Fashion Evolution in the Middle East: From Logos to Cultural Identity and E-commerce Acceleration
Sectors & Markets
29 May, 2023
Table of contents
The Middle East has always been a lucrative part of the world of fashion and luxury. It was 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 to showcase their status which is also the main reason they care about logos and designs of luxury brands.
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. The term ‘Middle East’ is also a broad way to analyse the region considering that every country has different cultures, customs and traditions and every region has unique purchasing behaviour based on where they hail from. It is similar to analysing Europe as a whole entity as every country has its own way of being.
Annual fashion sales in the Middle East’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) markets amount to $50 billion, showing high spending capacity of the area. Spending in some GCC countries is among the highest on a per capita basis globally, reaching approximately $500 and $1,600 per person in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) respectively. For comparison the fashion-related per capita spending on a global level is estimated to amount to $297.
The Middle East is witnessing an escalated growth in its youth culture and design movement and also shifts in attitudes which is really interesting 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. They are using their cultural designs to be the focal point of their work after gaining knowledge overseas. 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 in the main cities of the Middle East such as Dubai, Beirut, Adu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh are strongly present in the workplace. 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. Beirut locals love to mix their style with international and local labels such as combining a Gucci belt with a bag from Sarah’s bag. Fashion involves more handmade detailing, embellishment, exaggerated shapes and volume. Feminine aesthetics are what draws people to homegrown contemporaries.
Dubai has been the region’s reigning fashion capital for 20 years but other regions such as beirut and Saudi Arabia are also taking their place on the main table. Dubai will continue to play an important role as the region’s window to the fashion world, supported by world-class malls providing exclusive and high quality customer services. The Arab Fashion Show (AFW) is the most reputed fashion event in the region and takes place in Dubai every year.
Dubai's first ever Expo 2020 took place in October 2021 after an ease in Covid-19 regulations. It was the year’s most glittering extravaganza with technology, art, food and creativity coming together bringing approximately 25 million visitors to the city. At the Expo 2020 fashion and luxury brands such as Swatch, Cartier and L’Oréal took strategic positions. The latter two are harnessing the event to cement their ties to the region while amplifying their support of female empowerment, which is strongly aligned with cultural development in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Among its initiatives, L’Oréal sponsored one of the France Pavilion’s themes on gender equality . Cartier has collaborated on the Women’s Pavilion. Also, first class services are being provided to guests. Property and retail giant Emaar, which owns The Dubai Mall and fashion e-tailer Namshi, is offering guests at its hotels in Dubai complimentary tickets to expo as its hospitality business is an official partner to the event.
The biggest luxury retailer in the region is The Chalhoub Group that operates joint ventures with brands including Louis Vuitton and Dior. Luxury multi brand online retailer Ounass and Al Tayer Group’s retail business operates joint ventures with Gucci and Saint Laurent.
Beirut, also known as “Paris of the Middle East,” has a rich heritage of French influences in architecture, cuisine and lifestyle. The bustling Hamra Street with sidewalk cafés, boutiques and theatres is the thriving creative zone of beirut. There are many luxury and premium brands such as Hermes, Chanel, Alexander MQuqeen, Michael Kors and many others that have influenced fashion in the city. Aishti is the prime luxury retailer and multi brand store for mono brand luxury boutiques such as Dior, Zegna, Dolce and Gabbana, Bottega Veneta, Fendi and more.
In Beirut, fashion is highlighted through haute couture and extravagant aesthetics. The general fashion philosophy is defined by elaborate beauty and glamorous intricate details which stand for status and prestige. Lebanese designers Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, and Reem Acra, are globally recognized designers who have put Lebanon on the fashion map with stunning haute couture designs. They have participated in all the main Fashion Weeks and have dressed numerous international icons and celebrities. As geopolitical tides keep turning, the local fashion scene adapts to accommodate growing interest in affordable streetstyle. There has been a growing popularity for ‘ready to wear’ outfits with new and coming designers bringing something new and refreshing to the market.
