Can Dubai transition from consumer to creator? By Lucie Muir

Having established itself as a global shopping destination Dubai has all the ingredients to become a credible fashion capital says Lucie Muir

Dubai is blessed with a prime location along with the drive and the wealth to make things happen fast. And while it doesn’t seem like an obvious creative hotspot, judging by the current surge in independent labels and international attention, those averse to its high-rises and faux beaches, are in for a pleasant surprise.

In recent months, Dubai has become an important showcase for fashion launches and global marketing events. Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani initiated the Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience, a series of events bringing together the local fashion community and international fashion leaders. Next Chanel launched its cruise collection here in 2014 and then Mario Testino chose Dubai as the place to open his first ever photography exhibition in the Middle East.

In April the 10th World Retail Congress will also be held here for the first time, announcing inductees from the fashion and perfume sector into its World Retail Hall of Fame. Of course, when it comes to retail, Dubai is a shopper’s paradise – easily on a par with Milan, Paris, New York and London. Its stores and designer malls are unprecedented. Take Level Shoe District, which opened in October 2012 and welcomed 12 million customers in its first year. Spanning a whopping 96,000 sq. ft., it is now the largest shoe concept in the world and as much of a Dubai must-see as the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building.

And where retail goes, innovation follows. Whereas London had the designers but lacked a credible retail scene when it first began flexing its fashion muscles back in the ‘80’s, Dubai is beginning to add design to its already world-famous retail. Therefore in having a strong customer base, it makes sense for a new wave of designers to generate their own labels and create globally accepted products right here.

There are a number of Dubai-born creative businesses making their mark globally. Ready-to-wear designers such as Dima Avad, Das and Michael Cinco are already having an international impact. Avad won Grazia Middle East’s award for best regional designer for 2014. But while these are all brands with international reach, it still feels like others have a long way to go.

Dubai needs to harness its regional buying power by making local brands visible at points of sale where footfall is high. The creation of the Dubai Design District or D3 is expected to act as a magnet for footfall.  Designed by his Excellency Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, it is a purpose-built community dedicated to supporting emerging talent and providing a creative home to artists and international fashion brands. Here, newcomers sit amid heavyweight luxury brands; Chanel and Dior as well as leading retailers from the region such as the Chalhoub Group, which has established its regional offices here. With so many brands flocking to secure their space in the D3 community, one young designer told me that 70 per cent of prime office space has already been occupied and availability is quickly running out.

Nevertheless Dubai still lacks a higher education institution that would nurture up and coming designers. It is hoped that the newly established Dubai Design & Fashion Council will aid the creation of a complete fashion system with a bigger and better fashion week, credible design schools and hip, retail neighbourhoods. This needs to happen quickly.

And even though Dubai’s Arab Fashion Week is up and running, it still needs to find its groove. Thankfully, there are some great international initiatives designed to put Dubai’s latest names under the spotlight. Take the excellent International Fashion Showcase for example. Created by the British Council and British Fashion Council, it is a key part of the London Fashion Week public programme and features specially commissioned and curated fashion installations by emerging designers from 24 countries. At last month’s edition, there was a strong presence from the Middle East including individual designers from Bahrain, Saudi and UAE.

Still Dubai faces a similar problem to other wannabe fashion hubs in that its new designers have limited access to high-level fabrics, skilled pattern makers, sampling facilities and production. There are plenty of artisans and pattern makers providing made-to-measure services but little else. I’ve seen how frustrating this can be for the fledgling designer who is keen to get going, when I visited Kazakhstan fashion week several years ago. While creativity can be in abundance without the infrastructure to produce and distribute garments, it’s hard to turn ideas into a reality. Perhaps Dubai could learn a trick or two from not so distant Turkey with its impressive vertical fashion system or since Dubai’s fashion scene is still in its infancy, devise an even better, greener alternative?

No wonder then that many of Dubai’s fashion designers are looking abroad for support and to connect them to the practical knowledge that they lack. Cue the international fashion mentor. Creative director Joanne Yulan Jong is the owner/founder of London-based consultancy Yulan Creative, providing design, creative expertise resources and implementation to leading fashion brands. She has been working with entrepreneurs in the U.K and across the MENA region over the past 3 years, delivering bespoke one-to-one workshops to those looking to break into the fashion business. Ahead of launching her new programme of workshops called Inside Fashion in Dubai later this year, she tells me that there is a genuine thirst for knowledge in certain parts of the world – especially in consumer-led societies. “For the first time, these countries are looking to create their own brands. It’s an exciting time,” she notes.

Evgeniya Eid and Elena Bayandina are the latest designers to enrol on one of Jong’s two-day workshops. Based in Dubai, the Russian-born sisters had no previous fashion design training, one worked in the oil industry for example. The pair is in line for space in the aforementioned D3 Design District and will launch their colourful Russian inspired womenswear collection, Asya Krasnaya, next season.

“Some startups are searching for government programs and initiatives as not everyone can afford to pay for external industry expertise,” says Evgeniya Eid. “Joanne Yulan Jong was able to put us on the right lines and link both business and creative thinking. Getting a mentor is a good move if you are serious about your idea.”

The trend for people from all walks of life hoping to succeed in the fashion business looks set to continue. Since inherent design talent is usually the skill set these newcomers are missing, those who are smart will embark on a fashion degree or enlist the help of a fashion mentor. With a little more handholding from those who have been there before, then Dubai might just pull it off to become a fashion capital with clout. The reality is Dubai still has some way to go.

Lucie Muir current edits the Bond Street newsletter has been a fashion journalist for over 20 years working for publications such as Vogue, The Financial Times, Luxury Briefing and the International Herald Tribune.