Fun and frolics aside, fashion is serious business in the Mideast

Just after fashion weeks swept through European capitals, the Middle East’s fashion scene is heating up

Sara Hamdan

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Just after fashion weeks swept through European capitals, the Middle East’s fashion scene is heating up. In fact, it’s hotter than ever. Whether you’ve never given a thought to sequins or velvet (so “in” right now, by the way) or you’re a style addict, it’s hard not to notice that MENA’s fashion industry is becoming just that: a serious industry that celebrates local design talent, creates jobs and shines the spotlight on deserving role models. Sign us up!

This year was special for the relaunch of hit reality TV Show Project Runway Middle East, now also known as weekly Saturday night plans for fashion devotees. Fifteen contestants from around the Arab world are judged on their designs by fashion royalty, including prolific Lebanese designer Elie Saab, Tunisian supermodel Afif Jnifen and celebrity guest judges that include the likes of Nancy Ajram. Jessica Kahawaty, the beautiful Miss World runner up, plays host to the show and will have you saying: ‘Heidi Klum, who?’ by the end. The show is peppered with colorful accents from around the MENA region as designers play with shades, fabrics and themes.

Indeed, it’s a season of many exciting firsts that marks growing sophistication in the regional fashion landscape. The much-anticipated launch of Vogue Arabia, with a Saudi princess editor at the helm, is set to debut by the end of October (we keep hitting refresh on our screens). This follows on the heels of the Jeddah Vogue Fashion Experience back in April, a contest endorsed by HRH Princess Adelah bint Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and Italian Vogue’s Franca Sozzani to promote emerging Saudi designers.

In the UAE, Rafeea al-Hajsi made history and broke boundaries as the first Emirati model to strut on a catwalk earlier this month. The pouty-lipped beauty lit up the runway in a flowing red dress during the Arab Fashion Week showcase of Aiisha Ramadan, a popular Lebanese designer. Lastly, Reem Acra was a judge at a new designer competition in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall that awarded the winner, Emirati designer Shamsa Saeed Khalaf al-Mazroui, a trip to New York Fashion Week next year. Represent!

Dubai’s fashion fever has a new hub for creativity at Dubai Design District, or d3 as people in the know like to call it. The sprawling venue will play host to Fashion Forward, the region’s premier and longest running showcase for emerging designer talent in the region. If it’s endorsed by Dubai Government, you know they’re doing something right. Fashion Forward has been nurturing local talent for years and is a springboard for serious emerging designers such as Dima Ayad, Hussein Bazaza and Madiya al-Sharqi to become international stars. These designers are incredibly hard working - some creating collections on the side of full time jobs - and they deserve recognition. We need more Elie Saabs and Reem Acras in the world… and this is where it starts.

People often think of fashion as frivolous, vapid and consumerist, housed in malls devoid of character. This isn’t a complete or fair picture. Fashion is a highly competitive, creative process where only a few make it. And if they make it, they can make it really big. As for malls, well, the House of Bazaar in Mall of the Emirates in Dubai was a fairytale showcase of Chanel beauty, Harvey Nichols clothing and art by Iranian-American artist Amir Fallah. It was a celebration of creativity, color and culture in a mall, making it free, accessible and open to the public. This is very important for the development of a true fashion ecosystem.

It’s no wonder local governments and major brands have created strategies to support the burgeoning regional industry. Huawei sponsors Arab Fashion Week, Samsung sponsors Fashion Forward, and the Dubai Government is behind Dubai Design District. These initiatives contribute to local economies, create jobs, and provide colorful escapism in our crazy world. In a Startup Grind fireside chat with Ramzi Nakad this week, the co-founder of Fashion Forward said that the idea is to “nurture creativity, dream big and be confident.” In sequins, velvet and stilettos, no less.

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