The Arab Market

...how fashion fares in the Arab world

by Sarah Thelwall
What a month! Beirut, Dammam, Jeddah, Riyadh, Bela Rechka, Sofia. This variety has shown me just how different the markets are for young and emerging fashion designers across different countries in the Gulf vs. the UK sector. Apart from learning a lot about the nuances of abaya and thobe fashions, and the similarities between a bad hair day and a bad hijab day, we had the chance to discuss how the fashion sector works in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and how this affects the growth options for young Saudi designers.

The growth route for young UK designers is really all prêt-à-porter. We’ve seen substantial growth of mid-range fashion with the likes of LK Bennett and Reiss, which means that young designers are investing substantial sums in sampling their collections before they have any idea of the orders they’ll receive. It is a particularly risky business model but it dominates the UK market. Retail prices for young designers are higher than the price points for top end high street brands such as Reiss and are more likely to be €380 – €1,900 per piece depending on the garment. This high start-up cost and risk profile act as a substantial barrier to new brands entering the market and hamper young designers' abilities to develop an income stream from their business that both pays them and feeds the business.

In contrast, in Beirut the dominant model is for young designers to develop a couture atelier and produce ranges of dresses in the €4,500 to €12,000 range with an additional collection of wedding dresses in the €8,000 – €30,000 range.

Whilst there are costs associated with producing the gowns for the collection, the return on investment is substantial and all the production is carried out in the atelier rather than by contracted manufacturers, as is the case for UK prêt-à-porter. This model enables a young designer to develop a profitable business somewhat earlier in their career. However this model is largely dependent on the proximity to the Gulf market, which is where the demand for the couture dresses is coming from.

Whilst there is some prêt-à-porter in Beirut, on the whole Beiruti women don’t buy local designers and key multi-brand fashion retailers as Plum and Aishti don’t stock them. Beiruti’s buy international brands by preference. The growth for young designers is therefore all based on export. There are straightforward business reasons for this in that the sales value per metre of retail rack space is higher from Western brands that deliver higher volumes of sales than the local designers.

Saudi is different again. Whilst women wear an abaya in all public places and there is a whole separate market for fashionable abayas, there is also a thriving fashion sector for Western fashions and fashion adapted to the desire of a section of the market for ‘modest’ designs. The key difference however is the desire, particularly amongst young Saudi women, to have a more individual style.

Unlike some Beirutis who wish to demonstrate their wealth by the brands they wear, some Saudi women assume that everyone knows they are wealthy and could wear Chanel if they chose to (and there’s certainly plenty of wealth display in the handbags they carry). As wealth display is not so important, they can focus on their own individual sense of style and the social benefits of championing a young designer by wearing their work.

Of course the social benefits give them the kudos of discovering a designer and being part of the crowd that brought them to wider awareness and success. This gives young designers the opportunity to deliver a combination of couture work and prêt-à-porter to what is initially a cluster of private clients but with the opportunity to expand into their own retail unit once demand increases. There are examples of retail units which stock say four or five young designers and sometimes these will be based on the designers coming together to share the risk, other times it is a visionary Saudi woman (usually it is a woman) setting up a retail unit. Examples include Sofra and Maison Bo-M (both in Jeddah). Multi-brand and concept stores stocking young designers are not yet common but nonetheless worth looking out for.

So as a young designer wondering what part of the world provides the best fit to your design style, it is also worth thinking about where in the world suits the business model you wish to pursue. Can you afford to sample half a dozen collections over the first two to three years from which the value of sales is not covering the costs of sampling or running a studio? Could you build a private client base for bespoke and couture design in a market which is easily accessible to you (not that you necessarily live in the same country as your market but you need a clear network in it to access the private clients)? How would this match up with the sort of work you want to make?