Fashion in The Middle East

The Middle East has always been a lucrative part of the world for the fashion and luxury industry, long before BRIC countries and other emerging nations went under the spotlight for their thirst for high end brand names. Middle Eastern culture places a high importance on appearances, and this is the main reason behind the popularity of logos and luxury goods being the main obvious elements that reflect status. However, this way of living has changed for some parts of the Middle East and the culture in the region has evolved in response to several factors such as the exposure to Western cultures through travelling and social media, which has altered the mentality of not to solely rely on logos to portray a certain social class. 

Regional Diversity and the Role of Women

The term ‘Middle East’ is also a broad way to analyze the region considering that every country has different customs and traditions and every region in each country is unique to its behavioural purchases: It is similar to analyzing Europe as a whole entity, whereas, every country has its own way of being. Although, Western media’s portrayal of the Middle East often focuses on politics and terrorism, this area of the world has much more to offer and is witnessing a very interesting growth in its youth culture and design movement, which is noteworthy to explore. Many young people are travelling abroad to complete their studies in creative disciplines and are coming back to their countries appreciating their own cultures and taking cues from it for it to be the focal point of their work. By that, tastes are changing, people are more design and aesthetically conscious and are demanding not only luxurious brands but researched and original designs. Therefore, the need to be different and unique is a main concern for this trench of the market.

Women of the Middle East are strongly present in the work place: They are more autonomous and are eager to express themselves in ways that religion often inhibits. They have more purchasing power and are constantly searching to form their own personal style through international and luxury brands and through contemporary labels. Often the style of women differs between regions, countries and mentalities. In cosmopolitan cities such as Dubai and Beirut, women through their careers are exposed in a more global manner, which makes their style more unique and blends the gap between Western labels and local influences. Their love for authenticity and local designers has contributed to flourish the industry with emerging labels and creative designs. For example, it is very common to see women in Beirut mixing and matching between an outfit composed of a Gucci dress with shoes from an American label such as Kate Spade and a bag from the Lebanese brand Sarah’s bag.

Brands and Retailers

Although, the mentality in Lebanon used to be unappreciative of Lebanese manufacturing and production, in the fashion industry, many labels are flourishing and carrying a bag or choosing an outfit from a Lebanese brand is considered to be very hip and shows that the person is knowledgeable in creative industries. Whereas in Dubai, women are from all over the world and the city is a blend between Emirati women as well as others from different nationalities. This is what makes the city so unique in its fashion scene. The government there is also actively developing design and fashion disciplines and are encouraging people in the field to establish themselves in the city by offering them facilities and nurturing their talent into successful businesses. This exposure and melting pot is what makes the fashion choices of women so unique and international. Adding to that several multi-brand stores with strong and solid concepts are emerging in many cities in the Arab world, speaking of Dubai many names such as West LA that houses brands such as House of Harlow, Paper Crown and One Teaspoon that embody the spirit of Los Angeles and gives women there the opportunity to discover new styles and labels. Spontiphoria is also another multi brand store, which pioneered the concept of blending a café with a multi brand store. Also a prominent store to watch out for in the city is “Etoile la boutique” owned by one of the biggest fashion retailers in the Middle East, Chalhoub group. In Beirut, on the other hand, the hip district of Mar Mikhael houses a big number of designer boutiques where labels form a sort of a community for new emerging designers. Aside from that, a large number of multi-brand boutiques house a selection of brands from luxury houses to contemporary labels and new international designers such as Le66 Champs Elysées with the main franchise being from Paris as well as Plum boutique considered as one of the first multi brand stores of its category. Other names that come to mind would be Cream boutique in the emerging Saifi district with another branch in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Aside from luxury brands, which dominate the market in stand-alone stores centrally located in areas of major cities as well as in shopping malls, premium brands are also gaining momentum in the region at the same pace especially as part of the collections of multi brand stores mainly inside those that are present in shopping malls. Stores such as Bloomingdales and Boutique1 house brands such as DVF and Alexander McQueen and place major importance on contemporary labels as part of their brand mix. Other countries in the Middle East and in the Arab world which have French influences such as Morroco, Tunisia and Lebanon are penchant to adopt French premium labels such as Sandro, Iro, and Zadig & Voltaire which are also brands present as part of multi brand store. As their popularity increases and the agents in each country push in their marketing efforts, these labels increase in popularity and become part of a destination rather than a mere label in the mix of offering and consequently they are able to sustain themselves as stand alone stores. This was the case, for instance, of Iro, which was a part of the department store of one of the biggest shopping malls in Lebanon ABC and which now holds its own independent store in the mall instead of being part of the brand mix.

