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Travel to Dubai


Local luxury

1 May 2019

Dubai has a tradition in tailoring that spans decades. Now, the city is branching out to embrace every kind of fashion

Ashok Sawlani is wearing a light grey Prince of Wales suit. “I’m a traditionalist,” he says with a smile. “I’m not young enough to wear vibrant colours and fancy things anymore.” Sawlani is sitting comfortably in the Souk Madinat Jumeirah branch of Royal Fashion, the bespoke tailoring business he first established with his family in 1992. With him are a master cutter who has been working for the company for 27 years and a salesman who has been there for 16. All of them know the business inside out.

“The importance of a good suit is in the way it makes you feel,” says Sawlani, who appreciates both quality and punctuality. “A well-fitted suit gives you confidence and can give you that extra edge to go out and conquer the day. While I wouldn’t want to judge a book by its cover, a good suit definitely speaks to the personality of a man. Right from the fit to the choice of fabric, whether bold or subtle and classic.”

Royal Fashion, which has six branches across Dubai, can craft and deliver a tailor-made suit within 48 hours. The jackets can be lined or unlined, with the former either a floating canvas (the lining is hand-stitched to the main fabric of the jacket) or fused (the lining is glued to the main fabric). The floating canvas is the most prized and, when combined with the highest quality fabrics, is also the most expensive.

“Workmanship is common, whether you buy a suit worth 3,000 dirhams or 75,000 dirhams,” says Sawlani. “The workmanship is almost the same. It’s only the fabric that is rare. It comes from certain regions of the world – South America, Scotland, Australia. These are the countries that produce the best fabrics and it is the qualities of the fabric that make it very expensive.”

Fabrics are everything to Sawlani. He discusses them with passion, rolling off names such as Dormeuil, Holland & Sherry and Ermenegildo Zegna as if they’re members of his own family. There’s Charles Clayton, too, and Joseph H Clissold and John Foster, all of which hail from Yorkshire in England and manufacture some of the world’s finest fabrics.

While Sawlani represents the more traditional side of fashion, he is also a board member of Dubai Design & Fashion Council, which not only champions the emirate’s creative industries but actively supports Dubai’s fashion entrepreneurs. As such, he is part of the drive to make Dubai a regional, if not global, fashion hub, with an increasing number of independent labels, grass-root brands and designers helping to put the city on the global fashion map. There’s Amato Couture, Arwa Al Banawi, Bouguessa, Ezra Couture and Michael Cinco, not to mention the Syrian designer Rami Al Ali, who’s a regular at Paris Couture Week and has his atelier in Jumeirah. There’s also Reema Al Banna, the woman behind ready-to-wear contemporary label Reemami, and Khalid Basaeed, the founder of Feathers, an Emirati luxury goods brand focussed on accessories. The latter already has six stores across the UAE and is planning to enter both the Saudi and Kuwaiti markets.

“The city is already highly regarded as a retail capital, with our abundant malls and the influx of international brands to the region who want to capture the high spending power of residents and visitors,” says Bong Guerrero, the chief executive of Dubai Fashion Forward, a fashion platform for Dubai and the wider Middle East. “What is new and developing is the desire for Dubai to be taken seriously as a fashion hub in its own right, promoting local design talent and channeling this high spending power into supporting our own designers and in turn boosting the economy.”

A newish heart of this hub can be found in Dubai Design District, or d3. Ever since it launched in 2015 it has become an offbeat nexus of the city’s fashion industry, housing everything from boutiques and fashion ateliers to the Middle East edition of Vogue. It’s where brands such as Chanel and Burberry have established their regional headquarters, and from where local entrepreneurs operate their increasingly international businesses.

Amongst them is Nathalie Trad, the Lebanese accessories designer who moved to d3 when it first opened. Born in Beirut, raised in Dubai, and formerly a resident of both Paris and New York, she launched her eponymous brand in 2013 and has won praise from the likes of Olivia Palermo and British actress Claire Foy. “The beauty of Dubai is that you’re inspired by so many different things because it brings in so many different cultures,” says Trad, who creates innovative and sculptural clutch bags. “Dubai gave me a platform to allow me to be creative and to allow me to do what I wanted to do. I mean, it’s pretty incredible that we have a place that we can call home and a place that we can set up our businesses, and they make it quite easy for you to do that.”

