New York, Paris … Dubai. Why the desert mall is the height of couture

Powered by article titled “New York, Paris … Dubai. Why the desert mall is the height of couture” was written by Melanie Rickey, for The Observer on Saturday 1st November 2014 21.59 UTC

Dubai is a city of world firsts: the tallest building, highest fountain, an airport terminal that is one of the world’s largest buildings. What it can’t lay claim to is global supremacy as the most popular luxury fashion magnet, because that belongs to London. Dubai is second.

Let’s sit with this for a moment. Surely it is inconceivable that a megalopolis in the Arabian desert is the second most popular place in the world to go shopping for fashion? What about Paris, New York, São Paulo? Yet there it is. One of the reasons is Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest, naturally, and as of last year said to be a global tourist destination with 80 million customer visits a year – a place where shoppers are reported to spend £3bn a year, while wandering aimlessly around trying to find a way out.

When the Louis Vuitton store first opened there in 2008 it sold out in a few days and had to close. The shopping centre is so big that one satirical website plausibly claimed that a man had been lost in there for 13 months. Certainly there is very little requirement to breathe anything other than filtered air in Dubai: all hotels have indoor links to the malls.

They come from everywhere in the world to shop. Emiratis make up 15% of the population, the rest are local expatriates and the vast majority are visitors, a truly global blend flying in from mature and emerging markets with cash to burn and Chanel signs in their eyes. They are not coming for the prices; goods in Dubai cost roughly the same if not more than in the UK. They are coming for the retail experience. “Our latest concept, our latest thinking, has to be in Dubai,” says Simon Gaffey of Karen Millen, whose fifth ranking store in the world is in Dubai Mall. “All the retailers at Dubai Mall have their best and biggest stores there. It’s unique because of its client mix and it resists the other factors impacting the rest of the UAEand the world.”

Online retail is not widespread in the United Arab Emirates. For Emiratis, Qataris, Saudis, shopping is a leisure activity, and of course the malls have restaurants, cinemas, kids’ clubs. Everything you can imagine and more. Dubai’s location plays a large part in its growing popularity as a fashion hub; it bridges east and west and is within four flying hours of 2.5 billion African and Chinese people. Not to mention the Russians, who Gaffey says make up 23% of their Dubai customers.

To British tastes, the words Dubai and mall will conjure equal parts traditional dress – many women wear abaya and the majority of men the white kandura – seesawing with garish, blingy images of expressionless women trussed into bandage dresses tottering along on platforms. Herein lies Dubai’s stumbling block in its quest to be the world’s number one fashion destination – which, by the way, it aims to do by 2020.

Dubai lacks fashion credibility. It doesn’t figure as a trendsetting place in the popular imagination, or somewhere that caters to a creative crowd who want new labels and cult sneakers. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, addressed this by having one of his allies, Mohammed Alabbar, who owns Dubai Mall, approach Vogue Italia. The result is the Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience, a high fashion festival created in partnership with Vogue Italia and its editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, which closed after three days of designer talks from the likes of Alberta Ferretti and Roberto Cavalli, a new talent catwalk show, and a fundraiser for the World Food Programme featuring female musicians from around the world, including Ciara.

Sozzani is as credible as it gets in fashion, and Dubai Mall is not an obvious bedfellow, so why did she say yes to the collaboration? “Because they are number one in everything, but only in a retailing way,” she says. “When you become very commercial, you miss the side that is the most important. Creativity is what makes these shops come alive. If you don’t have creativity, new blood … it’s like a wheel, you know, it has to go around. Otherwise you have beautiful shops but …” she shrugs.

Sozzani’s aims are disruptive. She selected 28 young designers from across the world to showcase their work to media and the public at a catwalk show on Fashion Street in Dubai Mall. It would be otherwise unfeasible for a new designer to gain exposure to a wealthy, tax-free, fashion-hungry audience. “It’s about giving a possibility to the young people and participating with Mr Alabbar to help the people in Dubai mature a bit in this way. It’s not important to say ‘I’m the first’, for me it’s important that we do, ” says Sozzani. In return, of course, Dubai Mall is raking in fashion kudos.

Among the young designers who benefit are Sarah Angold from London, who created a special collection of gold-dipped acrylic jewellery for her showcase at the Armani Hotel at Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. “What’s great for my business is that we are opening up to a totally new market,” she says. “And it really is buzzing here. The consumers really appreciate luxury and creativity. People here are open to new ideas, you can feel the energy.” Everyone here is talking about the energy of the place. Even Sozzani is seduced. “It has huge potential. Honestly, if I was young, I would move here for a while. I have the impression that here everything is possible.” Being in Dubai is certainly an eye-opener. The financial meltdown and collapse of its property market in 2008 are a distant memory. Property prices are said to have risen 173% this year and a new mall that will take the crown from Dubai Mall when it is completed has been announced. “When I got here 18 months ago there was never a traffic jam, but now they happen daily,” says Harold Leenen, a Dubai-based banker. “Construction has started again. Property prices are not yet at pre-crisis levels, but are increasing. Hotel occupancy is at 85%, Dubai is confident. People move here, among others, because it’s tax-free and now because it is booming, exciting, growing and convenient to live as opposed to other regions in the world.”

Far from being full of blinged-up women, the stylish women around the malls here look no different to London fashionistas, but in better clothes. And the tourists, well, they look the same everywhere. The local Emirati women wear luxury abayas with eye-popping shoes and accessories, but they are not bad taste, just very luxurious.

“The preference here is for colour, and items that stand out,” says Zeina El-Dana who has run an independent PR company in Dubai since 2007. “But people are more confident with fashion now than they were pre-crisis. Back then women bought what they knew, what they were comfortable with. Now they have become very sophisticated because of the internet.”

The clearest take-out from the Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience is that it’s catering to a growing sense of culture around fashion, present in visitors from all emerging markets. Fashion has become properly global, worth 5bn a year and growing, something that comes to life when observing the melting pot of nationalities in the malls wielding shopping bags. Sozzani is constantly surprised by the fashion knowledge of people she meets. “They know everything! It’s unbelievable how sometimes people know more than me, an editor who is supposed to know all these things. With Instagram, it’s unbelievable.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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