The fashion market in Saudi Arabia is going through some dynamic shifts. The kingdom is the biggest and most populous country in the region and is investing heavily in building a thriving cultural scene to attract locals and visitors alike. Mega-infrastructure plans include Diriyah Gate and The Red Sea Project, comprising 14 luxury and hyper-luxury hotels. Also, the growing spending power of women in the workforce has contributed to the evolving consumer tastes.
Fifa World Cup has kicked off in Qatar in 2022 and sportswear giants such as Nike, Puma and Adidas are promoting their brands and sponsoring the game while also navigating the controversial cultural climate in the country. Fashion powerhouses are taking advantage of the World Cup as well. Louis Vuitton revealed five collectible travel pieces in black Taurillon leather embossed with the Maison’s recognisable Damier motif. Since the iconic French Maison already provides the travel trunk for the FIFA World Cup Trophy, a tradition that’s been carried on since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Louis Vuitton’s relationship with FIFA only kept growing.
TikTok star and serial fashion collaborator Khaby Lamé was tapped by Qatar National Bank to be its brand ambassador for the World Cup, and Balenciaga, Cartier and Hermès have all opened stores in Doha in recent months. Hublot sponsored the tournament’s official countdown clock.
Luxury brands have grown their appetite for the region and localisation is a priority to connect with the local audience and retain luxury spending there. This has accelerated their adaptation of local tastes and local cultures and local celebrations by coming up with communication, events and merchandising that appeals to them.
New designers from GCC countries are making their mark after the success of their senior counterparts, Kuwait’s Yousef Aljasmi and Bahrain’s Hala Kaiksow building their reputation internationally.
Fashion Forward Dubai (FFWD) is an Arab designer runway event and trade show that brings together regional designers with buyers, press and top consumers as Middle Eastern ready-to-wear brands gain new momentum. The region is traditionally known for couture, ready-for-the-red-carpet designs rather than ready to wear. It reflects how women who previously shopped for tailored, custom-made couture are now looking for everyday but fashionable clothing. It comes as women enter the workforce. Sprouting interest in ‘Modest wear’ is also acting as a catalyst for Middle Eastern contemporary designers. Young consumers are looking for clothing that reflects their roots and are looking for ways to embrace their Islamic culture and traditions. Millennials choose to wear something that represents where they come from with a modern flair to it.
Many famous regional designers also took part at Arab Fashion Week (AFW) 2022. Some of the names that have also been recognized globally are:
Ihab Jiryis is an Arab Palestinian evening wear and bridal gown designer. The catwalk was filled with sequins, with long and short gowns in a palette of forest greens, nudes, grays, and light blues.
Yara bin Shakar, Emerati grown designer. She surprised people as a collection moved from modest wear to sleeveless pieces. The overall style was light and feminine. Emergency Room Beirut by Eric Mathieu Ritter is a truly sustainable brand. The pieces are assembled in Lebanon from dead-stock fabrics and other second-hand materials sourced from Tripoli Souks. Libyan designer Ibrahim Sheban has used his designs to remind the world of the undiscovered beauty of Libya. Part of his latest collection included a mosaic tile print emblazoned onto a mini skirt, a fanciful sundress and a track suit conjured the architectural treasures of Libya.
Euromonitor International and Dubai South eCommerce Zone reported that the Middle East eCommerce market will reach $49 billion by 2025. Due to its high Internet penetration rate, large consumer base, and other favourable factors, the Middle East region has a high potential for e-commerce development.
Almost 70 percent of high-net-worth GCC buyers, who traditionally opt for in-store luxury shopping, now say they are comfortable with online shopping. Leaders in local commerce that are omnichannel or pure players are Ounass, The Modist, Namshi, That Concept Store, Tryano and are all aiming to capture and engage with online customers before their international competitors. Online marketplaces like Amazon, Farfetch, Modus Operandi and Net-a-porter are doubling down their efforts to grow in the Middle east.
Cover Image: Courtesy Ounass Facebook page