’s clear interest for “made and designed in the Middle East” among consumers, an entirely self-operating fashion ecosystem may still be a ways away. But Abu Ghazaleh believes the sector is moving in the right direction.

“Look how far we have come in the past 10 years,” said Abu Ghazaleh. “I think it’s a matter of time.”

Top image caption: A design by Yasmin Mansour.


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