DUBAI: Traditional dressing may have been contemporized but it has never been forgotten in the Middle East. One of the region’s most celebrated designers, Rami Al-Ali (whose client list includes British screen star Helen Mirren, Oscar-winning costume designer Hannah Beachler and Egyptian actress and singer Yousra) says that there is a growing “back-to-the-roots” movement that started a few years ago.
“A lot of the younger generation — representing our new clientele — are much more patriotic and seeking to keep their identity intact. They are very much pushing for local products, cause they speak their language. They have a global way of thinking, but they want to keep the aesthetic traditional,” he explains.
Well-known fashion influencer and entrepreneur Karen Wazen agrees. It was one of the reasons that she launched Karen Wazen Eyewear in 2018. As an influencer she has always enjoyed mixing regional labels with international brands.
“Noor Hammour, Madiyah Al-Sharqi and shoemaker Andre Wazen are a few of my favorites; they have a distinct style language. My brand was born out of a passion of sunglasses and towards my community,” says Wazen, whose sunglasses are available through luxury fashion retail platform Farfetch.
Not all regional fashion brands are so lucky with distribution. Even now, when you walk into regional branches of international department stores such as Bloomingdales, regional representation is lacking.
“Regional brands understand the aesthetics, culture, and heritage of the region, so their products are a perfect fit, but it was quite a challenge to convince buyers to take a risk and invest,” says Al-Ali.
Often, it is independent concept stores that give local designers a home. Urbanist is a store in Dubai’s Box Park, launched five years ago by Sandra Hakim. Originally, the merchandise was roughly split 80/20 between international and local designers, she says. But today, it is closer to 50/50. “Demand for local talent has continued to increase every year,” notes Hakim.
It is a similar story at L’Edit, another popular concept store in Dubai, founder Rumana Nazim tells Arab News.
“We started off with brands mainly from London, New York and Australia but very quickly started stocking local brands,” she says. “There’s a great support system in this region, where women from here are proud to wear homegrown labels, so we are definitely seeing more local brands being pushed out and spoken about.”
During Ramadan, there is greater demand than ever for local labels. Comfortable, modest dressing with a sense of glamor is what many women in the Middle East are looking for in the holy month, so kaftans are, naturally, extremely popular.
Dubai-based influencer and luxury consultant Rosemin Madhavji notes, “During Ramadan I’m always in modest maxi dresses or kaftans. Local designers are at an accessible price point, and — most of the time — produced locally, which allows you to customize length and sleeves et cetera.”
Of course, Ramadan this year coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and its resultant economic troubles, making it even more important to support regional brands. Faiza Bouguessa, founder of ready-to-wear label Bouguessa, says, “Today, more than ever, we need to support our favorite local businesses to help them survive this difficult time. We need to keep in mind that they are the most fragile and that behind each one of these businesses there are people — and often families — that rely on their salaries. If money is an issue, just posting a picture of your favorite piece you bought from that brand can help.”
Fans of Bouguessa’s label include Beyoncé and Priyanka Chopra, but she says it is her regional clientele who are the backbone of her business. “Middle-Eastern people consume local brands a lot and are very supportive of homegrown talent,” she tells Arab News.
But there is still plenty of potential for growth, stresses Bahrain-based Saudi designer Deema Ajlani.
“The region is fiercely loyal and proud to wear local when it comes to specific items of clothing like kaftans and abayas, but this does not necessarily translate into the realm of ready-to-wear,” she says.
Aljani hopes that, as countries around the world look to boost their local economies, all aspects of regionally designed fashion will become increasingly popular.
“Regional fashion has always had something to offer, and it has definitely stepped up its game in the past decade. I personally am an advocate of buying local and love nothing more than to nurture local products and businesses,” she says. “We should all be supporting local — also from a sustainability angle — now more than ever.”