When one thinks of fashion in the United Arab Emirates, one probably thinks huge cut-and-paste luxury operations, all-day spending sprees, and perhaps a lot of kaftans. I recently spent a few days in Dubai during the Ramadan period and was shown a side of UAE fashion that goes beyond Gucci and the hijabs and abayas. Alison Tay, editor in chief of GRAZIA Middle East, reminded me that dressing modestly here is more culture than religion. One of the biggest misconceptions about fashion in the UAE is its supposed preoccupation with flash, the idea that "if you add bling, it will sell!," says Ghizlan Guenez, CEO of e-retailer the Modist. "Again, stereotypes doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist but that is not every woman here. There is an evolution in the way this woman is consuming fashion. There is also a young customer who is interested in street wear so there really isn’t any one customer with a specific aesthetic. Even within the different regions the way women dress is very different. For example, Jeddah is very L.A., more bohemian, and Riad is very New York.” The luxury market in the UAE is expected to reach $14.9 billion in the next five years; the strength of these numbers also means homegrown talents are getting the spotlight they deserve. And while the rest of the world’s understanding of fashion in the UAE region has always been a strong focus on evening wear, there is a huge shift to a more contemporary market nowadays. During my time in Dubai, I was privy to various suhoor—a social gathering where people relax with friends and family during Ramadan. I got the insider’s low down on the feminist designers making a statement, from the vintage queen turned designer to the designer to the royals. Here, five native designers making a name for themselves.
A ready-to-wear womenswear label that is inspired by architecture, art, and global culture, Bouguessa was started five years ago by Faiza Bouguessa, a French-born designer raised by Algerian parents and now UAE-based. Bouguessa’s grandmother, a seamstress, taught her how to knit and sew; she took a series of internships in tailor shops when she was in college, which explains the impeccable tailoring in the collection. Fans of the brand include Beyonce, Priyanka Chopra, and most recently Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor Ahuja wore the clothes on the red carpet in Cannes. Standouts from their fall 2019 collection (entitled "CHROMATIC") include a classic belted blazer and matching flared pants, and a green crepe T-shirt paired with a matching long satin skirt. What is makes Bouguessa special is that all the stylish, thoroughly modern pieces also work for women who want to dress modestly. As for where Faiza sees the brand in the next few year? “I would like to develop a broader size range to cater to different women around the world," she explains. "We already developed a 'Petite Fit' last year, which refers to a size range of clothing that is made to fit women who are 5 feet 4 inches or under, and it made a huge difference for a lot of our clients.”
Bougessa is available at The Modist, bouguessa.com, and Farfetch.
Maha Rasheed started Bamba 10 years ago as a vintage boutique business. A self-confessed vintage freak, she travels the world sourcing pieces for herself and her store. Back then, Rasheed tells me, “No one really knew the concept of vintage and culturally people are not that interested. Dubai is a young market and the idea of buying something pre-owned and pre-worn is crazy to people. But despite that, we still went ahead and we took a little cute villa with garden and we merchandized it very well. We did very well! Then around three years into it, I got inspired talking to my customers and I had the idea to start my own vintage-inspired ready-to-wear business.” In 2014, Rasheed fully launched her Bambah line with a fun, flirty, and feminine DNA. If it were to belong to a family of other designers, it would live somewhere between Johanna Ortiz and Oscar de la Renta. There are gowns and statement pieces but also the perfect summer dresses that are Hamptons- and Europe-approved. The Queen Rania of Jordan and Amal Clooney have both worn them.
Bambah is available at The Modist, bambah.com, and Farfetch.
Arwa Al Banawi
Saudi-born Arwa Al Banawi is the new kid on this group's block . During her brief career in banking she took courses at The London College of Fashion and eventually launching her debut collection of ready-to-wear suits and shirts in 2015. The collection is heavily inspired by her Saudi roots; she excels at finding ways to modernize traditional garments so everyone can wear it. This year, Arwa launched a modern version of the traditional abaya, but in ankle length jersey material with a hood—imagine a Baja surf woven knit meets Parisian cool. There's also a strong feminist point of view to Arwa’s design: When the Saudi women's soccer team all choose to wear custom Arwa coats, you know its street cred ishigh. For Ramandan this year, Arwa’s oversized woven hooded coats became what everyone called hipster-inspired Iftar wear, in a good way. The collection is fresh, and the opposite of what's expected during the holy month, when most of the pieces on offer are ultra feminine. It is easy to see why Arwa’s collection is getting such huge buzz in the UAE; she recently won GRAZIA Middle East Designer of the Year. Arwa is the closest thing the region has to the likes of Supreme, Balenciaga, and Off White—except fit for a modern badass Saudi woman.
Arwa Al Banawi is available at arwaalbanawi.com and S*UCE at Dubai Mall, UAE.
Seven years ago, Dima Ayad had a lot of weddings to attend but nothing seemed to fit her right: the clothing available to her were always not long enough or not big enough, and there came a moment Ayad decided enough was enough. “I run everyday, I am a healthy human, and yet I can’t find any clothes to wear!" And so, Ayad's own brand was born in the spirit of inclusion. "It's not a plus-size brand but rather I design big and I go small," she explains. "When the whole size inclusivity became a moment, people started to understand more about the brand so I was very happy the West pioneered this movement because no one speaks about it in this region.” The collection is full of feminine colors, shapes, and textures. Ayad wants her customers to be able to rewear her clothes and never have to worry about Spanx underneath; the ethos is luxury and comfort in a woman's own skin. Her latest T-shirt campaign “You.. As Is” is a celebration of women celebrating themselves, as they are.
Dima Ayad is available from The Modist, 11 Honore, and Moda Operandi.
Madiyah Al Sharqi
After graduating from fashion design at ESMOD, Madiyah launched her label in 2012 with a focus on evening wear. But a few seasons in, Madiyah began noticing a desire in the market for more contemporary pieces rather than the couture-like gowns being produced by designers in the Middle East. “While there is still an element of occasion present in our collections, there is a stronger focus on creating tailored, daywear pieces today," she explained. "With a team accustomed to producing evening looks out of my atelier in Fujairah, it was a challenging but incredibly rewarding experience to experiment with different silhouettes and manipulate new fabrics.” Madiyah’s collection is feminine, fun, and made for street style: asymmetric drop waist dresses with frill detail, wraparound sequins, ruffles, striped miniskirts, and more. Madiyah Al Sharqi should be on every influencers' and editors’ wish list. “I think what makes the Middle East so unique is that it’s a melting pot of so many different cultures, and that really inspires and influences the style of women in the region," she explained. "We have an appreciation for individuality and diversity and I think that’s reflective of the ethos of our brand.” And did I mention Madiyah is also the daughter of Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi? If anyone should know everyday luxury, surely it's a member of the royal family.
Madiyah Al Sharqi is available at The Modist and madiyahalsharqi.com/.
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