The Online Industry

Shopping is an integral part of the Middle Eastern culture, it is considered to be an outing for the family and friends. As part of the customs, Middle Eastern women highly value the opinion of family and friends for them to be able to take a decision concerning a purchase. As much as several brands and ventures have tried to penetrate the market of online shopping, the harder it has proven to be, considering several reasons. First a big motivation must exist for the buyer to purchase online and one of the major reasons would be discounts, this is why one of the most successful ventures in online clothing platforms is based on the business model of flash sales such as Markavip.com based in Amman which offers major luxury brands such as Chanel and Dior as well as contemporary labels such as Michael Kors at discounted prices. Other platforms offer bridge brands and are based on successful operating models such as namshi.com, however, the mode of payment also remains an issue to be addressed when making a purchase and this is the reason why many brands choose the model of cash on delivery for many websites. Other platforms which are currently also emerging are those following the trend of new Middle Eastern designers and which serve as platforms to showcase the work of their latest designs such as Lebelik.com which brands itself as the online market place for Lebanese designers as well as MySouk.com which allows designers to open their own online shops as part of the platform.

The Bloggers Phenomena

Another major area that witnessed a surge in the Middle East is the strong presence of fashion bloggers and influencers in the region. Those Arab women have successfully combined their own style influenced by the their culture and blending Western aesthetics. Topping that, they handle their social media presence in a prominent manner reaching their target audience all over the world. Those influencers have served international fashion brands, as ambassadors in a region with very peculiar traditions and customs, which can be challenging for any brand to understand. Prominent names such as Lana Sahely from Lebanon as well as Lady Fozaza from Saudi ArabiaLatifa Al Shamsi from the Emirates and Anum Bashir from Qatar stand out from the list of bloggers to keep track of. Also interesting influencers are emerging from the Middle East with a very peculiar market as their target, and they are the bloggers wearing a veil. Hijab or the traditional Muslim veil hasn’t been much associated with fashion, however, those bloggers are setting new standards for hijab fashion and are rather considered to be an inspiration for their community all over the Middle East mixing and matching between their religious commitments as well as the latest fashion and styles. Of those bloggers several names stand out such as “The Hybrids” a blog joining Acsia Al Faraj and her husband showcasing Ascia’s impeccable hijab style. Dina Torkia who is an influential Middle Eastern blogger with followers from the region blogging from London and Sahar Fouad the Egyptian blogger with an interior design background.

The least we can say about fashion scene in the Middle East is that it is bustling with new ideas, influencers as well as designers. Talented people from different backgrounds in this domain are gaining experience from their studies and experiences abroad and are applying them in their own work with influences from the region. Some countries such as the United Arab Emirates, especially Dubai, are aware of the importance of such an industry and are building a strong community by supporting and nurturing talent. Other countries where governments are still struggling with their own political issues are less aware of this surge and the growth of local designers remains shy. The rest of the countries in the Middle East, which we didn’t shed the light upon, have also bagged a lot of importance in the fashion scene such as Iran, a nation surging with creativity and new business opportunities especially after the American-Iranian nuclear deal. Time will only tell to which extent the region will embrace this growth and what type of limitations, customs and traditions will impose; however, until now the future looks very bright.

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