Westerners often envision Arab women as burqa-clad phantoms in black. The reality, however, is shockingly different: underneath their abayas, Arab women sport some of the world's most opulent haute couture.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, they can afford it. According to a Euromonitor report published last summer, approximately 42 per cent of all luxury good sales in the United Arab Emirates are of clothing, with an overall revenue of 700 million euros. The luxury goods industry in the Middle East is comprised primarily of designer clothing.
Much of that sum goes toward wedding apparel. In this region of the world, weddings are major events - most women go to about a dozen a year. Private parties, charity balls and other gala occasions fill the calendars of the Arabian Gulf's most stylish women. Wearing the same gown twice is simply unthinkable. Dressing up presents an opportunity for Middle Eastern women to not only show off their social status and success, but also to impress potential mothers-in-law scouting for eligible brides. With weddings lasting anywhere from three to seven days, with hundreds, if not thousands, of invitees, it's no wonder Middle Eastern matrimonies place so much emphasis on presentation.
From the Aiisha Ramadan
Luckily there is plenty of design-wear for these women to choose from. Not only are the most desirable global fashion brands available to them, but a breed of local designers is now emerging to cater to the more ostentatious tastes of some Middle Eastern buyers. Some of them have received international attention, such as Lebanese designers Reem Acra, Zuhair Murad and Elie Saab. Yet newer designers are now also making a name for themselves, both in Arabian wedding tents and on Tinseltown's red carpets.
Lebanese-born designer Aiisha Ramadan is based in Dubai. She caters to the more feminine tastes of women in the Gulf. Her dresses incorporate crystals, gems and feminine detailing, like heavy embroidery and tulle-puffed skirts. The vivacious Ramadan, who was voted Young Designer of the Year by Swarovski in 2000, says she has Paris Hilton to thank for her success in America. "Paris bought a dress of mine in Dubai, and after that, it was easier for me to dress other celebrities," she said at one of her own presentations in Paris last February.
Rami al Ali is another Dubai designer who now shows his work alongside the world's greatest maisons. His show at this year's Paris Fashion Week was his first, but it won't be his last. "I was showing in Rome before," he explained to me over dinner last winter. "But the city is a bit tired. Sure, it is beautiful, but everything there is... historical. Paris is much more dynamic." Judging from the excellent reviews of his form-fitting, intricately beaded collection, al Ali's creations will fit right in with the Parisian scene.
Tyra Banks shot Filipino designer Michael Cinco to fame when she asked him to create couture from rubbish for contestants to wear on America's Next Top Model. Cinco's abilities are such that he literally spun trash into treasure: the models cooed over his creations, and looking at the stills of the photoshoot, you would never believe the clothes were made from anything but the finest materials.
From the Rami Al Ali S/S Haute
Many of these quickly rising designers have attracted royal clientele. "Of course I design for many royals in the Middle East personally," Cinco confessed a previous interview with me. "But I won't tell you who." Discretion is key for maintaining such elite customers. Women in the Gulf can be such big spenders that even invitations to the world's top fashion weeks are beneath them. "Many of our buyers are in the royal families," explained a spokesperson for Tunisian brand Azzedine Alaia. "Sometimes they make an appointment to come see us, but more often than not, we go to them and create whatever they demand." Prada, Chanel and other major luxury brands also stage private shows at Middle Eastern hotels for these clients, or even in the comfort of their own homes.
But it is not always a love of fashion that draws the client to the label (or, the label to the client, as the case may be). "A lot of women just want to buy the most expensive dress or the most expensive bag," says Maryam, an Emirati student. "It doesn't really matter how flattering or fashionable it is, as long as people know it cost a lot." No wonder the Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Armani logos are so omnipresent in the region... even on those long, black abayas.
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