As Middle Eastern fashion consumers become increasingly adventurous, so young British-based designers are responding with an equally assertive approach to promoting themselves.
Muslimah dress restrictions have paved the way for an accessories boom in the Middle East. For affluent young women here, however, designer accessories are not symbolic of money or aspiration but are simply the norm. So they increasingly seek out unfamiliar territory in the form of emerging designers. Five years ago, when luxury retailer Ziad Matta decided to become the exclusive franchisee of the British heritage brand Mulberry in the United Arab Emirates, he had no idea how successful it would be. “Every season there is a waiting list for almost every bag in the Mulberry collections,” he says. “British brands are hugely popular in the region due to their unique aesthetic.”
“We can’t deny that the Arab market is increasingly important for the British fashion industry,” says Tom Chapman, co-founder and managing director of the London designer boutique chain Matches. “In the last year, we had a 300 per cent increase rate in revenue from the Gulf states in the Matches online store.” As a result, he says, “last month we took four British designers – Holly Fulton, Mary Katrantzou, Jonathan Saunders and Roksanda Ilincic – to host a private shopping event for the Qatari royal family and their friends.”
The event, which drew women from across Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain, not only secured high sales figures but raised the profile of the designers, most of whom were previously unknown in the region. “There is a wealthy customer in the Middle East who is extremely supportive of emerging designers,” says Jonathan Saunders. “We want to build on these relationships, so we’re looking at ways of increasing our presence.”
“The appeal of exclusivity and one-off pieces is enormously important to Middle Eastern customers,” says Iman Pasha, head of personal shopping for Boutique 1, an Emirati retailer renowned for its international selection of designers. Pasha organises collaborations and events that bridge the gap between designers and their Middle Eastern client base.
“They have a real appreciation of high quality and design, which stems from their appreciation for the Parisian haute couture houses,” she says. Throughout the year Pasha organises private shopping events to introduce new brands to clients, as well as to allow them to meet the faces behind the brands. One such event in Dubai featured Daniella Helayel, the founder and creative director of British brand Issa.
“Arab women have such an awareness of quality and luxury and they really appreciate exquisite craftsmanship and beautiful fabrics,” says Roksanda Ilincic, the designer whose collections of silk garments are a hit with Middle Eastern customers. “It is essential that every piece is made to the highest standard possible and we manage this by making as much as we can in the UK,” she says. “By manufacturing here, we can be in close contact with the skilled couture-based makers that we work with. We source fabrics primarily from mills in Italy and France, as well as in the UK. This allows us to have the ability to create a truly luxurious product, which ties in quality and skill at every stage.”
Holly Fulton, one of the few young British designers to have an accessories line, understands the power of the items in the Middle East. “When we visited Doha, we were struck by an intense handbag envy,” she laughs. “Arab women have a very focused approach to what they like. There is no compromise towards pieces that were recommended – the ladies of the Middle East know their accessories. Jewellery, bags and shoes are a huge part of my business already but for breaking into such a market they are incredibly important.”
“We all get bored of the big brands, especially when everyone is wearing the same bag,” says Kuwaiti princess Muneera al-Sabah, who accessorises her black abaya with the season’s latest luxury arm candy, as well as her collection of more than 50 Hermès “Birkin” bags. “For me,” she says, “if an accessory is a beautiful creation and different to the usual brands we see, it will be the object of desire for all Arab women.”
‘The fashion industry is fairly new in Kazakhstan’
The Middle East is not the only new market attracting British designers: witness the latest initiative by the British Council, the UK’s international cultural relations body, writes Lucie Muir. Reconstruction: Cultural Heritage and the Making of Contemporary Fashion, an exhibition featuring the work of seven UK-based designers (Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Hussein Chalayan, Marios Schwab, Peter Jensen, Sophia Kokosalaki and Osman Yousefzada) was recently launched at Almaty’s Central State Museum in Kazakhstan and is now en route to Uzbekistan, Russia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
“Fashion has the power to shape people’s understanding of the UK and projects such as this provide the opportunity to introduce the work of some of the UK’s most innovative designers to new audiences,” says Vicky Richardson, director of architecture, design and fashion at the British Council. “Although some of the designers in the show are household names in the UK, they are less known in central Asia. And since the fashion industry in Kazakhstan is fairly new, there is potential for a project like this to provide an insight into how the international fashion industry operates.”
The show follows a three-year British Council programme – “The New Silk Road” – that focused on combining unique craft skills from countries in central and south Asia with the contemporary visual language of designers from the UK. Also included was an exchange programme, where London-based designers Bruno Basso and Christopher Brooke (of Basso & Brooke) spent 10 days on a tour of Tashkent and Samarkand and went on to showcase designs inspired by the region at London’s Design Museum last September.
“There’s a lot of money in Kazakhstan, so commercially it has potential as a market, but that wasn’t the only reason we wanted to participate,” says London-based designer Peter Jensen. “I thought this exhibition sounded interesting because it was going to such exotic locations. When you live away from the major fashion capitals you’re a bit starved for this kind of work. I know, I grew up in northern Denmark.”
Lilia Rakh, owner of the Sauvage store in Almaty, Kazakhstan, introduced British labels such as Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith and Amanda Wakeley to the racks seven years ago and has recently added the Christopher Kane label.
“Our market is ready for British fashion,” she says. “We’re experiencing a time of great intellectual and cultural development in Kazakhstan. I hope we will see further examples of British fashion and other areas of contemporary British art and design in Almaty.”