What Dubai offers is a collaborative and supportive environment, says the contemporary Lebanese designer Lama Jouni, who is currently working on expanding her production facility due to high demand and will be releasing her first resort collection in June. She is also based in d3. “Moving to Dubai from Paris helped a lot in growing my brand,” says Jouni. “The fashion community here is so diverse and inspirational, and so far everyone I have worked with has been very supportive of my brand and ideas. I was able to collaborate with international brand names such as Puma and that is all because of the platforms I have been a part of. “The idea of the brand is to fill a gap in the market internationally,” she adds. “What I’m trying to offer my clients is great quality at a reasonable price. Having worked for luxury brands in the past I learned that cut, fabrics and good service is the key to loyal clientele and that’s what I offer my clients.”

Everywhere you look are signs of activity. In March, Christian Dior brought its circus-themed spring haute couture runway show to Dubai and the city also hosted the second edition of Dubai Modest Fashion Week. In April, Arab Fashion Week took centre stage, while in October Dubai Fashion Forward is set to return to d3. All of which is complemented by the likes of Dubai Design Week and the College of Fashion and Design, which opened its doors in 2017.

“Being a relatively young and very diverse country has always been the UAE’s edge, and that’s always commanded an international audience,” says the Emirati luxury ready-to-wear designer Madiyah Al Sharqi, whose latest spring/summer collection was inspired by Jackie Kennedy’s visit to India in 1962. “I think it’s so vital that we continue harnessing that strength to nurture our talented local designers in order to cement its position as a fashion hub with the same calibre as other fashion capitals in the world.” The daughter of the Ruler of Fujairah, Al Sharqi recently wrapped up a month-long pop-up boutique in d3. Housing exclusive limited edition designs of the SS19 collection, it was the first time she had showcased the collection in a unique physical retail space.

“My collections have always been grounded on decadent, luxurious fabrics in subtle colour palettes created to make playful silhouettes and statement looks that can work from day to night,” says Al Sharqi, whose brand has introduced a significant amount of contemporary daywear and stepped away from the evening-wear it was previously known for. “There is a strong focus on contemporary, elevated daywear within our collections that include more tailored separates, but still with a hefty dose of sophistication and luxury craftsmanship.” Despite all that’s happening in Dubai and the wider UAE, however, if the fashion industry is to mature then certain elements need to be added or built upon. In particular, that means more production facilities. “There’s always room to improve and there’s always room to grow,” says Trad, whose accessories are primarily produced in the Philippines. “You need to be able to source fabrics here, you need to be able to manufacture a certain amount here, and that infrastructure isn’t quite in place yet.

“On a personal level, my aim is to try and go back to the reason why I launched this business in the first place. I wanted to create special pieces that were handcrafted, with an intelligent approach to craftsmanship. I do not want to be part of a fashion industry that is just fast producing, and I do not want to create another piece that will just end up in a pile somewhere in the back of someone’s closet in a month or two. I want to create something meaningful and I want to create pieces that people can really hold on to and thoughtfully purchase.”

Jouni, meanwhile, is looking to expand her online store and reach a wider international audience. “Starting a business is always hard, and growing a brand definitely was a challenge,” she says. “The key is to always be consistent and face each challenge with an open mind. Growing the brand internationally and having the trust of retailers was the biggest challenge I faced so far, but believing in your product and vision will definitely pay off.

“The fashion industry in Dubai is developing, however, we need more production facilities, more trade shows happening to cater to the needs of designers that are trying to grow their brands. I think we also we need to see more support from local retailers for up-and-coming brands.”

Yet, as Guerrero says, all the ingredients for success are already in place: the global interest, the regional fashion consciousness, and most importantly the talent. They just need to be nourished and cultivated that little bit more.

“We might not have the long-standing history of the big four fashion capitals, but what we do have is a unique community of incredibly talented people who are cosmopolitan, and ambitious,” says Guerrero. “Bringing all of them together in one city is what smakes us appealing to the global industry and – most importantly for our designers – the global consumer.”

Words: Iain Akerman